With a history dating back to 1750, Natural Tunnel has an illustrious story, which is best chronicled in Tony Scales’ book, “Natural Tunnel: Nature’s Marvel in Stone.” The Commonwealth purchased Natural Tunnel from the Natural Tunnel and Caverns and Chasm Corporation, which incorporated in 1928. Over the years, the company made numerous improvements to the area including construction of the Natural Tunnel Lodge in 1939. The Lodge included a restaurant, gift shop and eight guest rooms. According to Scales’ book, the rooms were “fitted with the latest style and designs in furnishings. Each room had a Beautyrest mattress, individual tile bath and circulating hot water for the comfort of the occupant.”
The original property purchased by the Commonwealth only included the lodge and 100 surrounding acres. Four years later in 1971, Natural Tunnel was officially opened to the public as a park and included a campground and picnic area. The Natural Tunnel Lodge was later converted into a visitor’s center and museum.
For those unfamiliar with Natural Tunnel, its most prominent feature is the 850-foot long and 10-story high tunnel. What makes the tunnel even more fascinating is that a railroad has run through the formation since the late 1880s, carrying both coal and passengers. Today, Norfolk-Southern owns and operates the track, with coal trains passing daily through the tunnel.
The tunnel was naturally carved through a limestone ridge over thousands of years. William Jennings Bryan called it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Additional scenic features include a wide chasm between steep stone walls surrounded by several pinnacles.
In the last 48 years, the park has seen tremendous growth and encompasses almost 1,000 acres.
One of the park’s most significant additions was created in 1989 - an alpine chairlift that takes visitors down to the floor of the tunnel. Norfolk Southern Railroad later donated funds to construct a boardwalk that takes visitors almost to the mouth of the cave.
For many years, visitors were allowed to walk through the tunnel, but railroad safety concerns brought an end to that practice. Limited access to the tunnel is still available through the park’s popular “Stockcreek Passage” hike, which takes visitors through Stock Creek into the mouth of Natural Tunnel and along the creek bed.
Additional amenities to Natural Tunnel today include an amphitheater, swimming pool with a 100-foot slide, two campgrounds, 14 cabins, a visitor center, camp store, and eight miles of hiking trails. The camping area has 34 water and electric hookups and four primitive Yurts, which were built two years ago.
Built in 1998, the Cove Ridge Center serves both as an educational center and multi-purpose meeting area with kitchen facilities that can accommodate large groups. Adjacent to Cove Ridge are the Powell and Clinch Lodges that can house 48 visitors.
Through a partnership with the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association, Natural Tunnel oversees two important historical interpretative centers along the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail - the John Anderson Blockhouse and the newly-opened Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretative Center. Built on a knoll overlooking Rye Cove, the Blockhouse is open to visitors on the weekends May through October.
Located at 371 Technology Trail in Duffield, the Daniel Boone Interpretative Center is open every day in the summer from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with free admission. Visitors receive a great visualization tour of what it was like for the thousands of migrants who traveled westward on the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail.
Throughout the summer, Natural Tunnel offers varied daily programming, from caving, kayaking and hiking to star gazing. The last weekend of the month during the summer, the park features its popular “Lighting of the Tunnel” with music down on the boardwalk at the mouth of the tunnel. The last Sunday is Pickin’ in the Park where visitors can hear talented local musicians.
Featured annual events include The Frontier Muster & Trade Faire, Railroad Day, Harvest Festival, Papa Joe Smiddy Mountain Music Fest, and the Christmas holiday “Lighting of the Tunnel.” Natural Tunnel State Park is a short drive from Kingsport and the surrounding Tri-Cities and Southwest Virginia.
Natural Tunnel is also one of Scott County Tourism’s “LOVE” Partners in the “50 Years of Love” celebration. From now until August 10, the park is offering a dollar off the chairlift ride on Fridays ONLY. Make sure to mention the word “Love” to receive the discount.
For more information, visit www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/natural-tunnel.
Community contributor Pam Cox is Director of Scott County Tourism.