Natural Tunnel State Park in Duffield, Virginia

Our destination for Thursday was Natural Tunnel State Park in Duffield, Virginia.  We have been exploring the things that are around Cumberland Gap.  When we work at the Visitors Center we are often asked about other things in the area, so we try to visit as many as we can.  Natural Tunnel was a surprise and a delight.

In order to get there, we drove on US 58 east through the valley.  We drove along the base of the mountains to our north and could see another ridge of mountains to the south.  It was a gorgeous drive and we passed through several small towns along the way.  The mountains here are carved from sandstone and limestone so there are lots of caves and interesting rock formations.

Natural Tunnel State Park preserves a natural tunnel that was formed when a creek started flowing through a fault in the rock wall.  Over time, the creek formed a tunnel that is 850 feet long.  Sinkholes at each end of the tunnel collapsed and formed the natural amphitheater that you can see today.  The walls of the amphitheater are 300 feet tall.  Another, smaller tunnel goes through the other end of the amphitheater.  A railroad was put through the tunnel in 1890 to reach the coal mines just beyond.  Norfolk and Southern continues to transport coal along these tracks.

Chairlift to the tunnel

There are two ways to get down to see the tunnel.  You can ride the chairlift or hike the trail.  The chairlift is $5.  There is also a trail that goes down into the amphitheater.  The employees kept stressing how steep the trail was, but they get paid to run the chairlift.  Tom and I decided to hike down.  If we decided it was too steep we could ride the chairlift back.

Although the trail was steep, it was also very short.  There were only four switchbacks and several sets of steps.  I kept track because I like to know how much more climbing I have to do when I am coming back out.  The trail was only 0.3 miles so it was very short.  We reached the bottom in no time and were immediately impressed by the view of the natural amphitheater.  It didn’t look real.  It was as if a giant had a model train set and put a tunnel in a mountain, then scooped out a viewing area.

Tom and I followed the boardwalk path and peered into the tunnel.  You can’t walk through the tunnel.  There is the creek on one side and railroad tracks on another side.  The creek looked like a fun place to play, but there are signs everywhere telling you to stay on the boardwalk.  We couldn’t see through the tunnel – it is too long and it curves, but it was cool to look into the opening.

We continued along the boardwalk to the Carter Cabin, believed to be the oldest house in Scott County, Virginia.  The cabin was originally in another location, but it was moved to its current, protected location beside the creek.  It is a lovely location but would not have been a good place for a homestead.

Carter Cabin

Before heading up to the top, we talked for a couple of minutes to the two young men who were working at the chairlift.  We asked them if trains still went through the tunnel and they told us yes.  A train went through around 11 a.m. to load up with coal and then returned around 2 p.m.

Having seen everything at the bottom, we headed back up the path.  It was steep, but, again, it was very short.  I huffed and puffed a bit but made it to the top without any problem.  We continued around the Visitors Center and took a short path to an overlook.  When we got to the overlook, we could hear a train whistle in the distance.  I looked at my watch and realized that it was 2 p.m.  The train was returning with its load of coal.  Tom and I eagerly watched until the train came in sight and moved through the tunnel.  At the very end was a caboose, which was the icing on the cake.

Train going through the tunnel from the overlook

We enjoyed our visit to Natural Tunnel State Park very much.  It was a fascinating place to visit and we will be sure to recommend it to visitors to the area.