DUFFIELD, Va. (WJHL) – In a little more than a mile, the trails at Natural Tunnel State Park offer scenic views at cliffs with 450-foot drops, a visit across an active rail line and a straight-shot view into a tunnel that has been explored by settlers since the early 1800s.
This Virginia wonder become home to a rail line back in 1832 when the South Atlantic and Ohio Railroad arrived and laid tracks through the tunnel. In 1906, the Southern Railway acquired the tracks, creating a passenger line. Today, after the increase in personal owned vehicles, and a decline in the need for railroad transportation, the line is mostly only used to haul coal.
There are many hiking options at Natural Tunnel S.P. While the most popular is undoubtedly the one that takes visitors to the opening of the tunnel, other trails lead you to a birds-eye view of the opening and the amphitheater wall. Senior Ranger Rachel Blevins said the Lovers Leap trail offers some great views, and park officials, “always offer this as a really short hike for those that maybe can’t hike down to the tunnel, because they can still see it from here.”
While hiking up to the Lovers Leap Overlook, you will pass two separate overlooks before getting the actual to the destination. From Lovers Leap you can see the more than 450-foot tall amphitheater wall, and the tunnel opening.
According to Rachel, the overlook has a tragic Indian legend behind its name. She said, “The legend, so be it, (is about) the Native American tribes, the Cherokee Tribes, and a Shawnee Tribe. There was a Cherokee warrior and a Shawnee maiden, and supposedly they fell in love, but their tribes kind of banned them from being together, and so they wanted to kind of to solidify their love for one another. And they decided to leap off of this ledge… so they could be together forever.”
From the Lovers Leap Overlook you can either decide to head back the way you came or finish the trail in a loop fashion. If you decide to go the loop route, you will continue to follow the yellow blazes until you come to a fork in the trail. At that point, you will begin following the orange blazes, which will take you through the woods and back to the parking lot.
Once you complete the hike, or if you just want to head straight there, there are two options for getting to the opening of the tunnel. Visitors can either walk down the 0.3 mile-long trail or take the chair lift down; both options also work for getting back up. While making your way to the tunnel opening, you will pass a field of wildflowers that the rangers have been working hard to keep healthy.
Once you get down to the bottom, you will have to cross over an active rail line which, as mentioned above, mainly hauls coal now. Rachel says the most common question they get at the park is, ‘what is the train schedule’ and she says park officials don’t know. The schedule varies week-by-week, so if visitors get to experience the train it’s a lucky surprise. However there is one day, and one day only, that the park knows the schedule. It’s Rail Road Day, which is the last Saturday in July. This provides visitors the only chance to walk through the tunnel on the tracks because no trains are scheduled that day.
The Natural Tunnel itself has been referred to before as the 8th Wonder of the World. According to Rachel, the tunnel is 850 feet long, and in places, it’s about 100 feet tall. The entire tunnel is naturally formed except in one spot. That is where the railroad company had to make the tunnel bigger for the train to fit.
While the tunnel doesn’t look like it, Rachel said it is continuously changing as water erodes through crevasses and holes. Rachel also said the original tunnel got started as a rail line when people began looking for, “a more direct route to get from point A to point B and having this tunnel here was kind of an easy answer. It was already a threw passageway and so they built the tracks, and then that was in the early 1900’s so for the next few decades or so they helped passengers though and that was their way to get from Bristol out towards Big Stone and then on. Then once they invented the car, less need for transportation for people and so they kind hauled coal and lumber and things of that sort.”
Following your visit to the entrance of the tunnel, for $4 you can take the chair lift up. That lift has been at the park since 1989, and offers visitors who may have mobility issues a chance to still see the natural wonder.