Crisp Air, Dark Skies, New Adventures

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Natural Bridge State Park. Photo by Kara Asboth. Courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corporation.

Look up. If the sky is hazy and you can’t see the stars, it’s time to find a place where those brilliant fireballs are visible. The Shenandoah Valley is fortunate to be home to an International Dark Sky Park: Natural Bridge State Park near Lexington, Virginia in Rockbridge County.

 

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Natural Bridge State Park spans more than 1,500 acres and its biggest claim to fame is the iconic 200-foot-tall limestone arch: the Natural Bridge of Virginia. However, it’s the trails encompassing the rest of the park that are gaining notoriety.

The Skyline Trail leads to Jefferson Point, the location chosen for night sky viewing. According to Astronomy Magazine’s Sky Guide 2024, this winter should be a great time for watching comets. On the radar are C/2023 A3 (Tsuchinshan), 144 P/Kushida, and C/2021 S3 (PANSTARRS). Keep an eye out for an amazing view of Mercury around March 24. It won’t be high in the sky, so monitor a little closer to the horizon than you might otherwise. The magazine also notes ideal dates to see other planets with the naked eye. Use the moon as your guide:

  • January 8 – the moon passes six degrees south of Venus at 3 p.m. EST
  • January 9 – seven degrees south of Mercury at 2 p.m. EST
  • January 10 – four degrees south of Mars at 4 a.m. EST
  • January 14 – two degrees south of Saturn at 5 a.m. EST
  • January 18 – three degrees north of Jupiter at 4 p.m. EST

Daytime Adventures

Skyline Trail is also a Kids in Parks Track Trail, which leads to the Children’s Discovery Area, a soon-to-be certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. It’s a place where kids can use their imagination with nothing but what nature provides. A self-guided brochure highlights pollinators, birds, and animals found within the park.

The Blue Ridge Trail features the 2023-unveiled 18-hole Thistle Ridge Disc Golf Trail. Its educational scorecard identifies birds and trees along the way. The latter of which you’ll dodge if your aim is not true. After playing a round, continue the hike to Red Knob Overlook for excellent views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

 

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Continue your explorations from the Blue Ridge Trail to Cedar Creek Trail, which is where you’ll find the Natural Bridge. Passing beneath it, the trail leads to the Monacan Village, Salt Peter Cave, the Lost River, and Lace Falls. It’s a one-way jaunt that requires backtracking. Trust us, the “backside” of the bridge is an impressive view all its own. We like photos of that side because it’s the more infrequently captured and shared. In fact, it was one of the covers for the Virginia Travel Guide in 2021.

After the Adventure

While there aren’t any camping options at Natural Bridge State Park (yet), there are accommodations right next door and others worth the drive. The Natural Bridge Hotel & Conference Center includes a dining room and tavern and is right next door to the state park. A drive into Lexington offers a host of bed and breakfasts, the comfortable and historic Hampton Inn Col Alto, and in downtown, The Georges, a growing boutique hotel with several luxury room and dining options.

 

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Dining can be nostalgic burgers and shakes at The Pink Cadillac Diner, farm-to-table fine dining at Haywood’s, or woodfired Italian at Heliotrope Brewery. Speaking of a brewery, the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail is a fine addition to any outdoor adventure. In the Lexington area there are three on the list to consider: Great Valley Farm Brewery in Natural Bridge (just minutes from the state park), Heliotrope, and Devils Backbone Outpost Tap Room & Kitchen. Toast the good times and plan to do it all again in another season for the full range of experience.

 

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Consult LexingtonVirginia.com for more travel inspiration and assistance in Lexington, Buena Vista, and Rockbridge County.

Header Image: Natural Bridge State Park. Photo by Kara Asboth. Courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corporation.

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