It’s a wonder: Blue Ridge Tunnel trail opening is more than a century in the making

Community members use the trail leading to the Blue Ridge Tunnel in Afton. Photo: Zack Wajsgras Community members use the trail leading to the Blue Ridge Tunnel in Afton. Photo: Zack Wajsgras

It’s dark. It’s damp. It’s cold. And it’s so cool.

The newly opened Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel trail lets you walk under the Blue Ridge—under Rockfish Gap, under I-64, under the Appalachian Trail and Skyline Drive. More than 700 feet above, drivers sweep through forested hillsides while you peer at walls of hewn rock and brick. Up there, hikers hear leaves rustling in the wind while you hear water dripping from the tunnel walls; they see dappled sunlight while you see flashlights bobbing like underground fireflies—and one small point of light ahead, a beacon from a mile away.

The tunnel is a secret world but not a closed one. A steady breeze brings fresh air through the passage, which is arrow-straight and has a very slight incline. Kids coming through will laugh to stir an echo, and squeal when they find wildlife—salamanders and crayfish live here, so be respectful. And it’s hard not to think about the men who labored here, mostly Irish immigrants and enslaved workers hired out for cash, pitting their strength—and their lives—against the unyielding mountain.

When the 4,273-foot Blue Ridge Tunnel was completed in 1858, it was the longest railroad tunnel in North America. Construction was overseen by Claudius Crozet (yes, the town was named for him), a French immigrant and highly trained engineer. When the eastern and western tunnel crews first connected, the two sides were only a few inches off. But it took years before the tunnel was up and running, and Crozet, fed up with management problems, public pressure, and criticism, eventually resigned—three months before the tunnel’s grand opening. He didn’t get to ride on that first ceremonial train.

The Blue Ridge railroad tunnel was in service for 86 years—it closed in 1944, when an adjacent tunnel designed for larger locomotives was completed. In 2007, CSX generously donated the property to Nelson County. The Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, including representatives from Albemarle, Nelson, and Augusta counties, the City of Waynesboro, and local community organizations, was set up in 2012 to develop community support and funding. The opening last weekend was the culmination of more than a decade of that work.

The trail is now open every day, sunrise to sunset. Nelson County Parks and Recreation Director Claire Richardson recommends checking the department’s Facebook page or website before coming, since there may be occasional closures due to weather or maintenance. There are access points at either end (one in Nelson, one in Augusta), with small parking lots and half-mile approach trails leading up to the tunnel entrances. (Word to the wise: The western approach trail is much steeper than the eastern one.) Bring a flashlight, headlamp, or lantern for safety, and a jacket for comfort; the crushed gravel path can be uneven, so wear decent walking shoes. And bring your mask.

But mostly, bring your sense of wonder: at this area’s natural beauty, at a remarkable human achievement from 160 years ago, and at a marvelous opportunity to visit a world we don’t usually get to see—unless we’re salamanders or crayfish.

And, as Richardson says, “Stay tuned for Halloween 2021.”

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