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Walking Tours in Lexington, VA

The Inn at Brierley Hill is just minutes away from some of Lexington’s best tours, scenic drives and historic sites throughout Rockbridge County.

Natural Bridge is located 15 miles south of Lexington and has been a roadside tourist attraction for more than two centuries. Exploring Natural Bridge State Park is one of the most essential things to do in Lexington, Virginia. In 2016, it became Virginia’s newest state park.

The path from the Visitor Center to the Natural Bridge trail leads park visitors down winding steps that parallel a series of lovely cascades. A shuttle is available for guests who prefer not to navigate the stairs. There are picnic areas and shelters at several locations to accommodate park guests.

Rising 215 feet above Cedar Creek, Natural Bridge is undoubtedly one of Virginia’s most scenic geological features. The Lee Highway (US Route 11) passes across the span. The waters of Cedar Creek carved the limestone gorge and bridge over a period of 500 million years.

America’s Founding Fathers are closely connected to Natural Bridge. Evidence exists that George Washington surveyed the area in 1750. The initials G. W. are inscribed at a spot on the bridge’s inner wall and also on a large stone. In 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased 157 acres, including the Natural Bridge, from King George III for the sum of twenty shillings (about $2.40). Jefferson visited the bridge frequently, surveyed it, drew a map in his own hand, and built a two-room cabin on the property in 1803, two years after becoming president of the United States.

The Cedar Creek Trail leads under the bridge and to the Monacan Living History Exhibit and Lace Falls beyond. A woven palisade encircles a 1699 recreated Monacan settlement. Reenactors and interpreters in period dress educate guests about the culture and heritage of the ancient Native American nation.

Historic structures are plentiful in Lexington. If you choose to explore the Downtown Walking Tour you will see the African-American First Baptist Church (1894), the former Rockbridge County Courthouse (1897), and the old Rockbridge County Jail (1841).

Other self-guided Lexington tours with downloadable maps include the Historic Churches Walking Tour, the Rockbridge County Historic Churches Driving Tour, and the African-American Diamond Hill and Green Hill Community Walking Tour.

The Lexington Carriage Company offers group and private narrated historical tours through the same districts as the walking tours with knowledgeable guides of Lexington’s history.

No visit to Lexington would be complete without touring the W&L and VMI campuses. The museums, architecture, and historical locations are not to be missed. Both campuses contain National Historic Landmarks, and VMI is a National Historic District. Touring W&L and VMI are two of the best things to do in Lexington, Virginia.

Washington & Lee University began in 1749 and through the years operated under a succession of names. George Washington’s name was added when he endowed the school with a gift of stock valued at $20,000 in 1796. The gift saved the school from imminent bankruptcy and continues to earn dividends for students to this day.

On Aug. 4, 1865, four months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, the Washington College board of trustees invited Lee to become president of the college. The trustees believed that his dedication to principle and duty would inspire students and faculty. In addition, they hoped his reputation as the leader of the Confederate army could help attract students and funding from both the North and the South, thereby allowing the school to recover from its perilous situation.

For his part, Lee described his motivation for accepting the presidency in an 1865 letter to his wife: “Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honor of God.” He elaborated in another letter the following spring: “So greatly have [educational] interests been disturbed [in] the South, and so much does its future condition depend upon the rising generation, that I consider the proper education of its youth one of the most important objects now to be attained, and one from which the greatest benefits may be expected.”

Before the Civil War, Lee had been superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. During his five years at Washington College, he proved to be a creative educator whose curricular innovations transformed the classical college into a modern university. He incorporated the local law school; instituted undergraduate courses in business and journalism; introduced modern languages and applied mathematics; and expanded offerings in the natural sciences.

Lee also endorsed a lasting tradition of student self-governance, putting the students in charge of the honor system that the faculty had previously overseen. “As a general principle you should not force young men to do their duty,” Lee said, “but let them do it voluntarily and thereby develop their characters.” That principle remains part of the foundation for a campus culture that fosters honor, integrity, and civility.

The Lee House (1869), situated at the campus entrance, is the home built for Robert E. Lee during his tenure at the college. It continues as the president’s residence to this day. Mrs. Lee, who was Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter, was confined to a wheelchair, so the wraparound porch was added for her convenience.

A brick stable beside the Lee house belonged to the general’s war horse Traveller and his stablemates Lucy Long and Ajax. Although the structure now serves as the president’s garage, the doors are typically left open so Traveller’s spirit can roam freely. Food and water are always available inside the stall.

A statue of inventor and industrialist Cyrus McCormick, who was a W&L benefactor and served on the board of trustees, was erected in 1931. The Morris House (1842), originally built as a faculty home, now serves as a seminar center and guest house.

Lee Chapel (1867) is one of three museums at W&L. The museum’s collection includes the C. W. Peale portrait of George Washington along with other rare paintings, Lee’s office, and the Lee family crypt. Edward Valentine’s statue of a recumbent Robert E. Lee is located behind the chapel stage. The statue is often mistaken as Lee’s tomb, but the general and other family members are buried in tombs beneath the chapel. Lee’s beloved horse Traveller is buried outside the south entrance to the chapel and museum.

Virginia Military Institute campus adjoins the W&L campus, making it convenient to continue a walking tour. The 12-acre parade ground in the center of campus offers a stellar view of House Mountain in the distance.

The Virginia Military Institute was founded in 1839 as a state-supported military college. Often referred to as the “West Point of the South,” VMI ranks nationally alongside United States military academies.

Dozens of VMI alumni have made their mark on the American landscape, the most prominent being George C. Marshall, Five Star General of the Army, Chief of Staff under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, force behind the Marshall Plan, and Nobel Peace Prize winner. The George C. Marshall Museum and Library honors the memory of VMI’s most famous graduate.

The institute barracks dominate the campus landscape. A statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who served as professor of natural philosophy and artillery instructor at VMI from 1851 to 1861 occupies a prominent location surrounded by the original red cannon he used to train cadets.

Statues erected on the VMI campus include “Virginia Mourning Her Dead,” another memorial to the Battle of New Market, “The Spirit of Youth,” in memory of Brigadier General William H. Cocke, and an 1856 statue of George Washington.

Jackson Memorial Hall (1915) is the VMI cadet assembly hall. A painting depicting the cadet charge at the 1864 Battle of New Market by Benjamin West Clinedinst (Class of 1880) honors the VMI fallen and wounded men.

The VMI Museum occupies the lower two levels of the hall. Among the rare artifacts in the collection are VMI alumnus General George S. Patton’s helmet, the bullet-ridden raincoat General Jackson was wearing when he was mortally wounded by friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and the mounted hide of Jackson’s war horse “Little Sorrel.”

A 50-minute cadet-led campus tour departs the VMI Museum daily at noon.

In addition to its museums, VMI offers a wealth of information in its online exhibits, archives, and digital collections.

Stonewall Jackson Sites are included in the Lexington walking and carriage tours.

The Stonewall Jackson House is an off-campus museum owned and run by VMI. Jackson lived in this house from 1858 until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. It was the only house he ever owned. Jackson attended the Lexington Presbyterian Church and taught a Sunday School class for slaves and free blacks. He also taught them to read and write, an illegal act in Virginia at the time. Stonewall Jackson’s grave is the centerpiece of the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. General Jackson and other members of his family were originally buried at a family plot in the cemetery, but their remains were later exhumed and reburied at the monument site. The monument and statue sculpted by Edward Valentine, who also sculpted “Recumbent Lee,” were erected and dedicated in 1891 with a crowd of 30,000 in attendance. Jackson’s amputated arm is buried in Chancellorsville.

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