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In the southwest corner of the state, Natural Tunnel State Park is an underground wonder
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In the southwest corner of the state, Natural Tunnel State Park is an underground wonder

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DUFFIELD—It’s a warm fall afternoon at the southwestern tip of Virginia, so it feels a bit odd to be climbing onto the sort of chairlift typically found on ski slopes.

But I'm not destined for a mountaintop. The slowly descending lift is taking me down to see one of the state’s natural wonders.

That’s the biggest draw here at Natural Tunnel State Park in Scott County, 13 miles north of Gate City and about 20 miles north of Kingsport, Tenn. It’s a naturally created tunnel that for more than 100 years has had freight cars full of coal whistling through on the railroad tracks.

The creation of Natural Tunnel began more than a million years ago in the early glacial period when groundwater bearing carbonic acid percolated through crevices and slowly dissolved surrounding limestone and dolomite bedrock.

Then, what is now known as Stock Creek was probably diverted underground to continue carving the tunnel slowly over many centuries.

Decades before the property became a state park, it was operated as a tourist attraction by a group of owners who, the story goes, tried to unload it to the folks who owned Natural Bridge. When that failed, the private owners took a pass at selling it to a group in Williamsburg, who also passed.

The state bought the tunnel and 100 acres surrounding it in 1968, and it became a state park in 1972, when a campground and picnic area were added.

These days, it’s a 1,000-acre parcel with two visitor centers. The park also has two campgrounds, 14 cabins, four yurts, an education and conference center, seven miles of hiking trails and an outdoor swimming pool.

There's also the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center that’s offsite in Duffield. The museum and visitor center sits directly below Kane Gap, the space that hundreds of thousands of settlers passed through on their way west.

But most folks arriving at Natural Tunnel do what I did, head straight down to look at this marvel of natural geological engineering.

It’s a quick but safely slow ride down on the chairlift to a boardwalk that gets you close enough to take a look at the railroad tracks that come winding out of the tunnel, and the naturally created passageway itself.

Park manager Robert Chapman said most visitors are mesmerized by the tunnel, which curves like an S through the mountain.

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“It’s 850 feet long and in different spots 75 to 100 feet tall and about 75 feet wide,” said Chapman. “One day a year—the third Saturday in July—we work with the railroad to close the tracks and allow people to walk through the tunnel.”

People hike along the shallow creek on one side of the tunnel, far enough clear of the track that it allows them a better look at things as they learn more about how the opening was formed and the ecology of the area.

“There was once a railroad stop here at the bottom, and while it was a tourist destination owned privately, there was a pavilion where they had dances and parties,” Chapman said.

Over the years, the railroad operated under the names South Atlantic & Ohio Railroad, Virginia & Southwestern Railroad, Southern Railway, Norfolk Southern and CSX.

“In different programs, we also talk about the Lovers Leap legend here,” he said. “It says that once, there were young lovers, a Cherokee maiden and a Shawnee warrior, who like Romeo and Juliet, couldn’t be together. To be together in the afterlife, as the sun rose, they supposedly leapt to their deaths from one of the overlooks here.”

Chapman said the park offers another program based on a different geological feature: caves.

“We take people into a natural cave to experience true darkness, and to learn about how they were created and to talk about how to safely navigate there,” he said. “We do have gates on the cave openings, for safety’s sake.”

Visitors who want to canoe or kayak are taken to the nearby Clinch River for that experience.

Aside from the historical footnote of being called “The Eighth Wonder of the World" by William Jennings Bryan, the spot has another important historical tie: it sits along what became known as the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail, which hordes of people looking for land and a better life took on their way to Kentucky and beyond.

The park’s website notes that, “Boone was probably among the first men of European descent to see the tunnel, in that the tunnel lies along the original route he took westward. However, no one wrote of it until Lt. Col. Stephen H. Long explored the site in 1831 and published an article in a geology journal in 1832.”

The nearby Daniel Boone Wilderness Center is a mix of park store, meeting space and museum, with a meandering trail of an exhibit that tries to communicate how difficult and dangerous it was to stay alive on treks beset with attacks from Native Americans and challenges from bad weather.

“Things were so dangerous that there were primitive structures known as blockhouses about a day’s travel apart along the trail,” Chapman said. “When there was the danger of attacks, travelers would get to them and lock themselves in, using openings in the walls to fire at attackers. They’d stay there until enough settlers joined them to make it safe to travel to the next one.”

He said people often compare his park with Natural Bridge.

“Our response is that while Natural Bridge is one slice, we’re the whole loaf,” he said with a smile.

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

rhedelt@freelancestar.com

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Here for more than four decades, I'm a feature columnist out and about seeing what people are thinking and sharing what interesting things they're doing.

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