One of my favorite parts of taking road trips, are the stops we make along the way to break up the monotony of sitting in a car for hours at a time. With just a little bit of research, one can find spectacular regional attractions in just about any part of the country to drop in for a quick tour. On one of our recent trips through the Appalachians of Virginia, we made it a point to travel along Hwy 23 through the town of Duffield, making a stop to view, “Americas Eighth Wonder of the World,” Natural Tunnel State Park.
The tunnel is a naturally formed cave that is so incredibly large at 200 feet wide, 80 feet tall, and 838 feet long, that CSX and Northern Suffolk run a train line through the tunnel. Upon visiting this natural wonder for the first time, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan gave it its unofficial motto, the “Eighth Wonder of the World." Its creation dates back over a million years, to when acidic groundwater slowly began eroding the porous limestone bedrock. Remnants of this erosion can still be seen today as Stock Creek continues to flow through the tunnel, slowly eroding the bedrock below the train line.
A quick five minute drive off the highway, winds its way through a deep gorge, bringing you to the gates of this state park. As you drive up the hill towards the Chairlift Area, look up to see visitors legs dangling above as the lift passes overhead and down the hill. A roundtrip ticket to ride the lift costs $4. Alternatively, you could hike the trail down from the visitors center. Its a short distance down a steep hill and takes only a few minutes, but for the novelty of it, we jumped at the opportunity to ride the chairlift down. I don’t do well with heights, but the lift ride was smooth and it never gets too high off the ground.
One really gets an opportunity to appreciate how deep this gorge is from the vantage point of the chairlift. After a short five minute ride, we landed at the lower lift, situated on the canyon floor. From here you walk out onto a boardwalk above Stock Creek, which runs through the tunnel itself. An overlook beside the lift provides visitors with an overhead view of the railroad bridge and platform that span the area between the tunnel. The smaller tunnel underneath the overlook, was made to accommodate the approach into the natural cave, via a trestle bridge spanning Stock Creek.
Following along the boardwalk, one reaches the railroad crossing onto the platform built to accommodate train passengers up until the 1940’s. Before then, the trains carried passengers between Bristol, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, often making stops here to allow guests the chance to view the caverns up close. The visitors center beside the chairlift was originally a lodge built to house guests, before the state bought the property and repurposed the building. In the early 1900’s, President Roosevelt rode through here while doing research for his book, The Winning of the West.
The history of Natural Tunnel goes way, way back. According to Native American folklore, the cliff above the tunnel is the original Lovers Leap. As legend has it, a Cherokee woman and a Shawnee warrior fell in love and wanted to marry despite laws forbidding a marriage between the two tribes. Forced to abandon their dreams, one early morning, as the sun rose above the mountains, the couple leapt to their death here, in hopes of being reunited in the afterlife.
Daniel Boone is reported to be one of the first settlers to have come across this place in the late 1700’s. Like most other caves in the region, soldiers from the Confederacy mined saltpeter from the mouth of the cave during the Civil War. Evidence of the excavations can still be seen on the cliff walls from high above along the Lovers Leap Trail. Several of these caves, Bolling Cave and Natural Tunnel Caverns, offer underground tours throughout the busy season.
If you’re lucky, you might get a chance to be here while a train rolls by and enters the tunnel. The train line that runs through the tunnel is currently active and rolls by several times a day carrying coal from mines in Virginia and eastern Kentucky, to power plants and ports across the southeastern United States. A ranger informed us that we had missed a train that passed 45 minutes earlier and on average they get up to ten trains rolling through per day.
All said and done, we spent an hour wandering around this area of the park and enjoyed a leisurely lunch on one of the benches in the visitors center. I would like to return someday to view the caves and hike the trail above the tunnel cliff, but this short visit was a great introduction to the beauty of Virginias State Parks.