Thursday, June 27, 2013

Natural Tunnel State Park: Tunnel, Gorge Ridge, and Purchase Ridge Trails (Blog Hike #377)

Trails: Tunnel, Gorge Ridge, Purchase Ridge, and Lover's Leap Trails
Hike Location: Natural Tunnel State Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Gate CityVA (36.70222, -82.74605)
Length: 4.2 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2012
Overview: A lollipop loop with many views of spectacular Natural Tunnel.
Hike Route Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=102678
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Duffield, take US 23 south 4 miles to CR 871 and turn left on CR 871.  Take CR 871 1.3 miles to the park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park.  Pay the small entrance fee, then drive uphill to the large blacktop parking lot between the chairlift terminal and the Visitor Center.  Park in this lot.

The hike: Some of them are called natural bridges.  Some of them are called natural arches.  This one is called a natural tunnel.  Whatever you call these structures, the force of water breaking down rock over many years formed them all.  At 850 feet long and 100 feet high, tunnel seems to be the most appropriate name for this particular structure.
            The first written account of the tunnel appeared in a geology article written by Lt. Col. Stephen H. Long in 1832.  During the Civil War, the tunnel was mined for saltpeter, an ingredient used to make gunpowder.  The railroad arrived in 1890 when the South Atlantic and Ohio Railroad laid tracks through the tunnel, saving the days of labor that would have been required to build a tunnel of their own through this ridge.  A passenger rail line operated through the tunnel for a few years, but the track would ultimately land in the hands of Norfolk Southern, which would use the tunnel to transport coal from southwest Virginia’s coal mines.
            In 1967, the State of Virginia purchased 100 acres from the Natural Tunnel Chasm and Caverns Corporation to form the state park; the park opened in 1971.  The park today contains 10 cabins, 2 campgrounds with a total of 34 sites, and a large swimming area, but the main attraction remains the tunnel.  Norfolk Southern still operates the railroad through the tunnel, and about 10 coal trains each day pass through the tunnel and the park.  On select days visitors can raft down Stock Creek through the tunnel.  On all days visitors can hike to (but not through) and around the tunnel on the park’s 7 hiking trails.  This route uses 4 of these trails and gives the hiker views of Natural Tunnel from many angles.
Trailhead for Tunnel Trail
            A tour of the park should start with a visit to the tunnel.  There are a couple of ways to get there, but the most natural way is to hike the 0.3 mile Tunnel Trail that departs from just below the upper chairlift terminal.  The gravel trail descends steeply using wooden steps and switchbacks to reach the lower chairlift terminal.  From this point, wooden boardwalks lead left to creek-level views of the tunnel.
            I had been waiting nearly 10 years for an opportunity to come to Natural Tunnel, but the wait was worth it.  The tunnel entrance looks like the entrance to a large cave, an impression strengthened by the fact that the tunnel is so long and angled that you cannot see any light from the other side.  The railroad enters using the right half of the tunnel while Stock Creek flows out using the left.  If you are very lucky, you might arrive at the right time to see a train enter or leave the tunnel.  I did not see a train down here, but I did hear one later in the hike.  A viewing platform contains information boards and gives visitors clear views of the tunnel and the imposing rock wall at its mouth.
Natural Tunnel viewed at creek level
Peering into the tunnel
            After you have seen the tunnel, you will need to hike back up the Tunnel Trail to continue this hike.  If you chicken out, you can always pay $3 and buy a one-way pass to ride the chairlift back up.  If you do chicken out and you are in good health, you should be ashamed of yourself, because I didn’t.
            Back at the chairlift parking area, the hike continues by picking up the Gorge Ridge Trail, which departs from the opposite corner of the parking area.  The Gorge Ridge Trail starts as a two-track dirt road as it climbs moderately, soon to pass a park utility area.  Ignore the Tunnel Hill Trail as it leaves first right and then left, and follow the gold rectangular metal blazes to stay on the Gorge Ridge Trail.  You could not tell by observation, but you are walking over the roof of the tunnel on this section of trail.
Walking over the tunnel roof
            1.1 miles into the hike, you reach a T-intersection where the blue-blazed Lover’s Leap Trail exits right.  We will see this trail’s fantastic views during the final leg back to the parking area, but for now turn left and continue climbing moderately on the Gorge Ridge Trail.  Note that taking the Lover’s Leap Trail now would shorten the hike to only 1.5 miles, including the trip down and up from the tunnel.
            At 1.4 miles and just before the Gorge Ridge Trail ends at a park campground, look for the signed Purchase Ridge Trail as it exits right.  Turn right to begin the Purchase Ridge Trail.  The dirt single-track Purchase Ridge Trail more closely resembles a true hiking trail than any trail you have hiked thus far, and its location well away from the congested tunnel area ensures a fair amount of solitude.  For these reasons, this is my favorite trail in the park.           
Start of Purchase Ridge Trail (camera flash reflecting on sign)
            After a brief level section, the brown-blazed trail descends using a couple of gradual switchbacks.  Lovers Leap Campground lies uphill to your left, and Stock Creek’s gorge lies downhill to your right.  At 1.8 miles, an unmarked trail exits left to the cabin area while the Purchase Ridge Trail angles right.  Beech, maple, and oak trees form the majority of this beautiful mature forest.  Some poison ivy can be found in the understory, but the trail is wide enough that you should be able to avoid it if you are looking for it.
            After climbing Purchase Ridge via several moderate switchbacks, you reach a trail intersection at 2.4 miles.  A bench and a small day-use shelter sit this intersection, which forms the loop portion of the Purchase Ridge Trail.  To get to the Purchase Ridge overlook first, this description will turn right to hike the loop counterclockwise and use the trail entering from the left as a return route.
            The trail climbs gradually for another 0.2 miles to reach the overlook platform.  This overlook does not seem like much at first, but when you get on the platform, you realize that an opening in the trees gives you another view of Natural Tunnel, this one from an angle that most park visitors never get.  The jagged hills behind the tunnel make for a great backdrop, so stay for awhile and enjoy the view.

Natural Tunnel, viewed from Purchase Ridge
            Past the overlook, the trail drops and then rises gently as it curves left to form the loop.  At 2.9 miles, the Cabin Trail exits right to the park’s cabin area.  Angle softly left, and in another 200 feet you will arrive back at the day-use shelter to close the loop.  At this point, you need to turn right and retrace your steps 0.9 miles first along the Purchase Ridge Trail and then along the Gorge Ridge Trail to arrive back at the junction with the Lover’s Leap Trail.  Continue straight to start the blue-blazed Lover’s Leap Trail.
Tunnel amphitheater, viewed from Lover's Leap
            Very quickly you arrive at the trail’s namesake overlook, which gives a postcard view of the tunnel and the rock wall near its entrance.  The character of the rock changes depending on the light.  In early morning, the light hits the rock directly, making the white, beige, and grey colors come alive.  In the evening, the light hits the other side of the ridge, making the rock wall look dark, foreboding, and ominous.  If you hike in the evening and come to this overlook both on the way out and on the way back, you can experience the transformation for yourself.
            Past Lover’s Leap, the partially asphalt-paved trail descends gradually via switchbacks to cross the tunnel.  Chain-link fencing prevents visitors from falling into the gorge.  Some stone steps take you down to the final overlook.  Perched on a rock outcrop, this overlook gives a nice view of Lover’s Leap across the gorge, and this vantage point allows you to look directly into the tunnel from high above it.  From this overlook, continue on the paved path to quickly return to the chairlift parking area and complete the hike.
Natural Tunnel, viewed from Visitor Center overlook

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