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What if I told you there were thousands of Christmas lights surrounding a railroad through a 850’ long tunnel naturally carved through a limestone ridge? What if I told you for just a few dollars the entire family could enjoy music, bonfires, and make s’mores? What if I told you this happened at Natural Tunnel State Park in Virginia? Would you go?
Not all Christmas light displays are created equal, and the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel at this state park in Duffield, Virginia is one of the most unique and exciting I have ever come across. Take a chair lift to the bottom of a gorge, hang out around the mouth of a massive tunnel, and enjoy making s’mores by the bonfire. How could it get any better?
Natural Tunnel State Park
The big attraction at Natural Tunnel State Park is the 850’ long tunnel carved through a limestone ridge by a river over millions of years (thus, the natural tunnel). The tunnel is located at the bottom of a 10-story gorge beside the Visitor Center. The 0.27-mile Tunnel Trail leads to the bottom where visitors cross the tracks to the 1775 Carter Cabin or visit the observation deck at the entrance to the tunnel.
Visitors can explore the Blockhouse, part of the Wilderness Road Trail retracing the steps of Daniel Boone. Activities at the Cove Ridge Center are great for the kids, as well as the 100’ water slide at the public swimming pool. Nine trails explore the area above and around the natural tunnel.
Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel
The Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel is an annual event that includes thousands of lights, animated displays, live music, and bonfires. I visited three times one year, each for a distinct reason. The first visit was for photos, but it rained the entire evening, so I came back a second evening to get what I needed. The third evening was a date with a local woman I had just met (that means this event is perfect date material).
Christmas Lights & Displays There were Christmas lights everywhere! The entrance to the park. Handrails along the boardwalk. Strung overhead. Even the ginormous 10-story stone wall beside the tunnel was lit a yuletide green.
Animated light displays were on both sides of the Tunnel Trail leading to the bottom of the gorge. All the trails and paths were lit well enough to see, which is amazing considering there are no streetlamps on this trail. The Christmas light did all the lighting.
At the bottom of the gorge the Tunnel Trail ends at the chairlift’s bottom building. Turn right and walk across the gorgeously lit pedestrian bridge to find the 1775 Carter Cabin. Turn left onto a boardwalk around the bend to find the observation deck and all the fun!
Bonfires, Hot Chocolate, and S’mores The Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel is more than just a pretty light display; it’s a family event meant for people to hang out and have a good time. A fire pit was set up on the observation deck near the entrance to the tunnel where live music was playing all night long.
Just off the trail near the tunnel’s entrance was a large bonfire. Chunky logs crackled as people roasted marshmallows for their s’mores. I brought my own graham crackers and chocolate because I was prepared! But the vendor nearby also had some to sell along with hot chocolate and hot apple cider.
1775 Carter Cabin The most interesting place to visit all night was the historic Carter Cabin. While the cabin is usually open during business hours to explore inside, during the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel the old fireplace is put to use again! It was a fantastic place to step in out of the cold, warm up for a few minutes, and watch the crackling fire.
Ride the Chairlift
It the walk on the 0.27-mile Tunnel Trail doesn’t sound all that appealing you have the option to ride the chair lift. You might wanna walk to the bottom, but remember an old hiker’s saying: what goes down must come back up again. You might at least want to ride the chair lift back up from the bottom of the 10-story gorge.
The chair lift is pretty comfortable, and each chair has enough room for maybe two adults and two children. The ride only takes about ten minutes, giving time for people to load and unload. The chairlift ride is just $4 per person roundtrip or $3 per person one-way.
Each year the first night of the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel has a special theme called Give a Friend a Lift Night. During this special event visitors can ride the chairlift roundtrip for free if they bring two non-perishable food items per person.
Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel Schedule
The Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel begins the night after Thanksgiving and lasts three weeks leading up to Christmas. The hours are 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. each night of the event. Here is a complete breakdown of the schedule along with nightly themes, if any:
- Friday, Nov 29, 2019 (Give a Friend a Lift Night)
- Saturday, Nov 30, 2019
- Friday, Dec 6, 2019
- Saturday, Dec 7, 2019
- Friday, Dec 13, 2019
- Saturday, Dec 14, 2019
- Monday, Dec 16, 2019 (Pet Night)
- Tuesday, Dec 17, 2019 (Decorate a Cookie Night)
- Wednesday, Dec 18, 2019 (Christmas Karaoke Night)
- Thursday, Dec 19, 2019 (Children’s Crafts Night)
- Friday, Dec 20, 2019 (Ugly Sweater Night)
- Saturday, Dec 21, 2019 (Santa Night)
There is no admission to the event, however you will have to pay for parking. See? They gotcha! I always think it’s funny when an event is listed as “free” but you have to pay for something like parking or breathing.
Parking is $5 per vehicle. If you want to ride the chairlift it is $4 per person roundtrip and $3 per person one-way. There will be a vendor at the tunnel with hot chocolate, snacks, and everything you need to build s’mores for an additional price.
You might be reading all this talk about the trail leading to the bottom of a 10-story gorge and decide not to attempt this event. The Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel is 100% accessible and actually one of the better Christmas light events for accessibility I’ve come across.
Handicap parking is available at the Visitor Center so you don’t have to ride a bus from the Cove Ridge Center’s parking lot. If these spots are taken, the very friendly staff of the park will find something for you.
Speaking of that friendly staff, both the husband and wife in front of me at the chairlift were in wheelchairs. The staff helped them into the chairlift, sent their chairs down in the next two chairlifts, and then helped them back into their wheelchairs at the bottom. Once at the bottom it’s easy to get around the wooden boardwalk to see the live music, bonfires, Christmas lights, and the entrance to the tunnel.
Getting to Natural Tunnel State Park & Parking
It’s actually pretty easy to get to Natural Tunnel State Park, though I will point it the park is somewhat remote. The park is located in Duffield, Virginia, along US Highways 23/58, about an hour from Bristol and half an hour from Kingsport.
From Virginia the easiest way is to take Exit 74B on Interstate 81 toward Kingsport, turn onto Bloomingdale Road toward Weber City, and skip all the traffic in Kingsport.
From Tennessee it’s even easier: take Interstate 26 to its end at the Virginia border where the four-lane road becomes US Highway 23/58/421.
Unlike a typical visit to Natural Tunnel State Park you don’t park at the Visitor Center beside the chairlift; instead for the Christmas Lighting at the Tunnel visitors will park at the Cove Ridge Center. There will be signs and people pointing the way once you get to the park. After parking you will board a bus that will bring you to the chairlift where you can either walk or ride to the bottom of the gorge.
Cabins at Natural Tunnel State Park
Why not make a night of the adventure at the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel? Natural Tunnel State Park has fourteen cabins and four of them are recent additions. Each cabin comes complete with appliances, dishes, and linens and gorgeous views from the ridge over the tunnel.
Eleven of the cabins are two-bedroom with a sleeper sofa and can sleep six people comfortably. Two of the cabins are three-bedroom and sleep eight. Four of the cabins are accessible.