The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) recently released its master plan for the Natural Bridge State Park located near Lynchburg and is seeking public input on the plan until Nov. 21.
The master plan includes rerouting Route 11 that travels over the Natural Bridge so only pedestrians can traverse it, demolishing the Wax Museum, adding a chairlift and expanding hiking trails.
“We have 1,200 acres there,” said Lynn Crump, environmental programs planner at DCR. “So our part of the plan is to disperse activities throughout that 1,200 acres. So we have camping proposed, we have a mountain bike track proposed, we have additional hiking trails right now. I think there are four or five miles of hiking trail already. So we’re expanding trails, we’re going to have a discovery area for people, will have picnic areas and some shelters scattered throughout the park.”
One of the most interesting additions would be a chairlift. Crump said that there are challenges involved due to Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards but noted that it is not planned until the third phase. Its purpose is to provide easier accessibility to the bridge.
“The chairlift is, I think, something someone grabs on to,” Crump said. “It’s kind of fun and different. We have a chairlift at Natural Tunnel State Park, so it’s not completely outside the realm for our state parks.”
The master plan has been in development for a few years now and would be implemented in three phases within 20 to 30 years. Crump said that master plans usually don’t take that long to develop, but they’ve been working with an advisory group and had to wait on the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to do studies on the bridge.
Crump noted that the removal of vehicle traffic on the bridge was recommended by a VDOT study.
Each phase could take about 10 years, which is reliant on funding. Most funding comes from the Virginia General Assembly, and some comes from grants such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The first phase of the plan consists of protecting the Natural Bridge, including the creation of a bypass downstream of the bridge; removing, repairing and renovating dams; renovating the Rockbridge Center as a discovery center/ environmental education facility; renovating the Cedar Creek Pavilion for an event venue; developing a maintenance area; and developing the Blue Ridge Trailhead on Route 11 with parking, restrooms, shelter and picnic tables.
The second phase of the project includes removing the Wax Museum; removing the concrete amphitheater near Monacan Village; demolishing a temporary staff residence and creating a new one; providing shuttles and/or connecting a trail to the bridge; adding a campground and shelter; creating an observation point; developing a mountain bike area; and creating additional parking.
The third phase includes adding a picnic area near a mountain bike area; adding a chairlift or alternative transportation to the base of the bridge; adding a contact station; and developing walk-in primitive camping.
The history of state parks and the Natural Bridge, process for master plans, and the master plan for the Natural Bridge State Park were presented at DCR’s second public input meeting Oct. 21.
According to Crump, about 55 people attended the virtual meeting, which was open to the public and included local staff, interest groups, adjacent property owners and others.
A recording of the meeting, and details and map of the master plan may be found at www.dcr.virginia.gov/recreational-planning/nb-masterplan-public-input-meeting.
The cost of the plan is undetermined at this moment.
DCR currently leases the land from the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund (VCLF), which intends to donate the land to the state. Part of the negotiation between VCLF and DCR is that DCR will take over ownership of about 1,200 acres of the nearly 1,500 acres of land.
Crump said that DCR will not do any major development on the property until it owns the land. Park renovations also won’t be made until after Route 11 has been rerouted, according to the plan.
In 2014, the VCLF had purchased the property, including the Natural Bridge Historic Hotel and Conference Center, with a loan from the Virginia Resources Authority. The nonprofit reportedly still owes about $6.5 million and would need to pay off the debt before donating the land.
There’s an agreement between VCLF and DCR where a portion of sales from the state park goes to that debt.
Also, the hotel recently became part of the Wyndham hotel brand and will undergo $750,000 in renovations, which is separate from DCR’s master plan.
According to the Virginia State Parks Economic Impact Report for 2019, the Natural Bridge State Park brought in $1.8 million in visitor revenue and had operational expenditures of $1.6 million. It had an economic impact of $16 million that year with an estimated $11.6 million in visitor spending throughout the area.
With park improvements, more visitors will be expected, which would increase the economic impact of the area.
“It’s a gem for the state, and it’s a great piece of property,” Crump said. “It has some magnificent views. It’s well worth everyone spending more than just time to see the bridge.”
Written comments about the master plan will be accepted until 7 p.m. Nov. 21. Send comments by mail to Lynn Crump, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, at 600 East Main Street, 24th Floor, Richmond, Virginia 23219; by email to Lynn.Crump@dcr.virginia.gov; or by fax to 804-371-7899.