Located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, about halfway between Roanoke and Waynesboro, Lexington VA is a small college town with a rich history dating back to the American Revolution.
Lexington is part of Rockbridge County, which is home to the Natural Bridge (once owned by Thomas Jefferson), Washington & Lee University (one of the oldest colleges in the US), the Cyrus McCormick Farm (where the mechanical reaper was invented), and countless other sites of historical importance.
The town is situated at the intersection of two historic routes (U.S. Route 11 and U.S. Route 60) and two modern highways (Interstate 64 and Interstate 81), with the Blue Ridge Parkway just 11 miles away.
So it makes a great base for exploring the heart of the Shenandoah Valley region.
READ MORE: 30 Fascinating Blue Ridge Mountains Facts
Lexington VA & Natural Bridge VA Guide
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Explore Downtown Lexington VA
- Hike to Crabtree Falls VA
- Lexington Carriage Company Historical Tour
- Oak Grove Cemetery
- Sample Lexington Restaurants
- Stonewall Jackson House
- University Chapel & Galleries
- Tour the VMI Museum
- Wade’s Mill
- Visit Statons Creek Falls
- Caverns at Natural Bridge
- Dinosaur Kingdom II
- Natural Bridge State Park
- Virginia Safari Park
The Best Things to Do in Lexington VA
1. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
Located 11 miles west of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Lexington VA offers accessibility to the world-renowned scenic route, while also providing an array of attractions and activities in town.
Some of our favorite Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks near Lexington include the Chimney Rock Mountain Overlook (Milepost 44.9), Bluff Mountain Overlook (MP 52.8), View Rice Mountain (MP 53.6), and the Otter Lake Overlook (MP 63.1), which offers lovely reflections when the fall colors are peaking.
Popular Blue Ridge Parkway hikes nearby include the 0.3-mile Indian Gap Trail (MP 47.5), which offers great views of seasonal wildflowers; the 3.5-mile Otter Creek Trail (MP 60.8), which begins at the Otter Creek Campground; and the short trails at the James River Overlook (MP 63.6).
There aren’t many Blue Ridge Parkway waterfalls in this area. But there is a lovely cascade on the backside of Otter Lake, the twin streams of Wigwam Falls at the Yankee Horse Ridge Overlook (MP 34), and the stunning Crabtree Falls is just 6.3 miles off the BRP at Milepost 27.
2. Explore Downtown Lexington VA
You don’t have to be a hardcore history buff to get a kick out of exploring downtown Lexington VA, but it certainly helps.
The city of Lexington was established by the Virginia Assembly in 1777, and named for the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord (which marked the beginning of the American Revolution).
The small town was nearly destroyed by a fire in 1796, and it was bombarded during the Civil War by Union troops led by General David Hunter. Both Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are buried there.
Lexington is home to two historic colleges. Virginia Military Institute (established in 1839) was America’s first state military college, while Washington & Lee University (founded in 1749 as Augusta Academy) is one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States.
As a result, downtown Lexington is a unique blend of historic and modern, with the hip shops and trendy restaurants you’d expect from a college town, and lots of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s an exceptionally walkable area, but we found the best way to get insight into the history was to take a guided horse carriage tour, which we’ll discuss below.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Restaurants in Roanoke VA
3. Hike the Crabtree Falls Trail
Located 6 miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway at MP 27, Crabtree Falls VA is the highest of all vertical-drop cascading waterfalls east of the Mississippi. So it’s well worth making the 30-mile drive from Lexington.
The first overlook is just a few hundred feet from the parking lot on a gently sloped, well-maintained trail. But you’re really missing out if you don’t hike the entire 3-mile, moderately strenuous trail.
There are a total of 5 overlooks, 5 major cascades, and several smaller cascades that make up the 1200-foot waterfall, with spectacular views of the Tye River Valley once you reach the top.
From there you can continue another 1.2 miles to Crabtree Meadows, which is an amazing place for an afternoon picnic before hiking back down to the the parking lot.
4. Lexington Carriage Company Historical Tour
Lexington has a total land area of just 2.5 square miles, and the heart of Historic Downtown Lexington is essentially just 16 square blocks.
Offered daily from April 1 through October 31, the tours depart across the road from the Lexington Visitor Center at 106 E. Washington St. This is also a great place to get tips and a map of Downtown Lexington.
The slow clip-clop of the horses’ hooves will take you back in time as your guide regales you with stories of the area’s Revolutionary War, Civil War, and early 20th century history.
Sites covered along the way include many of our picks for the best things to do in Lexington VA, including the VMI and Washington & Lee campuses, Stonewall Jackson House, Lee Chapel, and Oak Grove Cemetery, as well as a gorgeous residential district dating from the 1820s to the 1880s.
5. Oak Grove Cemetery
Originally known as the Presbyterian Cemetery (which dates back to 1789), this Downtown Lexington cemetery was renamed the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in 1949.
But the Lexington City Council voted unanimously to change the name again in 2020, due to the divisive nature of having it named after the controversial Confederate general (who was buried there in 1863).
The name change came after the rise of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. And it happened despite a petition in opposition of the change, which garnered around 7,000 signatures.
Still, Jackson’s grave and statue remain in the historic cemetery, as do the remains of some 144 Confederate veterans, two Virginia Governors, and Margaret Junkin Preston (a.k.a. the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy”).
Free maps for a self-guided walking tour through the cemetery are available via the Historic Lexington website.
6. Sample Lexington Restaurants
But the restaurants in Lexington do offer a nice balance of upscale foodie-friendly fare and more budget-friendly options that appeal to the town’s nearly 4,000 college students.
The best Lexington restaurants tap into the abundance of farm-to-table ingredients grown in the area, such as grits and grains from historic Wade’s Mill in Raphine, meats from Seven Hills Farm in Lynchburg, and maple syrup from Puffenbarger’s Sugar Orchard.
Our favorite upscale restaurants in Lexington included the chef-driven cuisine at Haywood’s Piano Bar & Grill (part of The Georges Inn), the intimate elegance of Bistro On Main, and classic Southern favorites found at the ever-popular Southern Inn.
Much like the college town of Boone NC, Lexington’s more affordable restaurants also offer excellent options. Don’t miss the breakfast sandwiches and donuts at Pure Eats, the delectable desserts of the Sweet Treats Bakery, and the burgers and retro kitsch of the Pink Cadillac Diner in Natural Bridge.
7. Stonewall Jackson House
Stonewall Jackson is arguably the most divisive leader of the Confederacy.
He’s revered in some circles for his military strategy and devotion to the “Lost Cause,” but widely reviled for his enslavement of Africans and his role in a seditious insurrection that left more than 700,000 Americans dead.
In the name of racial justice, his great-great-grandsons successfully urged the city of Richmond VA to remove its Stonewall Jackson monument in 2017. And in 2020, the Virginia Military Institute’s Board of Visitors voted to remove its prominent statue of Jackson after allegations of racism at the state-supported military school.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the Stonewall Jackson House Museum (which is part of VMI’s Museum System) focuses more on his life as a professor, church leader, businessman, and community leader in the decade before the Civil War, when he lived in Lexington and taught at VMI.
Tours of the historic home are offered on the hour and half-hour, with the last tour of the day starting at 4PM. Tickets are $10 for adults, and $7 for kids ages 6 to 17. Kids under 6 and VMI cadets and staff are free.
8. University Chapel & Museum
Established in 1749 as Augusta Academy, Washington & Lee University was later renamed after George Washington (who made an enormous contribution in 1796) and Confederate General Robert E. Lee (who served as president of the college for five years until his death in 1870).
But just as Stonewall Jackson’s name was removed from Oak Grove Cemetery in 2020, this landmark was renamed from Lee Chapel by the university’s board of trustees in 2021.
The university discontinued a school holiday known as “Founders Day,” which was held on Lee’s birthday, and announced a complete redesign of the chapel and museum in order to, “restore its unadorned design and physically separate the auditorium from the Lee family crypt and Lee memorial sculpture.”
The chapel, which opened in 1868, is a U.S. National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum was installed in the basement in 1928.
The museum includes an exhibition on the university’s history, a changing exhibition gallery, and a museum shop. Visitors can also see Lee’s 1870 president’s office and Edward Valentine’s Recumbent Lee statue.
9. Tour the VMI Museum
Created in 1856 with the acceptance of a Revolutionary War musket, the VMI Museum was the first public museum in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
A must-see for anyone interested in the 183-year history of the Virginia Military Institute, the museum is home to some 15,000 artifacts of US military history.
Many of the museum’s exhibits relate to famous alumni and/or staff, including the mounted hide of Stonewall Jackson’s favorite horse, a VMI belt worn by WWII General George Patton, and seven Medals of Honor.
There’s also an impressive antique firearm collection assembled by Henry M. Stewart Jr. (VMI Class of 1935) over the course of 50 years, many of which are one-of-a-kind or the only surviving example of its type.
The total collection includes over 800 pieces, and includes the air rifle carried by Lewis and Clark during their 1803 Northwest Expedition.
Visitors interested in taking a free 40- to 50-minute, cadet-guided walking tour of the historic VMI Post can gather in the lobby of the VMI Museum (2nd floor, Memorial Hall) at 12 noon daily.
10. Wade’s Mill
Located about 19 miles north of Lexington in Raphine VA, Wade’s Mill is the oldest operating commercial grist mill in the state of Virginia.
It was built in 1750 by Scots-Irish immigrant Joseph Kennedy, who called it “Captain Kennedy’s Mill.” The name changed after the mill was purchased by the Wade family in 1882.
Now included on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, Wade’s Mill offers three floors of historic milling equipment, museum displays, gardens, and picnic areas.
But it’s not just a historical landmark! Wade’s Mill still stone-grinds premium and heirloom grains into 100% natural, preservative-free flours, grits, cornmeals, and specialty mixes, which are available in the Mill Shop and from their online store.
This 272-year-old Virginia attraction offers free admission and is open Thursday to Sunday from April to mid-December. But note that the waterwheel and historic equipment only run on Saturdays and Sundays.
11. Visit Statons Creek Falls
Best Things to Do in Natural Bridge VA
12. The Caverns at Natural Bridge
Though not quite as expansive as Luray Caverns in Luray VA or Grand Caverns just north of Waynesboro VA, the Caverns at Natural Bridge are still worthy of a visit for anyone making day trips to the area.
Discovered in the 1890s and opened to the public in 1977, the cavern extends 34 stories beneath the Earth’s surface, making this the deepest commercial cavern on the east coast.
Located just a few minutes by car (or a 15-minute walk) from Natural Bridge State Park, the Caverns offers guided tours that last about 45 minutes
There are several noteworthy rooms you’ll visit along the way, including special features such as small mirrored “lakes” and the massive stalactites and stalagmites of the Canyon Room.
Tours generally start every hour on the hour, and admission ranges from $12 for kids ages 3 to 12 to $18 for adults, with a 10% discount for military members with ID.
READ MORE: The 7 Best Caves & Caverns in North Carolina
13. Dinosaur Kingdom II
But this Virginia dinosaur park in Natural Bridge is one of the weirdest ones we’ve ever visited. And it all starts with the entryway, where a Confederate solider fights a T-Rex atop a vintage railroad car.
The story behind the attraction is that it’s 1864, and Union General David Hunter has raided Lexington and is moving towards Lynchburg. Union scouts discover that their cannon fire has awakened prehistoric creatures that have been cryogenically hibernating in Natural Bridge VA for millions of years.
The Union Army decides to use the giant reptiles as “weapons of mass destruction against the South. But you will soon see that not everything goes as planned…”
In short, Dinosaur Kingdom II feels a bit like Jurassic Park on hallucinogenics. There are 30 fiberglass dinosaurs attacking Union soldiers, with a cameo by Abraham Lincoln and a gorilla wearing a cowboy hat.
Created in 2005 by local artist Mark Cline, the place is a weird, wild, one-of-a-kind experience!
14. Natural Bridge State Park
It’s named after a 215-foot high limestone formation, which towers over a gorge that was carved out over the course of centuries by Cedar Creek.
Dedicated as one of Virginia’s newest state parks in 2016, the park has been listed as a US National Historic Landmark since 1988. George Washington once carved his initials in the famous rock, and Thomas Jefferson bought the property from King George III.
Recently recognized as an International Dark Sky Park, the state park offers 7 miles of easy hiking trails. But the best is the Cedar Creek Trail, which goes under the Natural Bridge, past a model Monacan Indian Village, and leads to Lace Falls (one of two waterfalls in the park).
Other fun activities here include fishing, having a picnic (there are numerous shelters), and a Children’s Discovery Area located just a short drive away from the Natural Bridge Visitor Center.
15. Virginia Safari Park
Not to be confused with the Natural Bridge Zoo, the Virginia Safari Park is the only drive-through safari in Virginia. But the 180-acre property also includes a 10-acre walk-through section as well.
The experience starts at the ticket window, where you have the option of buying buckets of food for feeding the 1000+ free-roaming animals who call the safari park home.
Your best bet is to stock up heavily or be prepared to ration carefully, or you’ll run out of food less than halfway through (as we did).
Once you drive through the gates, be prepared for a gauntlet of alpacas, llamas, ostriches, deer, wildebeests, elk, antelope, bison, and more approaching any open windows in search of tasty handouts.
It can be a little overwhelming at first. But once you get past the initial rush of animals, you’ll see an incredible array of exotic species, from Japanese Sika deer and Bactrian camels to Himalayan yaks and African rhinos.
The walk-through section allows you get up close to goats, penguins, kangaroos, and giraffes. And if you buy food sticks for the budgies, there are great selfie opportunities like the one above!
Lexington VA Cabin Rentals
Steeles Tavern Manor
With two colleges in the heart of town, there are plenty of hotels in Lexington VA to choose from. But if you want that “getting away from it all” feeling, head 17 minutes north to Steeles Tavern Manor.
Ranked #1 on TripAdvisor as the best Bed & Breakfast in Virginia, the 106-year-old manor house sits on 50 pastoral acres. The bucolic setting includes a spring-fed pond, meandering creek, in-ground pool, and beautiful views.
Owners Dana and Trey Tumminello are exquisite hosts who serve up the best breakfast we had in Rockbridge County. They source their ingredients directly from Shenandoah Valley farms and markets, with eggs from Redbud Ridge Farm, bacon from Buffalo Creek Farm, and grains from Wades Mill.
But as much as we loved the B&B itself, their Shenandoah Valley cabin rentals provided a more intimate and romantic experience. They have 5 cabins: We stayed in the pet-friendly Pond View Cabin, where we watched cows grazing in the pasture behind the pond while soaking in the hot tub and sipping coffee.
Though we only spent one night in the cabin, it’s a place we’ll gladly return to the next time we visit Lexington & Natural Bridge. –by Bret Love; lead image courtesy LexingtonVirginia.com