If you’re looking for a weekend getaway, I can recommend checking out Natural Bridge, Va. My family just took a three day weekend there, and it is definitely worth checking out.
Where is this Place?
Natural Bridge is a 3.5 – 4 hour drive south. If you’re staying in Natural Bridge, your most direct route is 81. We stayed in Monroe, about 30 minutes away at a great Air B&B we found that was about 1/3 the price of hotels in the area. To get there, we took route 29.
What is there to do in Natural Bridge?
First Stop: Natural Bridge
The town is named for the natural landmark that formed in the area, which is a giant natural arch. It is an actual bridge, and a highway runs along the top of it. To
steal quote from the park website:
Once owned by Thomas Jefferson and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 215-foot tall Natural Bridge is a limestone gorge carved out by Cedar Creek. The newest Virginia State Park is more than just the bridge. Beautiful forests, open, rolling meadows showcase the area’s karst terrain, and vistas of surrounding mountains and the James River valley display nature’s splendor. Access these via 6 miles of hiking trails, including the accessible Cedar Creek Trail that leads from the bridge to the Monacan Indian Village and Lace Falls with its 30-foot cascade. Living history programs connect you to the past and cover how people once used the area’s resources for survival and inspiration.http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/natural-bridge#general_information
The bridge itself was nice, but expect a lot of people on the weekends. We were there on a Friday afternoon, which kept the crowds small, and allowed our 5 and 3 year olds to run around like 5 and 3 year olds. They liked looking at the arch, but lost interest quickly, so we pressed on along the paved trail to Lace Falls.
Along the way is a recreation of an Indian village, but by the time we arrived it was already closed, so we couldn’t go in. The path follows the creek, and has markers along the route that signal points of interest, including a saltpeter mine that is now a hibernation spot for bats and a wildflower garden. For my 5 year old son, the biggest attraction was the creek itself – he loved jumping from rock to rock trying not to get wet. As usual, he didn’t succeed, and slipped on a rock into the water. So, he had a wet walk.
Lace falls is about a mile walk along an easy path, so the kids were able to handle it without much difficulty. The falls are nice, but underwhelming. You can’t get close to them, and they aren’t very big. But it is a nice walk.
At the start/finish of the walk there is a cafe with covered outdoor seating. They have a good selection of hamburgers and other simple fare, and was reasonably priced and not bad. They also had a big fireplace where my son was able to dry off and warm up, since it was getting chilly.
Next Stop: Virginia Safari Park
The Virginia Safari Park was the surprise hit of the trip. I had looked through their website, and was familiar with all their marketing, but this is the rare occasion where the marketing really does fall short. I will tell you upfront: I had more fun here than I could have ever imagined. Note that I didn’t include my kids in that – they were busy screaming in terror, which made me (and my wife, who also thoroughly enjoyed herself) laugh harder. We spent many hours there, and the total cost was under $100.
As soon as you drive through the gate you are met by the Llama Welcoming Committee. Every window that is rolled down will soon be filled with a llama’s head, happily inquiring about food. We just so happened to have two feed buckets (one for each kid), and happily fed them. For the drive through the park, I put my 5 year old in the front seat, since the window rolls down all the way, and I sat in the back with my 3 year old, so I could help her feed the animals. Eventually, they settled down enough that we could get them to feed the animals, but only a few of them.
There are all kinds of animals at the safari park, and llamas, reindeer, and emus are abundant. There are also a number of elk, bison, and different kids of cows roaming the park, and all seem to get along well. The animals know the deal, and are all very gentle. Except for the emus – they bite. Not intentionally, but they are spazzy with sharp beaks. We fed every type of animal we met, and most were very polite, if eager to be fed.
Some of them were very eager, and would shove their heads into the car trying to reach for the buckets, but I was never worried about safety. My car, on the other hand, came out a little worse for wear. It still has a lot of spilled animal feed scattered all over the inside, the outside is still covered in animal snot, and there are a few new scratches from horns. So, don’t take your new Maserati through it. You can get tickets on the tractor they have so nobody has to drive if you don’t want to take your car.
After the drive, there is a walkable area that is more of a typical zoo. The big attraction here is the budgie aviary. You can buy budgie sticks – basically a popsicle stick with birdseed glued to it, and when you walk into the aviary, you will immediately have 2-4 birds landing on you to get the food. The kids (and the wife) were a little uncomfortable with this at first, since the budgies to have sharp little claws that pinch when they grip you, but they did enjoy being so close to so many birds.
After many hours here, the kids were tired from all the excitement so we went back to the apartment, rested, then had dinner in Lynchburg.
Last Day: Dinosaur Kingdom II
We weren’t sure about Dinosaur Kingdom II. We knew it was kind of a roadside tourist trap, but my son is really into dinosaurs, so we went. It’s not something we’d do again, but I don’t regret doing it. It’s a sculpture garden that follows the story of a comic book written by the artist. The summary from the website is a good description of how ‘out there’ it is: Enter into a time tunnel and discover Stonewall Jackson battling a vicious spinosaurus! get surrounded by deadly meat eaters! See Abe Lincoln after he’s lassoed a pteranodon chewing up the Gettysburg address! witness a stegosaurus being milked! If you like prehistoric creatures and civil war history, you’ll flip out over Dinosaur Kingdom II!
The summary of Dinosaur Kingdom was that it was really cold that morning, and my 3 year old cried and was scared the whole time. But my son, the dinosaur fanatic, loved it.
What else is there to do there?
There’s a lot of hiking – we walked over the footbridge over the James River that’s part of the Appalachian Trail and to a small waterfall. That area has lots of hiking, and although we were there before there was much color in the leaves, I can imagine that fall hiking there is beautiful.
The Caverns at Natural Bridge are supposed to be pretty cool, but we didn’t want to push the kids and end up with meltdowns, so we missed it.
There is also the Natural Bridge Zoo, although I do not recommend it. It has been fined many timed for mistreatment of animals, and does not seem to be improving. A number of groups are trying to shut it down, but it is still hanging on.
This is a great place for a long weekend with the kids, and I’m really happy with how everything worked out. If you are interested in going, let me know, and I’ll be happy to help answer any questions.
What Road Trips Have You Enjoyed?
Have you been to cool places with the kids? Let us know! We can all use a nice getaway now and then.