Embrace History and the Outdoors in Lexington, VirginiaMain photo by Steve Shires. Carriage photo by Chris Weisler. Georges photo by Sera Petras. Natural bridge photo from Unsplash. Travel Features
Lexington, Virginia, has all the hallmarks of a charming southern town: a walkable downtown filled with 18th century red brick buildings, horse-drawn carriages, antique shopping, quaint restaurants and friendly locals more than happy to chat a while. What sets it apart from the laundry list of the best small towns in the south is the abundance of top-quality outdoor experiences visitors have access to right at their fingertips. Tucked in the heart of the scenic Shenandoah Valley, the town is surrounded by 64,000 acres of public lands, making it the perfect jumping off point for those who want to spend their days hiking and nights sipping craft cocktails by the fireplace of their historic boutique hotel.
What To Do
History lovers will be in heaven here as every inch of town has a story. Start your trip with an informative (and scenic) horse-drawn carriage ride through the tree-shaded streets of Lexngton. Every afternoon The Lexington Carriage Company offers a horse-drawn history tour of the city’s oldest streets and neighborhoods. The fully-narrated tour explores the rich history of the Stonewall Jackson House, Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute, and downtown Lexington, as well as a historic residential district dating back to the 1820s
To see how Viriginans lived during the 1800s, visitors can explore the Stonewall Jackson House. The museum restored the home to its former glory when the Jacksons lived in the modest home before the Civil War. Tours of the home give visitors an insight into the daily life of the Jacksons when Jackson served as a professor at nearby Virginia Military Institute and his wife tended to the home and large outdoor garden.. Visitors can take a self-guided or themed tour. Themed tours include An Abiding Love: Thomas and Anna at Home, which details the relationship between Stonewall Jackson and his wife from early friendship through their courtship and married life.
Don’t leave town without exploring the Oak Grove Cemetery. Because Lexington was a stronghold of the Confederacy during the Civil War, many high-ranking confederate soldiers are buried there, including Stonewall Jackson. General Robert E. Lee is buried a few blocks away in University Chapel on the Washington and Lee University campus. However, a veteran from every conflict in American history is buried in the cemetery.
While Natural Bridge State Park is Virginia’s newest state park, it is actually one of the oldest tourist destinations in the United States. Thomas Jefferson first saw the 215-foot natural limestone bridge in 1767 when passing through what is now Rockbridge County. He bought a large swath of land that the bridge sat on in hopes to preserve it for the public. The arched bridge was created millions of years ago when an ancient cavern collapsed leaving behind the 215-foot land bridge. Today it crosses Cedar Creek as one of the largest natural land bridges in North America.
In addition to the awe-inspiring bridge, the state park is a natural wonderland of quiet forests, rolling meadows, leafy hikes along the James River, and views of the surrounding mountains. The park has more than seven miles of trails including one that leads to the 30-foot Lace Falls waterfall. For those who like caving, the nearby Natural Bridge Caverns are the deepest caves on the east coast.
Not only is Natural Bridge State Park stunning during the day, it comes alive at night as well. It is one of five Virginia parks to have been awarded the coveted International Dark Sky Association’s Dark Sky Park status. The park offers self-guided dark sky night hikes where visitors are encouraged to stargaze at their leisure. Clear summer nights provide the best opportunities for visitors to view the Milky Way. Park admission purchased earlier in the day is still valid as proof of admission to the self-guided Dark Sky program
For those who prefer to enjoy nature in the comfort of their own car, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the crown jewel of the area’s scenic roadways. Known as America’s favorite drive, the parkway meanders for 469 miles through stunning long-range vistas, rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes. About 20 minutes from downtown Lexington, the Buena Vista Overlook offers a stunning view of House Mountain rising out of the Shenandoah Valley. The Blue Ridge Parkway is accessible from three locations in Rockbridge County. While scenic year round, the incredible orange, red, and yellow leaves shimmering across the mountains in mid-October adds a depth to the view unmatched in other seasons.
Where to Stay
In general, one of the drawbacks of small town charm is outdated lodging with cramped rooms and itchy ‘80s-style bedspreads. Not in Lexington. The Georges is a boutique inn located in the heart of downtown that blends old-fashion appeal with modern luxury. 33 rooms and suites are spread out over the Washington building (ca 1790), the Marshall Building (1809) and the Patton Boom (ca 1939) and the Sheridan Livery Building (ca 1887).
Custom designed furnishings designed to resemble a home, freestanding tubs, and luxury Frette bed linens give each room a touch of classic Southern decor. With heated bathroom floors (and towel racks), complementary high-speed internet and iPod docking stations, however, the hotel provides all the modern luxuries of the 21st century. Warning: once you stay in a room with a heated towel-rack, you might not ever be able to step out of a shower without one again. The Georges is a great home base during your adventure in and around Lexington.
Jennifer Simonson is a travel writer by trade and a lover of the world’s food, cultures, drinks and outdoor spaces by nature.