Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge is a geological rarity, and one of Virginia's earliest tourist attractions. Rockbridge County, created in 1778, is named after this natural feature.

Thomas Jefferson purchased the bridge and 157 acres around it in 1774, about 40 years after Natural Bridge was first documented by an explorer other than a Native American.1 Though Jefferson tried to sell "one of the sublimest curiosities in nature" for development as a tourist resort,2 the property stayed in his family until 1835 (ten years after his death). The site has been privately owned ever since that 1774 purchase, though there have been proposals since at least the 1940's for Virginia to purchase Natural Bridge for a state park.3

1852 painting by Frederic Edwin Church
1852 painting by Frederic Edwin Church
Source: Wikipedia
Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge
in 2008

Jefferson described the bridge in his Notes on the State of Virginia:4

"The _Natural bridge_, the most sublime of Nature's works, though not comprehended under the present head, must not be pretermitted. It is on the ascent of a hill, which seems to have been cloven through its length by some great convulsion. The fissure, just at the bridge, is, by some admeasurements, 270 feet deep, by others only 205. It is about 45 feet wide at the bottom, and 90 feet at the top; this of course determines the length of the bridge, and its height from the water. Its breadth in the middle, is about 60 feet, but more at the ends, and the thickness of the mass at the summit of the arch, about 40 feet.

"A part of this thickness is constituted by a coat of earth, which gives growth to many large trees. The residue, with the hill on both sides, is one solid rock of lime-stone. The arch approaches the Semi-elliptical form; but the larger axis of the ellipsis, which would be the cord of the arch, is many times longer than the transverse. Though the sides of this bridge are provided in some parts with a parapet of fixed rocks, yet few men have resolution to walk to them and look over into the abyss. You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ach. If the view from the top be painful and intolerable, that from below is delightful in an equal extreme. It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven, the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable! The fissure continuing narrow, deep, and streight for a considerable distance above and below the bridge, opens a short but very pleasing view of the North mountain on one side, and Blue ridge on the other, at the distance each of them of about five miles.

"This bridge is in the county of Rock bridge, to which it has given name, and affords a public and commodious passage over a valley, which cannot be crossed elsewhere for a considerable distance. The stream passing under it is called Cedar creek. It is a water of James river, and sufficient in the driest seasons to turn a grist-mill, though its fountain is not more than two miles above."

The private company that now owned Natural Bridge until 2014 developed the site as a commercial tourist attraction, along with Natural Bridge Caverns. To draw 160,000 visitors annually to pay the admission fee and purchase souvenirs at the gift shop, including 65,000 who stayed at the Natural Bridge hotel, the company added additional attractions - Professor Cline's Haunted Monster Museum, a wax museum, Dinosaur Kingdom, and a replica of a Monacan village staffed by Native Americans from that nearby tribe. A light and music show called the Drama of Creation was provided at night. Nearby attractions (including a styrofoam replica of Stonehenge nearby called Foamhenge) sought to take advantage of the ability of Natural Bridge to attract tourists.5

Marketing by the private owner included repeating some myths designed to magnify the significance of the site, "gilding the lily" in a manner that would not be acceptable for professional interpretation at a state or national park. Though there is no historical documentation to support the claim, the company website advertised:6

"Legend holds that young George Washington surveyed the Natural Bridge site for Lord Fairfax. Landmarks remain of the work and on the wall of the bridge where he carved his initials."

the website for Natural Bridge long claimed that George Washington had surveyed the site
the website for Natural Bridge long claimed that George Washington had surveyed the site
Source: Natural Bridge of Virginia
Caveat emptor - the real estate broker trying to sell Natural Bridge in 2013 repeated the George Washington story
Caveat emptor - the real estate broker trying to sell Natural Bridge in 2013 repeated the George Washington story
Source: Woltz & Associates, Inc.

The initials are visible from the trail across Cedar Creek, 23 feet above ground level. Most likely, they were carved into the stone long after George Washington died, perhaps in 1927 when a stone was found with the initials "G.W." plus a surveyor's cross.7

As one of Washington's biographers has noted:8

no evidence has ever surfaced showing that Washington surveyed the Natural Bridge or any other land in the area.

Other myths about the site involve ghost sitings, Monacan Indians discovering a magical "Bridge of the Gods" providing a path across Cedar Creek when fleeing from Shawnee warriors, an arbor vitae tree supposedly 1,500 years old when it died in 1980, and George Washington throwing a dollar over the bridge (nearly 200 feet high). Since Jefferson's purchase, however, the bridge has been a popular tourist attraction, as described in the nomination to the National Register:9

Since the settling of America, Natural Bridge has served as one of the nation's most recognizable icons of the wonders of nature. Its image was popularized by artists throughout the centuries and by a stream of illustrious visitors who waxed eloquent on its inspiring characteristics.

The bridge so captured the attention of Thomas Jefferson that he purchased the site, obtaining a grant from George III in 1774, and later wrote that he considered the bridge a public trust and would not allow it to be injured, defaced, or masked from public view. Indeed, Natural Bridge and Niagara Falls in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries occupied the top tier as the most impressive natural wonders in the New World.

Monacan village exhibit at Natural Bridge
Monacan village exhibit at Natural Bridge
reconstructed Monacan house
reconstructed Monacan house

The geological rarity of the bridge makes the site significant, independent of the cultural history of the tourist attraction. Natural Bridge is a remnant of a cave roof that collapsed. It was not formed by an earthquake that split the land surface, though earthquakes may have cracked portions of the cave roof and triggered rockfalls. The role of water in forming an underground channel of water and a cave at Natural Bridge (and its common relationship to the formation of Natural Tunnel in Scott County) was recognized even during Jefferson's lifetime.10

Long ago in the past, rainwater seeped underground and absorbed carbon dioxide as the water travelled through the organic litter on the surface and the A horizon of the soil, filled with decomposing humus and animal life exhaling carbon dioxide. The water became slightly acidic as it trickled down through the topsoil to the Beekmantown Formation, a limestone deposited originally in a shallow sea during the Ordivician period 440–505 million years ago. In that limestone, the slightly-acidic water dissolved some of the calcium carbonate crystals. The groundwater carried away the calcium and carbonate ions in solution, replacing a crystal of solid rock with an empty space. As water dissolved many crystals over time, pores developed in the limestone rock and potions became similar to a sponge.

Where there were cracks in the bedrock, even more water could move underground to create channels connecting the pores. After many centuries, enough rock was removed for a cave to form underground near Natural Bridge. The "hole in the ground" expanded until it stretched west of Cedar Creek and intersected Pogue Run, near modern I-81. The roof of the underground channel that diverted the headwaters of Pogue Run was near the surface. Sinkholes probably formed above the channel, and ultimately "windows" developed where portions of the underground cave were exposed directly to the surface.

Surface water that used to flow down Pogue Run was diverted, and instead flowed through the underground limestone channel to Cedar Creek. This act of "stream piracy" changed the watershed divide on the surface. The length of Pogue Run was truncated, and its former headwaters became part of Cedar Creek.

Gradually, the dissolving power of the extra water flowing through the underground channel of Cedar Creek etched away at the cave's roof. The layer of rock at the top became thinner and thinner until portions collapsed. More of the cave was exposed to the sky, until only a small portion remains today - modern Natural Bridge.11

As Cedar Creek flowed through the partially-underground channel, it carried away the limestone debris every time a portion of the roof fell. At a similar natural bridge in China, Tianmen Shan, "the entire opening formed in one cataclysmic event when the back of a huge cave collapsed in 263 AD."12

pirated portion of Cedar Creek (in blue), and current headwaters of Pogue Run (in yellow)
pirated portion of Cedar Creek (in blue), and current headwaters of Pogue Run (in yellow)
(former underground channel was located between I-81 and current Natural Bridge)
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Natural Bridge 7.5x7.5 topo map (2011)

The bridge is stable, but not unchanging. On October 23, 1999, a tourist was killed by a rockfall from the bridge. To prevent a repeat, metal plates were installed on the bottom of the bridge and attached with steel cables, then camouflaged with paint to maintain the natural appearance. There has been a road across Natural Bridge since 1753, but inevitably that remaining portion of the ancient cave roof will collapse into the creek.13

Natural bridges and arches can form through various processes, in addition to creation of underground channels by dissolution of limestone (as occurred at Natural Tunnel in Scott County) or by collapse when the underground cave/tunnel reached too close to the surface (as occurred at Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County). There is a second natural bridge in Virginia, located in Lee County near Jonesville. It spans Beatty Creek, and a state highway (Route 622) crosses it.14

Delicate Arch, a sandstone fin eroded by water and ice
Delicate Arch, a sandstone fin eroded by water and ice
Source: National Park Service, Arches National Park
sea arch formed by wave erosion
sea arch formed by wave erosion
Source: Bureau of Land Management, California Coastal National Monument

Arches and bridges can be distinguised by various definitions, including "A natural bridge is a type of natural arch where a current of water, such as a stream, clearly was a major agent in the formation of the opening (hole)."15

- At Natural Bridges National Monument in Arizona and Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky, erosion at the surface carved river channels into the local sandstone. River valleys shifted, as the running water etched downward and meandered to the sides. Occasionally, stream channels looped close to each other on opposite sides of a ridge. Erosion by water, and freezing/thawing ice, sometimes cut through the base of the rock barrier between stream channels and created an arch.16

- At Arches National Park, sandstone layers were cracked by land subsidence, and water on the surface excavated the layers to create "fins" of narrow rock formations on the edges of valleys. Further erosion by water and ice crystals cracked the sandstone rock on the edges of the fin walls, carving off chunks of debris that dropped into the valley below. Occasionally the cracks aligned to cut completely through the fins to create a hole.17

- In Massachusetts, the Natural Bridge at North Adams was carved by glacial meltwater carving into a layer of marble. By chance, the water cut through the marble deposit and left a ridge intact above the eroded hole, creating "the only naturally formed white marble arch" in North America.18

- In Arizona, Tonto Natural Bridge was formed in travertine rock by non-glacial erosion. Travertine was deposited by springs at the edge of limestone bedrock. The groundwater carried dissolved calcium cabonate, then deposited the dissolved rock as travertine when spring water met air at the ground surface. The deposits of travertine created a rock dam, and then a stream re-dissolved a channel through that dam to create the natural bridge.19

- Sea arches are formed when waves cut through rock promontories on the seacoast. On the West Coast of the United States, there are sea arches along the shoreline from California to British Columbia. Holei Sea Arch was carved by waves eroding the base of a volcanic lava flow that reached the edge of the island, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.20

one of the first known sketches of Natural Bridge, drawn by a French military engineer soon after Thomas Jefferson purchased the property
one of the first known sketches of Natural Bridge, drawn by a French military engineer soon after Thomas Jefferson purchased the property
Source: Library of Congress, Geometrical Plan of the Natural Bridge, from Travels in North-America, in the years 1780, 1781, and 1782/ by the Marquis de Chastellux

Today, Natural Bridge is primarily a regional tourist destination; travellers on I-81 or I-64 can take a short detour to see the bridge as a side visit. Previously, it was one of the top, nationally-significant attractions in North America, and appears on some lists of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World - before the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and other natural wonders were widely known.

Back in the Revolutionary War, French military officials traveled across Virginia to visit Natural Bridge. In the 1870's, William Cullen Bryant noted in Picturesque America that Natural Bridge was an essential stop during a tour of North America by European travellers:21

The Falls of Niagara and Natural Bridge are justly esteemed the most remarkable curiosities in North America... Whatever traveller came to the Western World, to compare its natural grandeur with the grandeur of art and architecture in the countries he had left, went first, in the North, to the Falls of Niagara, and, in the South, to the world-famous bridge.

Under Natural Bridge (in the 1870's)
Under Natural Bridge (in the 1870's)
Source: Picturesque America, Geometrical Plan of the Natural Bridge, from Travels in North-America, in the years 1780, 1781, and 1782/ by the Marquis de Chastellux

The areas of national significance were incorporated into the system of sites administered by the National Park Service, while Natural Bridge remained a privately-owned tourist attaction.

In 2007, the rock arch at Natural Bridge, various associated developments (including a hotel, gift shop, and wax museum attraction), a commercial tour cave (Natural Bridge Caverns), and 1600 acres of surrounding land were advertised for sale. No one offered to meet the $39 million asking price, and the property was taken off the market.

In 2013, after recovery from the 2008 economic recession, the properties were put on the market again - with the option of purchasing different parcels separately, rather than all components in one deal as proposed in 2007. County tax records showed in 2013 that the Natural Bridge geological feature was included with the hotel and gift shop in one 100-acre parcel, but a small parcel with just the Natural Bridge could be surveyed and sold separately.22

when listed for sale in 2013, the Natural Bridge was included in one 100-acre tax parcel together with the hotel and gift shop
when listed for sale in 2013, the Natural Bridge was included in one 100-acre tax parcel together with the hotel and gift shop
Source: Rockbridge County, VA Geographic Information System and GoogleMaps

At the request of the US Representative for the 6th District, Rep. Robert Goodlatte, in 2013 the National Park Service initiated a reconnaissance survey to assess if the site would qualify as a Federal park. Though Natural Bridge is historic and a rare geological oddity, it may not qualify as having national significance - even Niagara Falls is a state park and not part of the National Park Service system.23

The last time Natural Bridge was owned by a government organization, it was the colonial government led by Lord Dunmore in Wiliamsburg, before the American Revolution. In 2007 and again in 2013, the private owner tried to get a Federal agency (National Park Service or US Forest Service) or a state agency (Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation) to purchase the bridge and create a public park.

Trying to sell the property during the most significant economic recession since the 1930's, at a time when Congress was gridlocked over budget and debt issues, was hard. Carving out a parcel with just the bridge, excluding the vacant land and commercial properties (except perhaps the gift shop, which could be repurposed as a visitor center) was considered in order to reduce the cost for a government agency to acquire the site. A conservation easement, limiting alterations to the bridge and its setting, was another option for ensure permanent preservation of Natural Bridge.

In December 2013, the planned auction of the site was cancelled by the private owner. A regional nonprofit group purchased all of the property for just $8.6 million, with plans to transfer the bridge itself into the state park system to generate an additional $7 million in state tax credits. That transfer ended 240 years of private ownership, starting with Thomas Jefferson's purchase of what he called "the most sublime of Nature's works" for 20 shillings (about $100) in 1774.24

The private owner, Angelo Puglisi, had purchased Natural Bridge in 1988 for $6.5 million. He had never visited the site before a friend encouraged the DC-area real estate developer to buy it. Puglisi was hooked on the deal by the connection of the land to Thomas Jefferson, and did not buy it to maximize revenue. The hotel facility remained outdated, the gift shop was stocked low-priced tacky items imported from China, and the "Drama of Creation" light show created in 1927 (inaugurated by President Calvin Coolidge) was not updated to incorporate basic geological data about the bridge's formation. In 2013 Natural Bridge was attracting only 200,000 visitors/year, just half the visitation of Luray Caverns.25

Puglisi accepted a less-than-full-price deal to ensure Natural Bridge would be managed by the state of Virginia. A full-price sale at auction might have forced a new owner to pay down a big mortgage through construction of new, entertainment-style development.

The low sale price also allowed the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, the purchaser, to reorient the gift shop away from items manufactured in China and stock the shelves instead with more-authentic, Virginia-crafted products. The less-than-full-price deal also minimized the risk that the new owner would clutter the natural setting with rides and games more suitable for a county fair. The former owner:26

didn't want it to be a carnival. He didn't want to see a zip line off the bridge...


county zoning category for Natural Bridge is B-1, for business (not conservation)
county zoning category for Natural Bridge is B-1, for business (not conservation)
Source: Rockbridge County Zoning Map


1. "Natural Bridge," National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1997, Section 8 p.5, (last checked May 24, 2013)
2. Thomas Jefferson. "Letter to William Jenkings," July 1, 1809, in Landmarks of American Nature Writing - Natural Bridge, (last checked November 25, 2011)
3. Curtis Carroll Davis, "The First Climber of the Natural Bridge: A Minor American Epic," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Aug., 1950), p.279, (last checked November 24, 2011).
4. Thomas Jefferson, "QUERY V Its Cascades and Caverns?" in Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787, (last checked November 24, 2011)
5. Cape Leisure Corporation website, (last checked November 25, 2011)
6. "Natural Bridge History," Natural Bridge, (last checked November 24, 2011)
7. "Natural Bridge," National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1997, Section 7 p.2
8. Frank E. Grizzard, George Washington: A Biographical Companion, ABC-CLIO, 2002, p. 235 (last checked November 24, 2011)
9. "Natural Bridge," National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1997, Section 8 p.4
10. Francis William Gilmer, "On the Geological Formation of the Natural Bridge of Virginia," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 1 (1818), pp. 187-192 (last checked November 24, 2011)
11. Herbert P. Woodward, "Natural Bridge and Natural Tunnel, Virginia," The Journal of Geology, Vol. 44, No. 5 (July-August, 1936), pp. 607-10, (last checked November 26, 2011)
12. "NABSQNO 49R-449620-3213600 - Tianmen Shan," The Natural Arch and Bridge Society, (last checked November 26, 2011)
13. "Crews shore up Natural Bridge," Roanoke Times, November 4, 1999, online now at; Audra Matrice Vest Upchurch, "Stream assessment and Restoration Plan for Cedar Creek, Virginia," Masters Thesis at Virginia Tech, 2009, (last checked November 26, 2011)
14. "Natural Bridge of Lee County-EarthCache," Geocaching, (last checked November 26, 2011) "Frequently Asked Questions," Natural Bridge and Arch Society, (last checked November 26, 2011)
16. "Geology Fieldnotes - Natural Bridges National Monument," National Park Service, (last checked November 26, 2011)
17. "Geologic Formations," Arches National Park, National Park Service, (last checked November 26, 2011)
18. "Natural Bridge State Park," Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, (last checked November 26, 2011)
19. "Geology of the Bridge," Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, Arizona State Parks, (last checked November 26, 2011)
20. Andrew Alden, "Geological Outings Around the Bay: Natural Bridges," blog post in Quest KQED, November 24, 2011,; "Explore Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road," Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, National Park Service, (last checked November 26, 2011)
21. William Cullen Bryant (ed.), Picturesque America: Or, The Land We Live In. A Delineation by Pen and Pencil of the Mountains, Rivers, Lakes, Water-falls, Shores, Cañons, Valleys, Cities, and Other Picturesque Features of Our Country, D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1894, pp.40-41, (last checked May 24, 2013)
22. "Natural Bridge," National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1997, Section 8 p.8,; "Natural Bridge, its nearby attractions are up for sale," The Roanoke Times, May 22, 2013, (last checked May 24, 2013)
23. "National Park Service agrees to review Natural Bridge for park status," The Roanoke Times, June 20, 2013,; "Nonprofit to buy Natural Bridge, Va. landmark, after 239 years of individual ownership," Washington Post, December 18, 2013, (last checked December 19, 2013)
24. "Natural Bridge sold, destined to be a park," The Roanoke Times, February 6, 2014,; "How Much Is That in Today’s Money?," Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Summer 2002, (last checked February 17, 2014)
25. "Nonprofit to buy Natural Bridge, Va. landmark, after 239 years of individual ownership," The Washington Post, December 18, 2013,; "The rift — a family dynasty fights over the future of Luray Caverns," The Washington Post, March 14, 2013, (last checked February 17, 2014)
26. "Natural Bridge sold, on path to become state park," The Roanoke Times, February 6, 2014, (last checked December 19, 2013)

in the Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch painted in 1825-1826, Edward Hicks symbolized savage nature with wild beasts and a bold geological setting based on Natural Bridge
in five of his "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings, Edward Hicks symbolized savage nature with wild beasts and a bold geological setting based on Natural Bridge
Source: The Athenaeum, Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch (1825-1826) by Edward Hicks
(painting located at Reynolda House, Museum of Art in North Carolina)

Caves and Springs in Virginia
Virginia Geology
Nature-Oriented Tourism
Virginia Places