A Natural Tunnel Christmas lights up the holiday season

J. H. Osborne • Dec 8, 2019 at 1:30 PM

Sometimes the best holiday memories result from playing it by ear. That’s true for me regarding last Christmastime. But I’m telling you not to wait until the last minute and plan to create a similar memory.

It’s the annual Lighting of the Tunnel at Natural Tunnel State Park. Lighting events there have for many become an annual tradition in the nearly two decades since they came to be. Displays include thousands of colorful lights. There are also live entertainment, hot chocolate, roasting marshmallows and Santa Claus.

I’d never been until last year. And I only made it due to a spur of the moment invitation. My longtime friend and fellow adventurer Kevin Davis, who lives in Greene County and works driving patients to and from doctor’s appointments, sent me a text message the next-to-the-last night of last year’s Lighting of the Tunnel events. He’d just gotten off work and wanted to know if I’d like to join him to make a mad dash to see the lights. He said he could swing by the Times News and pick me up in 30 to 45 minutes. We’d be pushing getting there before they closed for the night.

I, of course, said yes (despite quite a bit of work left to do). As I climbed up into Kevin’s truck, I noticed it was misting rain. As we hurdled toward Duffield on U.S. 23, the mist turned a little slushy. Fear not, Kevin said, it wasn’t sticking and we’d have no trouble.

I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never talked to anyone who’d visited Natural Tunnel decorated for Christmas. If you haven’t been, I  highly recommend it. There’s a festiveness as soon as you enter the park, and it only intensifies as you ride the chairlift down to where the railroad tracks pass through the tunnel, alongside a stream. The hillside below you as you’re on the chairlift is aglow with light displays. Once you “land,” you hoof it along a wooden walkway to the tunnel. The walkway is decked out with several lighted arches, and once you reach the main observation platform near the mouth of the tunnel you’ll find a whole lineup of activities, including a warm fire, live music, and snacks from food vendors. You can roast marshmallows over the fire. And, if you’re lucky, you might meet Santa.

Kevin and I had an amazing time. He’d seen the tunnel lighted at night before. I had not. It is a totally different experience, or at least it was to me, regardless of the Christmas lights. Just being able to see the interior of the tunnel illuminated was worth the trip for me. The lighting on the walls of the canyon above were an extra bonus — as was a trick a park ranger taught us: leaning backward to look up at the sky and being able to see the outline of the gorge we were in. My only disappointment was that a train didn’t come through while we were there. I had my picture made with Santa and enjoyed my toasted marshmallow.

The ride back up on the chairlift gave us a different perspective on the light displays along the hillside below. So it was like two shows in one. We left the park and made it back to the Hob-Nob Drive-in for a great meal just before they closed. And then I came back to work.

The remaining nights for Lighting of the Tunnel events are next Friday and Saturday (Dec. 13 and 14) and the following Monday through Saturday (Dec. 16-21). Those last days include “theme nights” which are:  Dec. 16, Pet Night; Dec. 17, Decorate a Cookie Night; Dec. 18, Christmas Karaoke Night; Dec. 19, Children’s Crafts Night; Dec. 20, Ugly Sweater Night; and Dec. 21, Santa with special guest Ranger Parker Red Fox.

Parking is $5 per vehicle, and chairlift rides are $4 per person for a round-trip or $3 for a one-way ticket. From the Virginia state line, Natural Tunnel State Park is located about 20 miles north of Kingsport by U.S. 23 and Virginia State Route 871 (Natural Tunnel Parkway). 

For more information, contact the park at (276) 940-2674.