Natural Tunnel State Park preserves the south end of an 850-foot-long naturally carved tunnel. Visitors explore the splendid nature surrounding the active railroad tunnel for eleven months of the year. But the tunnel is surrounded by thousands of Christmas lights, bonfires, and live music for one month.
It’s the annual Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel and one of Virginia’s most unique holiday light displays.
The special event is a rare opportunity to see the quirky tunnel at night. Riding the chair lift in darkness to the bottom of the gorge is exhilarating. Then, walk through a tunnel of lights to a festive party with a bonfire, s’mores, and live music.
Here’s everything you need to know about visiting the annual Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel at Natural Tunnel State Park in Duffield, Virginia.
Table of Contents
Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel Map
How to use this map: Click the icon in the top-left corner to open the Map Legend, then click on any of the legend items to display more information. If you have a Google account, click the (very faint) star at the end of the map’s name to save this map to your account, then access the map from your smartphone during your trip.
Natural Tunnel State Park
Natural Tunnel State Park should not be confused with Natural Bridge State Park – both in Virginia. Natural Tunnel State Park opened in 1971 to preserve the tunnel’s south end and interpret local history.
A million years ago, a small creek began eroding the limestone and dolomite. Eventually, Stock Creek bore an 850-foot-long natural tunnel through the limestone ridge. In 1893, the South Atlantic and Ohio Railroad took advantage of the natural tunnel and built a freight and passenger track through it.
Today, the tunnel is owned by Norfolk Southern and used by CSX to transport coal.
Visitors to Natural Tunnel State Park can walk the 0.27-mile Tunnel Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) to the bottom of the gorge. The trail includes a wooden boardwalk across the railroad tracks to a spectacular view at the tunnel’s south end. Then, walk the 0.13-mile Carter Cabin Trail to visit a historic cabin moved to the park in the 1990s.
Pro Travel Tip
Walking through the tunnel is forbidden and dangerous because it’s an active railroad. Check with the state park’s visitor center about the current train schedule – you may want to visit when a train passes through the tunnel or avoid it during that time.
Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel Schedule in 2023
The Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel runs from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. every Friday and Saturday night from November 24 until December 23, 2023.
Here is the complete schedule for 2023:
- November 24, 2023 – Gift a Friend a Lift Night
- November 25, 2023
- December 1, 2023 – Kids Craft Night
- December 2, 2023
- December 8, 2023 – Ugly Sweater Night
- December 9, 2023
- December 15, 2023 – Decorate a Cookie Night
- December 16, 2023
- December 22, 2023 – Christmas Character Costume Night
- December 23, 2023
The first night of Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel is themed “Gift a Friend a Lift.” Visitors can ride the chairlift for free during the one-night special after donating two or more non-perishable food items. The collected food goes to a local food bank and shelter.
Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel Tickets
There is no fee for attending the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel. However, there is a $5 parking fee that covers transport from the Cove Ridge Center to the visitor center.
Riding the chairlift one-way is $4 per person, and roundtrip is $5. However, you can walk the 0.27-mile Tunnel Trail without paying a fee. The trail descends 245 feet to the gorge below – it’s a hefty hike back to the visitor center.
Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel
The Christmas Lightning of the Tunnel is an annual event that features thousands of Christmas lights, animated displays, live music, and bonfires for roasting s’mores. It’s a family-friendly event and perfect for a date night.
Lights decorate the handrails, arch over the wooden boardwalk near the tunnel, and hang from trees overhead. The towering 10-story cliff wall beside the tunnel’s entrance is lit with a yuletide green.
One way to get to the bottom of the gorge is the 0.27-mile Tunnel Trail (Bookmark on AllTrails). The paved trail is steep, descending 245 feet in two-tenths of a mile. Animated light displays on both sides of the trail give visitors something fun to look at during the downward trek.
The easiest way to get to the bottom of the gorge is a ride on the chairlift. Rides cost $4 per person one-way or $5 per person roundtrip. The ride takes about 10 minutes. Riding the chairlift through the darkness is exhilarating, but you can also see the animated displays below.
Walk the 0.13-mile Carter Cabin Trail to visit the historic log cabin. Members of the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association dress in period clothing and tell stories of Christmas in 1775 – the year commonly believed to be when the cabin was built. A roaring fire keeps visitors warm inside the one-room cabin.
A large observation deck near the tunnel’s entrance becomes a lively party during Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel. Live music fills the chilly air each night. A bonfire fights off the chilliness and provides visitors with a marshmallow-roasting opportunity for s’mores. Bring your own ingredients or buy them from a vendor along with hot chocolate and hot apple cider.
Accessibility at the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel
Good news! The Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel is handicap accessible. But it takes some effort to see the spectacular Christmas light display.
Handicap parking is available at the visitor center. The chair lift is accessible, and the staff are effortlessly kind at helping people get into the comfortable seats. Wheelchairs are sent down on the preceding chair lift.
A wooden boardwalk from the chair lift at the bottom of the gorge provides an accessible trail to the tunnel’s entrance. However, the undeveloped trail to the Carter Cabin is not accessible.
2023 Holiday Gift Guide for Travelers
Find the best gifts for travelers, road trippers, coffee lovers, and stocking stuffers with the annual guide – including my top gift recommendations.
Getting to the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel
Natural Tunnel State Park is a remote Virginia park about 30-45 minutes from the nearest interstate. However, it’s easy to find.
From most points in Tennessee, take Interstate 26 north past Kingsport. The interstate transitions into a four-lane divided highway shortly crossing into Virginia near Weber City. Continue along U.S. Highway 23 through Gate City to a side road leading to the state park.
You’ve gone too far if you come to a traffic light intersection in Duffield where U.S. Highway 58 turns left, and U.S. Highway 23 continues straight.
There are a few ways to get to the park from most points in Virginia.
Take U.S. Highway 58 from Bristol to Weber City. This two-lane road is a curvy adventure through the mountains, but it’s the shortest route.
Take U.S. Highway 11W from Bristol toward Kingsport. Shortly after entering the city, turn onto TN Highway 93 (North John B. Dennis Highway) and continue to Weber City. These roads are four-lane divided highways, slightly longer but faster.
The final option is to take Interstate 81 south to Interstate 26. This route is about 10 miles longer and only five minutes slower. It’s the easiest route from Virginia to the state park.
After exiting U.S. Highway 58 onto Natural Tunnel Parkway, continue past the park’s entrance. Only handicapped visitors park at the visitor center. After passing the park’s entrance, keep right onto Bishoptown Road and turn left toward the Cove Ridge Center.
Parking at the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel
Only handicapped visitors park at the visitor center during the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel. All other visitors park at the Cove Ridge Center near the park’s campground.
It costs $5 per vehicle for parking.
A shuttle bus picks up visitors and transports them to the visitor center. When was the last time you rode a school bus? The bus runs every 15 minutes from 6 p.m. until the final visitor returns to their car.