The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.John Muir
Mountaineer and father of our National Parks, John Muir was an early conservationist, a naturalist, an environmental philosopher, and a lover of mountains. His contributions to the preservation of the American wilderness are most evident on the West Coast, specifically Yosemite and Sequoia National Park, and of course Muir Woods National Monument on the California/Oregon border to Big Sur. His love of nature, especially the mountains, endures because of the deep spiritual connection he felt and so beautifully conveyed in his writings. This is sincerely the very tip of the iceberg and I implore you to read more about “John of the Mountains” at SierraClub.org.
My family is blessed to live in Virginia where a relatively short drive can take you through all five beautiful regions; from the coastal plains of the Chesapeake Bay through the rolling hills of the Piedmont, to the breathtaking Blueridge and valleys beyond, and finally the Appalachian Plateau. We’ve made numerous trips through this beautiful Commonwealth, often chasing geocaches and camping at each of the Virginia State Parks. There is something about seeing the mountains appear on the horizon around Charlottesville that makes my heart flutter – without any question in my mind, the mountains feel like home.
As we’ve visited each State Park over the years, several have landed squarely on a very short bucket list because of the distance we’d have to tow the camper and the length of the trip as compared to the boys’ attitude… and with a teenager and pre-teen in the house, that particular consideration is an integral part of setting the right tone for an enjoyable trip. “I never saw a discontented tree,” (Muir, of course), but we’ve seen some seriously discontented teens in the backseat. We know that a long trip out better be good, and the VSP’s have yet to fail us. Natural Tunnel State Park has held the top spot on that bucket list for a number of years, so we made sure the trip out was worth it. I want to tell you all about it!
About Natural Tunnel State Park
Though it’s not technically the most Western Virginia State Park, it’s awfully close and within driving distance of Wilderness Road State Park, which holds that title. The park is most famous for its… wait for it.. natural tunnel, an 838 foot long tunnel and cave so large that the South Atlantic and Ohio railroad constructed tracks and began using it for passenger trains and eventually coal transport starting back in 1893. The tunnel itself began forming in the pleistocene era, or as we know it “the Ice Age”, when a small river flowed through the limestone and carved the famous tunnel over the millennia. Now a bubbling body of water called “Stock Creek“, the creek bed often gives way to hints of the past with the discovery of prehistoric fossils.
The tunnel itself truly is a breathtaking sight. It’s so awe-inspiring that the 41st Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, referred to it as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” But that’s not the only cool history associated with the park. The Appalachian region is chock full of history, most notably tales of the very famous frontiersman, Daniel Boone. Boone was a pioneer most noted for his exploration and settlement of the Appalachian Mountains and service on the Virginia House of Delegates, and is thought to be the first European to have seen Natural Tunnel in the 18th century. Exciting, right? There’s also a well known legend of a young Cherokee woman and her Shawnee warrior who fell in love and hoped to marry, but their bond was forbidden by their tribes. It’s said that they jumped to their deaths together from the highest pinnacle at Natural Tunnel, a site now known as Lover’s Leap.
Natural Tunnel officially became a Virginia State Park in 1967 and opened for the public in the early 1970’s, but it’s been a tourist attraction for well over a century. It boasts beautiful views, seven trails with varying degrees of difficulty, a 1,600 foot boardwalk allowing an up-close view of the Tunnel itself, a chairlift down to the tunnel floor, two campgrounds, cabins, picnic areas, a visitor center, swimming pool (with a slide!), and easy access to more history at nearby attractions than you could possibly even begin to imagine. It is Virginia, afterall.
Located at 1420 Natural Tunnel Parkway in Duffield, Virginia (24244), it was a six hour drive from our home in Richmond, Virginia, and worth every last minute in the car. We broke up the drive by stopping for Geocaches along the way, checking counties and cities off the map as we went.
First Impressions of NTSP
Lined with small homes and the Red Stone Drive-In less than a mile from the park entrance, the Natural Tunnel Parkway gives you small clues to what awaits. Rock lined and winding, the road itself reminds you that you’re definitely in the mountain wilderness of the Appalachians.
When you drive into the park and to the Visitor Center, you pass directly beneath their chairlift system and as your children squeal with delight, your fear of heights screams “HARD PASS!” (You’ll get on it anyway, and I promise it isn’t as bad as it looks.)
What awaits you at the bottom of the chairlift is something truly special. The Natural Tunnel is a glorious natural wonder that cannot be described in any way that would do it justice. You are looking up at over ten stories of naturally carved rock, and as you stand there in amazement at the sheer extent of the thing, you are totally grounded by the sound of the creek as it passes by.
The trail up to rim of the gorge takes you to what is, by far, the most breathtaking scene in the Appalachians. No, I’m not kidding, I lost my breath and stood there with my mouth gaping open and tears welling up in my eyes. If you’ve read my Mother’s Musings of Westmoreland State Park post, you know that things like this turn me into a blubbering, spiritual mess. I want to find the nearest tree and squeeze it tight, or in this case, the nearest handrail and hold on for dear life. The heights are hard to describe – it completely changes your physical perspective to be atop something so vast and deep. You truly cannot tell how far away things are or how incredibly high up you are, which is probably a good thing because you’re towering over and looking down to the tunnel.
The view from Lover’s Leap on the opposite side of the gorge are just as incredible! This was a hike we took numerous times on our trip simply because we were in such disbelief that it could possibly be real.
Camping the Lover’s Leap Loop
Though there are cabins available, and when we return in the future we intend on renting one of those, the camp sites are fantastic! There are two campgrounds at NTSP; Cove View and Lover’s Leap. We stayed at the latter and were truly impressed with our specific site. Each site has its own campfire-ring grill, picnic table, and access to a nearby bathhouse. There is firewood and ice available at the camp store and from your campground host. There is a nearby volleyball net, horseshoe pits, and playground, easy access to the trails, and your standard electric and water hookup’s for those of us with campers. A short drive takes you to the Cove Ridge Center and the Olympic-sized swimming pool with its 100-foot long slide!
I mentioned the chairlifts already, but want to put your mind at ease were you starting to sweat a little bit… like I was. I have an extreme fear of heights so this wasn’t exactly on my to-do list; however, I have two persuasive children and decided that a Scout is brave (and desperate to save face) so I hopped on. Guys, it was awesome!
There’s so much to see on the trails at NTSP. The hike out to Carter Cabin provided us with a lot of photo ops, and there’s even a geocache to be found there.
The visitor center provides you with the history of the tunnel and its railroad system… as well as a great gift shop that the kids found most interesting.
The nearby Wilderness Road Blockhouse, built in 1775, is a fortified home that became a landmark and safe house for pioneers and settlers traveling along the Wilderness Road. 300,000 people passed through the Blockhouse, owned by John Anderson, on their journey through the Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky and further West. A replica now stands on the site of the original Anderson Blockhouse.
Side Trip to Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park
Northwest of Natural Tunnel, Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park in Big Stone Gap is a relatively short drive away. This particular VSP is special in that it’s a museum housed inside of an 1890’s Victorian hand-chiseled limestone mansion. The exhibits within focus on the exploration and development of Southwest Virginia from the pioneer era of the 1700’s to the mining boom in the late 1800’s. There are over 25,000 pieces and exhibits telling this important story, but you’ll find yourself absolutely lost in the all-original red oak interior architecture. There is, of course, a gift shop featuring local artisans and traditional crafts. Though you can’t camp there and there aren’t trails to be found, it is still a great destination with a friendly and knowledgeable staff, and well worth the trip! You can learn all about this beautiful building and the regional history at swvamuseum.org.
Feel like you’ve heard of Big Stone Gap before? Here’s why…
Side Trip to Wilderness Road State Park
We ventured out to visit Wilderness Road State Park thinking it would be a great opportunity to teach the kids more about Daniel Boone and the early history of Appalachia. Our youngest, a rising fifth-grader, had just completed his 4th grade Virginia Studies SOL’s covering most of what we hoped to learn there (and on this trip in general) and we were more than pleasantly surprised by what we found at Wilderness Road.
Located near the Cumberland Gap, it’s a 310 acre park around Wilderness Road. It’s home to the Karlan Mansion and a working replica of the original Martin’s Station fort.
Wilderness Road was built by Daniel Boone in the year 1775, an undertaking that seemed absolutely impossible to everyone BUT Boone as the path itself was treacherous. These days, the path is now made up of modern roads, but within the State Park, they have been preserved as they were. Martin’s Station is a working frontier fort with cabins named in honor of an early explorer of the region, Brigadier General Joseph Martin.
The nearby Karlan Mansion was built around 1870 on the farm of Robert Ely, but has since been named after its previous owners, Karl and Ann Harris. To locals, it is still referred to as Elydale. It can now be rented out for special events.
Stop in the Visitor Center to learn more about Boone and the settlement of Appalachia. The center has a gift shop, of course, and an award-winning docu-drama played throughout the day entitled “Wilderness Road: Spirit of a Nation” that you absolutely do not want to miss! You can rent bikes here to race the trails or pick-up a park map and start your adventure on foot.
Side Trip to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Straddling Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was a really cool spot to stop with the family. The Visitor Center features a museum, auditorium, and gift shop full of books. There, you can pick-up a park map and adventure out on your own OR take a guided tour of the Hensley Settlement and Gap Cave. We decided to venture out to Pinnacle Overlook. With an elevation of 2,440 feet, the pinnacle overlooks the gap and the view is astounding. Plus, to get there, you travel through two different states on foot!
When you get to Pinnacle Overlook, you are looking out over Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee! The sweeping view of our country is matched only by the natural arches and stone pillars, one in particular called Chimney Rock, along the way.
The Cumberland Gap plays an important role in the settlement of America, acting as a true passageway for pioneers to settle the West. Once home to buffalo and the Cherokee, what was once a game trail is now a destination for families and adventurers to delve deep into the history of the tri-states. Did you know that as many as 300,000 settlers came through the Cumberland Gap from 1775 to 1810? Now it’s home to over 80 miles of park trails full of interesting vistas and wildlife.
Side Trip to the Lincoln Memorial University Library and Museum
So. This side trip was more of a “HIT THE BRAKES, THAT’S ABE LINCOLN!” moment as we drove through Harrogate, Tennessee on the way home from our Cumberland Gap adventure. The Lincoln Memorial University Library and Museum was a real treat for our family, especially me as Lincoln was my first “celebrity crush” and remains my all-time favorite historical figure. Normally I only cry at the sight of wondrous nature, but as I stood before the artifacts of Lincoln’s life on the site of LMU, I got super choked up.
The Library and Museum are a department of the Lincoln Memorial University, founded by General O.O. Howard to be a learning aid for the Appalachian people, and certainly a tool for post Civil War reconciliation. After its founding, and because of it’s connection to the late, great Lincoln, the museum received an outpouring of support and donations. Now it’s a 21,000 square foot facility with more memorabilia than you can possibly imagine – so much so that the museum closed literally the day after we visited for a complete renovation to house all of the materials on display and in storage, and won’t reopen again until the end of 2020. Be sure to visit it then at 6965 Cumberland Gap Parkway, Harrogate, TN 37752. While you’re there, drive across the street and enjoy a sweet treat at the Frosty Mug Drive-In. Shout out to the best root beer float EVER!
Side Trip to the Bristol Caverns
First and foremost, Bristol is just too cool because it’s shared by both Virginia and Tennessee!
The Bristol Caverns were an awesome side trip we decided to make on the one day of our trip that decided to rain. Located on the Tennessee side of Bristol, the Caverns are an expansive underground treasure trove of stalagmites, stalactites, arches, and columns. Owned by a sweet family, who also provide an entertaining tour of the underground stone system, it’s a truly (as they put it) majestic experience.
Interestingly, these caverns were used by native warriors as an escape route from local pioneers! It’s hard to imagine navigating the caverns at a time where the walkways were unpaved and the chambers unlit.
Another quick shout-out to the girl at the Bristol McD’s for getting us the caffeine we so desperately needed that day AND for the reminder to Do A Good Turn Daily.
Catching Smileys – Geocaching
We always find ways to squeeze caching into our adventures, especially those that take us to new and interesting places.
The Virginia State Parks offer up a Geocaching Adventure Program, and almost every park publishes one new cache per year. The 2019 series, People of the Parks, highlights the park history through collector cards highlighting the Civilian Conservation Corps and other people who helped make the parks what they are. Adventurers who set out to find these special caches can log their hikes and finds on the Virginia State Parks Adventures Page and earn fun prizes for completing 5, 10, 20, and finally all of the parks in the system.
Here’s a tip for families who visit these parks regularly; each year the State Parks host the Get Outdoors! Challenge from mid-May (National Kids to Parks Day) through the end of June (National Get Outdoors Month). Folks that visit five different State Parks in that time period can log those visits on the Adventures Page and earn a free annual Park Passport which covers your parking fees at every Park for an entire year.
A Mother’s Musings
The saying “the days are long but the years are short” is hands-down the most accurate piece of parenting wisdom. Summer days seem especially long, yet those months fly by. It’s important to make time to be with our children, and not just sitting next to each other on the couch with devices in hand. We need to BE with our children. It’s up to us to instill in them a sense of curiosity and adventure, a respect for and interest in history, and an appreciation for the great outdoors. We took this trip over the course of several days, making the absolute most of every split second we had with their captive audience. It was time we spent admiring the big things, like Natural Tunnel, and the little things, like the cool little caterpillars and butterflies we found along the way. It was a chance to lose our wifi and strengthen our connection. I’m a mother watching my kids grow up in a flash, and I’m standing at a point in their childhood where everything changes in the blink of an eye. You can watch them grow taller, notice the tone of their voice change a little more each day, and see that it won’t be long before their own personal social lives take over and this precious time together becomes a memory. Make the most of it for them and for yourself! Go on adventures. Learn about the past. Build a strong future. Look Wider Still.
When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.John Muir