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natural bridge state park hiking

Natural Bridge

A State Resort Park Just For Hikers

Hiking

Shakertown

If you're into hiking, you need to spend a weekend or week at Natural Bridge State Park. Admittedly, this is Luxury Hiking. You have benches and gazebos every so often where you can pause for water and snack breaks. Steps, bridges and whole staircases help deal with the rugged terrain. There are rooms at the lodge with private terraces at treetop level, and beautiful cabins isolated in the woods. After a hard half day or full day of hiking, there's a pool, lake and stream for swimming, wading, tubing or paddleboating. A much larger lake is good for fishing. If you insist on roughing it, there are two big campgrounds. The lodge restaurant is great, especially on Friday nights when they offer their seafood buffet. If you stay several days, there are horseback riding, miniature golf, America's greatest Via Ferrata rock climbing course, and some of the nation's best square dancing every Saturday night on Hoedown Island. But at heart, since 1890 this has been designed and run as a day hiker's park. It may not be deep wilderness, but it is certainly beautful, challenging and enjoyable. The photo at right is taken from Battleship Point in October; the one above, below the bridge in May.

Natural Bridge is a perfect introduction to hiking and the outdoors for new members of a Scout troop or Church group, or for kids just out of Daddy's back carrier starting to hike on their own. The trails are short and manageable but steep, challenging and varied. The gazebos and benches placed along the trails allow comfortable stops for water, catching one's breath or discussing the plants, rocks or scenery. On a one day trip a kid can take plenty of great photos to take home or email to friends or post on Facebook pages. There are enough trails of gradually increasing length and difficulty to allow at least three trips, after which you can move on to the Gorge with a very solid foundation.
Natural Bridge is also a great place for school field trips. There's enough Biology and Geology here for a semester's worth of lessons. You could teach whole units on Mosses, Lichens, Ferns, Forest Ecology, Aquatic Ecology, Sedimentary Geology, Natural Arch Formation, and other specific topics. The park is ideally laid out for school trips : there are large parking lots with turnarounds and room for buses to park. In late Spring and early Fall the pool is operating. There's a restaurant in the lodge (right) and a snack bar down on Hoedown Island where the school buses pull in.

We also use Natural Bridge as a conditioner to begin each new hiking season. After long Winters the steep terrain helps renew cardiovascular capacity and leg muscles, especially in the calves and knees. As mentioned, there are three days of hikes here, gradually building back stamina and legs for those longer trails over in the Gorge. If you look carefully at the photo at left you can see the lake through the trees. This view is from the connector trail linking the lodge and the Original Trail.

Natural Bridge State Park, as far as hikers are concerned, breaks down into four routes.

l. The Balanced Rock Loop. Up The Original Trail and down The Balanced Rock Trail. The way up is only 3/4 of a mile but the steady uphill grade, sometimes with steps as at right, sometimes as a steeply sloping trail, will provide a good cardiovascular and calf workout. You'll spend about half an hour on top. The return along Balanced Rock Trail is a mile. It's all downhill, but some of that downhill is either steep trail or long flights of steep staircases. By the time you get to the bottom your knees will have had a good workout. This is the shortest of the loops but none of the others have terrain as steep.

2. The Scenic Hike. The other three trails are mostly in deep forest but this route offers stunning vistas at every turn. You go up Rock Garden Trail and back Battleship Rock Trail, each about a mile and a half, for a total hike of about three miles.

3. Hood Branch Trail. Take the Original Trail up to the Bridge, then go down five mile Hood Branch Trail, which is gradually downhill as it follows Hood Creek down through the central part of the park. You'll come out at the base of the chairlift, then hike around the road back to your car for a total distance of seven miles. Many think this is the prettiest hike in the park but it's a deep forest and stream beauty.

4. Sand Gap. We like to park at the lower lot and take the chairlift up for this one. Sand Gap Trail starts at the Pavilion near the Bridge and continues for eight miles around the Southern boundary line of the park to end back at the chairlift. It's mostly a ridgetop hike through pleasant forest with frequent vistas.

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