NATURAL BRIDGE, Va. (WFXR) — If you’re looking to explore some of America’s natural wonders, look no further than Rockbridge County.
The county is home to several major tourist attractions that feature the best of nature. The most popular: Natural Bridge State Park.
“We have a lot of families that come in from out of town, coming from very far away as well,” said Shana Pooley, assistant park manager at the Natural Bridge State Park.
However, a different kind of adventure sits not too far away from the beloved park, located right along South Lee Highway. It’s one for the thrill seekers, the globetrotters, and the daredevils.
“Caves are just different,” said Larry Wheeler, manager at the Caverns at Natural Bridge.
Every year, people throughout Virginia and around the world visit the Natural Bridge Caverns. The caves were discovered just before the turn of the 20th century then opened to the public in 1977.
The site soon became a perfect opportunity for earth science enthusiasts to explore what the Earth has to offer.
“When I was young, I always enjoyed earth science, and geology, and dinosaurs,” said Wheeler. “That was kind of my favorite thing when I was a kid.”
The cave tours bring visitors down more than 347 feet, making it the deepest commercial cave in the Commonwealth.
While underground, people can learn and explore many of the cave’s unique features, from a Mirror Lake to a Canyon Room. Scientific terminology can also be taught and picked up along the way, like stalagmites and stalactites.
“We like to think of ourselves as one of the most active caves in Virginia as far as, like the water coming down, and we actually have 16 different species of wildlife that live in the cave,” said Wheeler. “That makes the cave very unique.”
Before visitors step on the downward path towards the cave’s entrance, athletic shoes and a lightweight jacket are strongly encouraged. The cave’s temperature stays a cool 54 degrees year-round. For many people, the climate is an easy way to beat the summer heat.
“We’ve never been here before, and we came and had a great time,” said Gorman Rosenberger, a visitor from Lynchburg.
Debbie Rosenberger, Gorman’s wife, says she wished she explored the caverns sooner.
“To think that we lived a whole life in Lynchburg , didn’t even remember that this was as new as 1977, and the fact that I’ve never been was crazy!” said Debbie.
For six-year-old Jonathan Stevens, a visitor from Midlothian, the tour not only served as a learning lesson but a chance to bond with his older brother, Benjamin Taylor.
“When I looked all the way up, I was so scared. I thought I was in the toilet!” said Stevens. “But I really want to go to another cave.”
While the cave tours are a main feature, the site also offers gem mining. Just outside the gift shop sits an area where visitors can perform the role of a prospector, with a mission to find some hidden treasures.
“It’s just like gem panning like out in the Old West. You just dump the bag into the pan and pour it down into the water,” said Sean Bryde, a tour guide for the Caverns at Natural Bridge.
Through a process of dumping dirt, dipping it into a water stream, and shaking the excess dirt, gems from around Virginia can be revealed. Rocks can vary from fool’s gold and sea glass to limestone found inside the caves.
“Every bag’s got different stones in it. They’re all unique,” said Bryde. “You’ve got different amounts, different sizes.”
The Caverns at Natural Bridge is just one of many reasons why millions of people visit Rockbridge County every year. The area offers everything, including life-long memories with family and friends.
However, locals say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I have never been more proud to live in a place where you could come and you could feel so at home,” said Pooley. “So regardless of how far you’ve come, when you come here, you literally feel at home because every single person, employee, customer that you come by, they are just very welcoming and just are happy to be here and want to be here.”
For more information about the Caverns at Natural Bridge, visit their website here.