Back in November, the Blue Ridge Tunnel opened to the public, and I’ve been meaning to check it out. Afterall, a new trail that goes through a mountain is not something I take for granted -- especially a trail that is largely protected from the summer sun. On a beautiful summer day, my family and I packed up our flashlights and took a break from the everyday to check out this historic, modern marvel that is only about a 30-minute drive from Charlottesville. Verdict: totally worth it.
The Blue Ridge Tunnel was constructed between 1850 and 1858 beneath Rockfish Gap (commonly referred to as Afton Mountain by us locals) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia. French immigrant Claudius Crozet designed the Blue Ridge Tunnel and was its chief engineer. After its completion in 1858, the Blue Ridge Tunnel was the longest railroad tunnel in the world. The railroad company CSX Transportation donated the tunnel to Nelson County in 2007. After years of fundraising, thanks to the nonprofit Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, the original tunnel and conjoining trails have been renovated to accommodate tourists and curious locals in this majestic natural setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
For nearly three quarters of a century, the 4,237 foot-long tunnel lay dormant and untouched by civilization, save for brave souls who ventured into its dilapidated entrances. I remember hearing stories from locals over the years about this mythic-like passage under the mountain we traveled over on Rt. 64 to get to the Shenandoah Valley from Charlottesville. Even local mystery writer Rita Mae Brown used the abandoned tunnel as a murder backdrop in one her Mrs. Murphy books. Naturally, the tunnel and area needed some TLC. Years of restoration has turned this historic setting into an outstanding recreational and educational resource.
The tunnel is open for public access from sunrise to sunset. Parking is available at both trailheads. We parked at the eastern trailhead beside the village of Afton. On this side of the tunnel, the trail is relatively flat and wide and can accommodate all levels of hikers. We reached the eastern tunnel portal in about 15 minutes (0.63 miles).
Entering the tunnel for the first time, you can’t help but feel a bit transformed, knowing all the labor and turmoil that went into making this incredible American feat of the 19th-century engineering. Most of the tunnel sides and ceiling are raw, exposed rock where you can still see the gashes of primitive drilling equipment. Approximately 1400 feet of the tunnel is brick-lined on the west side.
Just about two minutes into the tunnel and the darkness hits you (walkers and bikers are urged to bring headlamps and/or flashlights). You hear the constant dripping of water falling from the walls and parts of the ceiling. You should watch your step in the dark so as not to fall in the drainage areas on either side of the tunnel floor. We went there on a Saturday in July, so the tunnel was filled with the echo of voices. As we walked towards the distant light from the western portal on the other side, I thought of the many lives that went into making this pass, desperate Irish migrants, enslaved African Americans, and locals dug their way through the hard rock on either side of the mountain. Crozet brazenly excavated both sides of the mountain, calculating that the two tunnels would meet in the middle. The two sides finally met in 1856. Can you imagine what that day was like after years of blasting and chipping away in the dark?
We made it through the tunnel and back to the car in about two hours. All and all, not a bad afternoon hike. I saw people with bikes and stollers go through the tunnel with relative ease. It really is an experience that the entire family could share and not pay a cent, particularly for those that want to take a deep dive into the dark crevices of history firsthand.
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