The Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel is one of the beautiful Christmas light displays to attend in Southwest Virginia. Ride a chair lift to the bottom of a ravine, sit around a crackling bonfire with hot chocolate, and admire the lights and music. I went one year and it’s something I’ll never forget.
What is the Natural Tunnel?
Over the course of thousands of years, a river slowly carved a tunnel through a limestone ridge now inside this state park. When coal mining became a thriving industry in the area a company decided to build a railroad through the 850’ long, 10-story tall tunnel. The railroad is still there, and still used, today.
Visitors to Natural Tunnel State Park can walk a long and winding path from the visitor center to the bottom of the ravine to see the natural tunnel. A viewing platform beside the railroad track gives the perfect vantage point to watch a cargo train travel through a few times a day.
What is the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel?
Each year Natural Tunnel State Park celebrates 8 Days of Christmas with a special event every Friday and Saturday night between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The event itself is free but you’ll have to fork over $5 to park your vehicle and ride a shuttle bus to the visitor center.
Visit the park’s website to learn more about the event: http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/park-event-info?id=NT180061-01
Christmas Lights and Displays
The Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel is annual event at Natural Tunnel State Park features thousands of Christmas lights, wire frame displays, animatronics, and signs. Wire frame displays, signs, and strings of lights bring the Christmas spirit to the park.
Walk along the wooden boardwalk at the bottom to the natural tunnel where you’ll find a splash of yuletide green on the giant cliff at the river. Take a gander at the brightness of the evening with lights strung on the handrails.
Head across the bridge toward the Carter Cabin to find more subdued lights on the primitive path. It’s a short and easy walk, though I’m not entirely sure handicap accessible at that point.
Bonfires, Hot Chocolate, and S’mores
The 1775 Carter Cabin, one of the historic cabins located in the park, is always open to the public during normal operating hours. But during the Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel the old fireplace comes to life with a crackling fire and chairs spread out in the cabin. Sit back and listen to reenactors tell Christmas stories while keeping toasty warm by the fire.
At the tunnel a couple of bonfire pits make it easy to stay warm and create your favorite campfire snack: s’mores. Of course you’ll have to bring your own materials for making s’mores. A concession stand sells hot chocolate and tea, popcorn, and candy.
Ride the Chairlift
The visitor center and parking lot are high atop the ridge above the natural tunnel. If you’re up for a walk down the paved path it only takes about 15-20 minutes.
For just $4/person one-way you can ride the chair lift instead (or walk to the bottom and take the chair lift back like I did for $3/person). The comfy lifts have run for two at a time and takes just a few minutes between the top and bottom stations. You can also admire the blue icicle lights hanging from the support poles during the short ride!
Getting to Natural Tunnel State Park
The trickiest part about enjoying Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel is getting to Natural Tunnel State Park in the first place. It’s a bit remote, but still easily accessible.
From Bristol, Virginia take Exit 74B on I-81 toward Kingsport. Before reaching Kingsport you’ll take Bloomingdale Pike and finally turn onto Highway 93/224 toward Weber City. This completely bypasses the traffic in Kingsport and brings you to Highway 23/58 in Weber City near Gate City. The total drive is 37 miles and takes about 45 minutes.
The drive from Northeast Tennessee is a bit easier. Take I-26 through Kingsport to the Virginia-Tennessee state line where it transitions into Highway 23/58. From I-26 to the state park is about 30 miles and takes 35 minutes.
Highway 23/58 from Weber City to Natural Tunnel State Park is a four-lane divided highway. It’s safe and easy to drive in the dark, especially if it is your first time getting there.
The trickiest part of all is that final turn. There is only a single sign on Highway 23/58 pointing toward Natural Tunnel State Park. If you reach a large traffic light intersection where Highway 23 continues straight and Highway 58 turns left you’re in Duffield and you’ve gone too far.
From Highway 23/58 to the visitor center is only about a mile on the two-lane road, but most likely you will be parking at Cove Ridge Center near the campground.