Exploring the Beauty and Mysteries of the Blue Ridge Tunnel
Railroad Relics and a Tunnel Through Virginia’s History
There are few places in the world where you can hike under the earth’s surface for nearly a mile, following the dark, subterranean pathway through which railroad cars transported goods for almost 100 years. Upon opening in 1858, the Blue Ridge Tunnel was the longest underground stretch of railroad track ever constructed covering over 4,000 feet under Rockfish Gap at the southern tip of Shenandoah National Park. This feat of engineering would be impressive during any period, but especially during the mid-19th century, when laborers carved through the mountainside with just hand tools and gunpowder (dynamite was not in use yet).
Among all the outdoorsy activities right in our backyard along the Blue Ridge Pathway – don’t miss autumn leaf-peeping or world-class skiing and snowboarding at Wintergreen Resort – few of them are as unique or adventurous as venturing into the mysterious depths of the Blue Ridge Tunnel, just a scenic 18-mile drive from our Blue Ridge Mountain cabin.
As you go from one tunnel entrance to the other, you’ll enter a portal to the past, equally transfixing for its natural beauty and as a living piece of history.
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Throughout the early 1800s, steam locomotives transformed how we moved goods within the country, including across the 400+ mile expanse from Virginia’s capital, Richmond, to the state’s western border. The Louisa and Virginia Central Railroad’s networks crisscrossed Virginia, except for a critical 17-mile missing gap through the Shenandoah Valley, held up by the steep terrain along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Enter Claudius Crozet, a renowned military engineer of his time – he served with Napoleon in the French Army, then taught engineering at the West Point military academy – who proposed an audacious plan to go through Rockfish Gap rather than over or around it. Crozet’s imprint on the Shenandoah area was so important that the nearby town of Crozet bears his name (and Crozet is also the home to Henley’s Orchard, one of our favorite local spots for apple picking and cider-tasting).
Crozet’s plan seemed impossible on paper, the first tunnel to be built without vertical support shafts and with only hand tools and primitive gunpowder blasting. But a group of intrepid laborers did just that, chipping away at the extra-hard limestone at a rate of 250-800 feet per year. Crozet also had the ingenious idea to work from both sides of the tunnel simultaneously, saving time on the project. However, it also risked the possibility that the two sides would not meet up, but luckily, they did in 1856 when Crozet noted with glee and relief that “daylight now shines through.”
When you’re deep within the Blue Ridge Tunnel – a half-mile away from daylight and surrounded by darkness (turn off your headlamp or flashlight briefly to get the full effect) – you’ll be awed that human hands carved through this dense rock over 150 years ago, the product of sweat, dedication, and pure human will. A mix of Irish immigrant laborers and around 50 enslaved people gave over five years of their lives to the often dangerous project, many of them dying in the process from crude blasting techniques and unpredictable rockfalls. Today, the tunnel serves as a memorial to them, and it’s inspiring to walk along the path they chiseled by hand, rock by rock.
Bringing the Blue Ridge Tunnel Back to Life and Planning Your Visit
After decades of natural erosion from lack of use (a wider tunnel was built adjacently in 1944, able to accommodate larger trains during World War II when military cargo movement was essential), the Blue Ridge Tunnel has recently found new life. After the railroad gifted the tunnel to nearby Nelson County, VDOT collaborated with the local group, the Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, to restore the tunnel and improve the approach trails on both ends. After years of preservation work, including shoring up the tunnel’s intricate interior masonry, the Blue Ridge Tunnel trail opened to the public in the fall of 2020.
We’re just 18 miles from the east and west tunnel entrances, easily accessible by heading north on the Blue Ridge Parkway to where it intersects with the start of Skyline Drive. At the east tunnel entrance, near the historic Afton railroad building, you’ll find the shortest way to access the tunnel, with the approach hike just over ½ mile. There are also 56 parking spaces and portable toilets in this parking area and full ADA accessibility. Follow the well-marked, flat, and wide gravel trail to the eastern tunnel entrance, where you can decide how far to go within the tunnel’s 4,273 feet underground portion. On the tunnel’s west side, there is a smaller parking lot (only 20 spaces), and the tunnel approach trail is much more challenging (it’s longer, at almost a mile, and much steeper in sections). But the western approach trail is perfect if you want a more strenuous workout, and the trail even includes a stream crossing.
Whichever side you decide to enter from, you’ll need the same essentials: a flashlight or headlamp (or both, just in case one goes out), layered clothing (it’s 50 degrees inside the tunnel year-round, even at the height of summer heat and humidity), and proper shoes (the inside of the tunnel is often wet in places, especially during and after rainfall). As this helpful Blue Ridge Tunnel trail map shows, starting from the eastern trailhead, you can walk the approach trail, the entire tunnel length, and back to your starting point in just under 3 miles, a doable trek for everyone in the family. As you get further into the tunnel, your voice echoing off the centuries-old brick-lined walls, salamanders appearing in your headlamp’s glow, and water flowing down the walls, it’s a memorable and unique hike where you’ll feel like an adventurer.
Stay with us and explore the fascinating history, preserved beauty, and thrilling underground expanse of the Blue Ridge Tunnel!