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Published: March 1st 2013
The largest natural bridge in the eastern United States
Today felt strange, and wonderful.
I walked out of my hotel room, and saw something familiar.
Not “I’ve lived here for years” familiar, but definitely somewhere I’ve been before.
It’s been a long time since I had that impression on this trip.
More importantly, that horrible cold front finally moved out, so the sky was clear and warm.
In late November, it was warn enough to drop the top, almost certainly for the last time this year.
The Shenandoah Valley
is beautiful, even with no leaves on the trees.
Hills roll away to a long mountain chain in the distance, the Blue Ridge.
With the great scenery and weather, I decided to squeeze in one last sight before the long drive ahead.
The area’s largest but also most impressive tourist trap was just the place: Natural Bridge.
Virginia Natural Bridge
The Natural Bridge
is a high and thick natural bridge over a creek.
Westerners will probably yawn over something like this (see Cedar Mesa: Southeast Utah’s Wonderland
), but in the east big ones are rare.
Native Americans knew this one well.
George Washington passed by as a teenager. Thomas Jefferson
Looking across the Shenandoah Valley to the Blue Ridge
so impressed that he bought the land, and owned it until his death.
Rarely for a natural bridge, later settlers used it as an actual bridge and routed the first version of the Valley Turnpike (see The Nation’s Longest Truck Convoy
) over it.
Later owners turned it into a tourist trap
in the 1920s when automobile travel first exploded in the area.
The interstate exit put me on US 11, which follows the original route of the Valley Turnpike.
It rolled over hills until it reached a huge parking lot with a big building behind it.
Just beyond, the highway had a bridge weight limit sign, with no actual bridge in sight.
The big building held the indoor attractions
, and this would not be a proper tourist trap without several.
It holds a butterfly museum, a collection of toys, a wax museum, a cafeteria, and one of the largest gift shops in Virginia.
The admission desk held signs for a light show
projected on the bridge every night while hidden speakers recite the Biblical story of the creation of the world.
I ignored all that and just bought a ticket to
Natural Bridge entrance
The gift shop takes up most of this building!
the bridge trail
The paved trail dropped down a hillside along a stream, Cascade Brook.
The stream flowed over lots of little waterfalls, which actually looked better without tree leaves blocking the view.
All of the waterfalls had an odd appearance, as though the rock itself was flowing.
That description is not far off the truth.
The stream flows from a limestone spring.
As it drops, limestone precipitates from the water creating a rare type of rock called travertine
At the bottom of the hill, Cascade Brook merged into the much larger Cedar Creek.
That stream flowed from a narrow ravine with tall vertical walls.
The trail turned upstream and headed in.
Around the first corner, the bridge just appeared, all at once.
A high and surprisingly thick layer of stone crossed the ravine at the very top.
Getting closer, man-made walls appeared on top of the bridge.
They surrounded US 11.
The reason for that weight limit sign at the parking lot is that US 11 follows the original Valley Turnpike route right over
Closeup of a travertine waterfall on Cascade Creek
the natural bridge.
The walls supposedly keep things from falling off.
Of course, they also prevent people from stopping on the highway to view the bridge without paying admission for it.
Underneath, looking on the ravine wall on the far side revealed the initials G.W., barely visible inside an obvious white rectangle.
Supposedly, these are the carving left behind by a teenage George Washington, back when he surveyed the area for the British governor of Virginia.
On the far side of the bridge, the ravine quickly disappears to reveal a wide valley.
Somehow, a thick ridge of limestone survived while the land around it eroded, and then the stream cut under it to form the bridge.
Unlike the bridges in Natural Bridges National Monument, the stream appeared to cut upward from its source instead of forming a meander first.
The path continued up the stream after the bridge.
According to the signs, it passes such sights as a recreated Native American village and several waterfalls.
I didn’t have time to see any of them, so I turned around
The lower cascades on the creek
and got back on the road.
On the way back to the Interstate, I saw a sign for something called ‘Foamhenge’, pointing to a dirt road.
Thanks to all the rain the last three days, this was basically a muddy rut up a hillside.
I still wanted to know where it went.
The road quickly led to an open field with a little ravine down the middle, and something on the hill beyond.
The entire thing looked like a giant muddy car trap.
I found the one part of the road that looked dry and left my car there.
One quick and sloppy hike through the mud later I arrived at a sign. Foamhenge
is a full sized copy of Stonehenge, made out of giant pieces of packing foam by local eccentric Mark Cline.
The sign warns to not vandalize the site, otherwise "I’ll let you scratch on Foamhenge as I do the same to your parked vehicle. Don't be surprised, I'm nuts enough to do it!"
Another muddy hike, this time up the hill, led to the site itself.
The bridge from the far side
foam blocks were huge and painted mostly grey.
With a bit of imagination, they formed a pretty good approximation of Stonehenge.
Behind them was a folk statue of Merlin levitating another block, the creator’s theory of how the actual Stonehenge was built.
Back at my car, I now had a serious problem.
Not only was the entire site muddy, this mud was thick and slippery.
I couldn’t get it off my boots!
Normally, banging them together does the trick, but the mud clung like adhesive.
I finally resorted to using a card from my wallet as a scraper and got it off.
I’m very glad I parked on the road, otherwise I would never be able to get out of there.
Now on the Interstate, the rest of the day became a long painful haul.
Despite the natural beauty all around, I really dislike the Valley Turnpike.
I can’t watch the scenery when I’m constantly dodging trucks!
The drive was long, and crowded throughout.
Virginia became Maryland and Maryland became Pennsylvania.
Finally, I crossed over the Susquehanna with
Barely visible GW supposedly left by George Washington as a teenager
the lights of Harrisburg in the distance.
Unfortunately, it was quite dark by this point, and I still have so long to go.
I really want to get home.
Beyond Harrisburg, the Interstate split.
The ‘official’ route to New England, as a half-dozen signs describe, is continuing on 81 northeast to Interstate 84.
I’ve driven that road; it’s filled with curves and hills and comparatively slow.
The other branch follows 78 to New York City, where I can pick up 95 along the coast.
It’s flatter and easier to drive, but sees much more traffic.
Those signs attempt to spread out the trucks, and the highway damage they cause, onto more routes.
The time is now late enough I figured New York will be passable, and headed that way.
After the split, the highway still resembled the Valley Highway, rolling hills and lots of big rigs.
The only interruption was a long bridge over water, the Delaware River.
Like all toll bridges over the Delaware River, it only charges in one direction, west into Pennsylvania.
The Hudson River crossings
Do not deface Foamhenge! He means it!
to come only charge going east into New York City, which means that most people can enter New Jersey for free, but have to pay to leave.
I wonder if that’s meant to be a subconscious message 😊
New York City has some of the worst traffic in the United States.
Roads in this area are so busy that long after dark they carry a traffic volume higher than most cities see during rush hour.
I knew this going in, but it was still nasty.
My first view was a treat, cresting a ridge in New Jersey to see the towers of Manhattan with a huge cloud over them.
Lit from below, it looked like a giant spaceship.
Twenty minutes later, I was in the maw.
Heading north on the New Jersey Turnpike, it splits north of Newark, with branches reading ‘Washington Bridge’ and ‘Lincoln Tunnel’.
Regular drivers know to take the branch for the tunnel even when heading for the bridge.
It crossed two ridges with perfect views of the Manhattan skyline.
Watching it without crashing was a real challenge
Roughly a third of Foamhenge
though (and don’t even think of taking a picture!).
The highway finally forked again, with a branch heading for the bridge at this point.
It rejoined the branch from earlier at a big travel plaza named for Vince Lombardi (see The Glory of the Game
He grew up near here.
The plaza has the last cheap gas for over one hundred miles, and nearly everyone stops for it.
What can I saw about the George Washington Bridge
, except that it’s the busiest suspension bridge in the world
One hundred and thirty thousand vehicles cross this thing every single day, and stuck at the toll plaza I certainly knew it.
The bridge itself looked nice, with the cables lit up by florescent lights, the “string of pearls”.
Afterward, I entered a hell of tightly packed highways, roads perpetually needing repairs, and rude drivers.
New York City was bad, but southwest Connecticut isn’t far behind.
Finally, I reached New Haven and things got better.
Nostalgia works in some strange ways.
Pushing on through Connecticut, I saw a truck stop on the side of the Interstate.
It’s one of the big chain ones,
One theory of who built Stonehenge, and how
with restaurants, stores, and fast food joints.
By the standards of what I’ve seen on this journey, it’s nothing special (see Crossing the Rubicon
For me, this particular one meant a lot.
I remember stopping there on trips through the area when I was young, so it came to symbolize the start of adventure.
Now, it almost means the end of one.
I stopped, bought snacks, and pushed on.
A half-hour later, I finally crossed the border into Massachusetts.
Now, I am seeing roads familiar from growing up, the place that feels like home.
After a long journey across the country, it’s both strange and a relief.
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