Nelson County Parks and Recreation announced today the opening of the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail system. Over 700 feet below the Blue Ridge Mountains at Rockfish Gap in Afton lies the 4,273-foot abandoned train tunnel in the heart of the Crozet Tunnel Greenway. The tunnel was constructed between 1850 and 1858 by Claudius Crozet, designer and chief engineer on the project and Irish immigrant laborers. The Blue Ridge Tunnel opened to railroad traffic on April 13, 1858. At the time, it was the longest railroad tunnel in North America. In 1944, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway replaced the 86-year-old Blue Ridge Tunnel with an adjacent tunnel that could accommodate larger locomotives. Somewhat parallel to the old passage, the newer tunnel is still in daily operation; the old Blue Ridge Tunnel has not hosted rail traffic since then.
Nearly 20 years in the making, Nelson County’s tunnel restoration efforts date to 2001. In 2007, CSX Transportation generously donated the tunnel to Nelson County. Recognizing the regional value and scope of the project, the County established the nonprofit, Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, in 2012. The group includes public officials from the counties of Nelson, Albemarle, and Augusta and the City of Waynesboro. The mission of the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation is to support the restoration, reuse, and historical interpretation of the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel as a community landmark and outstanding recreational and educational resource. The majority of the funding came from federal and state transportation grants and sources .
Nelson County Parks and Recreation Director Claire Richardson notes, “Thanks to Nelson County Administrator Steve Carter for his vision, leadership, and perseverance to see this project through nineteen years of collaboration and partnership development! The tunnel is an important recreational asset to Nelson County and we look forward to sharing it with visitors.” She adds, “The trail is open from sunrise to sunset. Visitors are required to follow Covid-19 protocol, including 6 foot physical distancing, with no large groups, do not touch anything, and pack out your trash. We encourage face masks and recommend returning at a later date if the parking lots are full. Please be cognizant inside the tunnel of other visitors and beware of uneven ground.”
The tunnel project incorporates an access trail through the restored tunnel, including new trailheads on both sides of the Blue Ridge providing access for trail hikers, walkers, bicyclists, and other visitors. Ultimately, this project will link existing local trails, long-distance trail systems and the historic communities on both sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The tunnel is also strategically located at the convergence of the southern entrance of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive, the northern entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail, and U. S. Bicycle Route 76, boasting more than 6 million travelers annually. Both Interstate 64 and U. S. 250 cross over the tunnel at Rockfish Gap.
The Blue Ridge Tunnel trail system offers two access points to the tunnel. The east trail is fully accessible, primarily flat and offers views of the active railroad line. The 12-spot parking lot can be found at 215 Afton Depot Lane. The western trailhead is situated just east of Waynesboro at 483 Three Notched Mountain Highway and has 25 spaces and 2 oversized areas for small buses. The steep grade of the western trailhead may limit access to people with limited mobility. At just over 2.25 miles one way, the crushed stone path offers the explorer a chance to travel back in time to touch the original pin scars from the 1850’s. Today, the tunnel is more cave-like and holds year-round temperatures of 50 degrees. Traveling through the long, dark tunnel will be a stirring experience for a variety of visitors from across the Commonwealth and beyond: hikers and cyclists of every level, wildlife watchers, history enthusiasts, railroad buffs, heritage tourists, school children on field trips, and nearby residents. Visitors can discover bats, the elusive long-tailed salamander, ancient hand molded bricks and secret waterfalls. Currently there are no plans to light the tunnel, so walkers and bikers are urged to bring headlamps and/or flashlights to aid their vision.
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For more information about the Blue Ridge Tunnel:
Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation: http://blueridgetunnel.org/
Blue Ridge Tunnel: www.blueridgetunneltrail.com
The Coolest Hike in Virginia: www.coolesthikeinvirginia.com/
Nelson County Tourism: www.nelsoncounty.com/