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The impressive Blue Ridge Tunnel, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia, was designed by French engineer Claudius Crozet to allow the Blue Ridge Railroad to pass through the mountains to reach the Shenandoah Valley.
The tunnel is located below Rockfish Gap, with the community of Afton on its eastern side and the city of Waynesboro near its western end. A 2.3-mile crushed-stone trail leads to the tunnel from both towns, but we recommend that you start in Afton for a more gradual grade.
On the Waynesboro end, the route gets steep, with an average grade of 6.5% and a maximum grade of 19%. Although bikes are permitted on the trail, it’s advisable to walk your bike in the tunnel due to foot traffic and the uneven surface of the tunnel floor.
From the Afton trailhead, it’s a 0.6-mile hike to the eastern portal. The trail parallels active CSX tracks and overlooks Rockfish Valley. Despite the light visible at the end of the tunnel, you should come prepared with a flashlight or headlamp as the tunnel is not lit.
The tunnel itself is stunning. Construction began in 1850 using only hand drills, pickaxes, and black powder. The work, done mostly by Irish laborers and enslaved African Americans, was completed in 1858; you can still see the drill holes in the stone. Stretching nearly a mile, it was the longest tunnel in the country at the time and was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1976. It was abandoned during World War II when a new tunnel was bored to accommodate larger trains. In 2007, CSX Transportation donated the tunnel and trail right-of-way to Nelson County. The trail and tunnel were opened to the public in 2020. As you walk along the trail, look for interpretive signage that details its storied past.
As you pop out of the tunnel at its western entrance, be sure to note the beautiful elliptical stone portal, which contrasts with the rocky entrance of the eastern portal. Beyond the tunnel, the trail becomes a series of steep switchbacks until it reaches the parking lot at its western terminus in Waynesboro. For an easier walk, you may wish to turn around and head back to Afton after experiencing the tunnel.
There are trailheads at either end of the trail. In Afton, parking can be found at 215 Afton Depot Lane. On the west end, the trail parking is located at 483 Three Notched Highway, Waynesboro. Remember that the hike from the west end is more challenging due to the steeper grades on that end.
Since the trail is quite popular, trail managers recommend visiting during the week in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds. And please respect the private property around the area and only park in designated spots.
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