Travel

A Train Runs Through It: A Guide to Natural Tunnel State Park

This tucked-away Virginia retreat offers much more than a pretty hole in the ground

A tunnel through a mountain with train tracks running into it.

Photo: Courtesy of The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation


Many a tunnel has been blasted through many a mountain to facilitate the advance of trains. But in the pointy, southwestern corner of Virginia, sandwiched between the eastern reaches of Tennessee and Kentucky, nature undertook the task more than a million years in advance of the advent of the railroad. In what is now Scott County, ground water slowly, inexorably carved through a limestone-dolomite ridge, creating a conveniently locomotive-proportioned passage running 850 feet to the other side. Nature being nature, it managed to do so in dramatically scenic fashion. Famed American politician and orator William Jennings Bryan declared, with perhaps just a smidge of hyperbole, the tunnel to be “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” 

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It wasn’t until 1893 that humans got around to laying tracks through that wonder. Several Norfolk Southern and CSX freight trains a day still run on them, loaded with coal and lumber. We’re allowed to view this juxtaposition of natural and man-made marvels because the state of Virginia purchased the surrounding hundred acres in 1968, made them an official state park in 1972, and expanded the park to 1,100 acres that include trails, cabins, yurts, a re-created frontier blockhouse, and an active outdoor performance venue.

“I’m a little biased, but I think Natural Tunnel State Park is a hidden gem,” says Robert Chapman, who has managed the park since 2012. “We get people from all over the world who come to see the tunnel. There also are many other reasons to visit the park, and the area itself has so much rich history and culture.”

A Day at Natural Tunnel State Park

photo: Courtesy of The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation

Tunnel vision: A steep, switchbacky trail leads down to the tunnel area, but to add a bit more of a thrill to the experience, opt for the only chairlift ride in a Virginia state park—unless, that is, you’re acrophobic. The swaying 1980s-era chairs descend 550 feet over seven minutes at a rather precipitous angle, especially as they clear tower two for the final approach. Upon exiting, follow a short boardwalk that crosses the tracks to an observation area. You’ll see why the tunnel’s southern end is often called “the amphitheater,” as it is situated at the base of a concave, ten-story tall slab of bare rock crowned with trees and sky. When ready, hop the somewhat less breath-catching chairlift ride back up. The longer you linger, of course, the more likely you are to be standing just a few feet away when a locomotive chugs, smokes, and squeezes through the tunnel. (Wish you could too? On just one day each year, typically the third Saturday of July, Norfolk Southern holds the trains, allowing park visitors to enter the tunnel.)

photo: Courtesy of The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation

Hike breakdown: Most of Natural Tunnel’s nine trails traverse the ridges and valleys around the tunnel itself, including Stock Creek Trail, which climbs to an elevated view of the tunnel’s less picturesque northern end, and the popular Lovers’ Leap Trail, where legend holds that a forbidden romance prompted a Shawnee warrior and a Cherokee maiden to jump to their deaths. For a longer hike, take the forested, two-mile Purchase Ridge Trail, which connects to a trail accessing the main cluster of cabins. Be on the lookout for deer, turkeys, foxes, and birds, including cardinals, nuthatches, and four species of woodpecker.

Points of historical interest: The westward Wilderness Road blazed by Daniel Boone and other pre-revolutionary pioneers came right through this area. Learn more about that frontier period by visiting the park’s re-creation of a blockhouse, basically a log mini-fortress where traveling settlers could seek refuge. At a satellite facility in nearby Duffield, Virginia, the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center takes an even deeper dive, with a museum and special programs related to the era.

Lodging: Overnighting at the park is worth considering, especially if you’re attending one of the bluegrass concerts (such as Pickin’ in the Park, held on summer Sundays, and the Papa Joe Smiddy Mountain Music Festival in September) or local theater productions at the park’s four-thousand-seat outdoor pavilion. Having to bring your own sheets and towels isn’t super convenient, but the fourteen cabins make up for it with gas log fireplaces and huge porches complete with rocking chairs. If you’re meeting up with the whole family, reunion-style, there’s even a six-bedroom lodge that sleeps up to sixteen and has a roomy kitchen for whipping up big meals.

photo: Courtesy of The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation


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