Elizabeth A.S. Brooke

Crafting, traveling and everything in between.

Natural Tunnel State Park

Our final romping around the state on Memorial Day Weekend ended at Natural Tunnel State Park. You can read about our other hikes here.

The park is located near the Virginia-Tennessee border and we stopped in Kingsport, Tenn., on our way home for supper.

Next to Fairy Stone State Park, this may be one of my favorite Virginia parks for camping. We didn’t camp here, but I wish we had. The campsites were nice and the trails and views were great.

The park is also building new cabins that should be open soon. If they’re anything like a cabin we saw from the trail, they’re huge and beautiful!

On the trails we saw a woodpecker (maybe a hairy or downy) and heard many other types of birds. We hoped to see grouse, but could only hear what we thought was one. A sign in the park said grouse sound like drumming.

We also found what might be an orchid. It’s the small plant with two oval leaves in the middle:

(All photos by E.A. Seagraves or Christopher Brooke. Do not use without permission.)

Most of the trails are short and there’s one that is 2.8 miles. We walked most of the trails, walking around the valley’s ridges to get better looks at the trains and valley below:

There’s a train track that runs through the park and is still used to haul coal. Visitors frequently take photos of trains coming through the tunnel. You can either snap pictures from above or below in the valley.

You can get to the valley by walking a short (0.25 mile), steep trail or taking a chair lift. At the bottom is a boardwalk that runs along the train tracks and a creek.

Chris tried to take pictures of what might have been cave swallows, but wasn’t successful.

We also had a surprise while waiting for the swallows and another train to take pictures — a snake! It must have fallen from the rock wall above or was dropped by a bird. You can kind of see what might be gore on the snake’s head here:

All I know is the snake wasn’t there when I looked in that spot a few seconds before and I found it after hearing a thump. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack or pass out. Can you imagine what it would be like if a snake fell on you?
I know next time I’ll take an umbrella with me. : )

A friend who looked at the photo of the snake believes it was a harmless garter snake, but it was pretty angry when we found it. Another friend said she’d be angry too if she were dropped several hundred feet. Yeah, I suppose so.

Here’s some more photos:

This is called “The Carter Cabin.” It’s in the valley below and sits beside the creek on the other side from the tracks.

A shot of another, shorter tunnel trains travel through.

Here’s a sign posted on the boardwalk explaining the history and use of the Natural Tunnel.

I’m not sure what this little fella is, but he’s cute, right?

I tried to get a picture of the train coming through Natural Tunnel, but didn’t get a clear shot. So this picture of the train going through the smaller tunnel will have to do.

I think this lizard looks pregnant. On our way up the first trail we saw at least 3 of these lizards.

Chris took a picture of this pretty view of The Wilderness Road Blockhouse.

Here’s some history on the Blockhouse.

This is a garden behind the Blockhouse. Chris said it reminded him of the gardens around Colonial Williamsburg, Va.


New River State Park, N.C.

While on vacation the week of June 29, Chris and I took a day trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway, visiting Doughton State Park and Moses H. Cone Memorial Park in North Carolina.

On our way home, we discovered North Carolina had its own New River State Park. Virginia’s New River State Park and Trail is a 57 mile long biking, hiking and horse trail. We’ve walked on most of the Virginia trail and were happy to discover more recreational possibilities along the New.

So we took off yesterday toward North Carolina to explore this new park. The main access and visitors’ center is located off of U.S. 221 in Ashe County. There are two other access points accessible by car located off of Wagoner Road and Kings Creek Road, following signs from U.S. 16.

Other access points are only accessible via canoe, including the Alleghany County Access area.

The park is divided into four areas, offering 2,200 acres of camping, fishing, canoeing, hiking and picnicking.

We explored the U.S. 221 access area where several campers and canoers were taking advantage of the weather.

Chris points to some canoers approaching the portage at the U.S. 221 access area.

The U.S. 221 access area has just completed a drive-in, RV camping area. It offers little shade right now, but does have nice gravel pads with fire rings and a hotwater bathhouse close by.

The visitors’ center and ranger station is located next to this camping area. It’s opened 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, but Christmas Day.

Tent camping is located next to the river and is accessed by walking 250 yards from a parking lot located near the boat portage area. I counted 16 sites, perfectly shaded with gravel pads and firerings. All were full.

A hotwater bathhouse and large picnic area were located nearby.

I would love to camp here. I’d enjoy listening to the river rush by and to the birds singing across the river and in the woods behind the camp sites. We heard several birds, including an owl across the river.

The U.S. 221 access offers a mile long loop trail called Hickory Trail. It features oak, hickory, laurel, rhododendron, joe pye weed, blackeyed susans, daisies, blackberries and swamp milkweed. It’s a moderate trail so should be fairly easy for most outdoor enthusiasts.

Swamp milkweed was in bloom along the Hickory Trail.Some of the milkweed was 5 feet tall, the largest I’ve ever seen!

Lots of jewelweed (a.k.a. touch-me-not) lined the path to the primitive campsites next to the New River.
We think this is wild basil, although our wildflower texts say it’s usually more pink. There were some pink spots on these flowers, although you can’t see them here since the picture isn’t that clear.
There was plenty of wildlife around too. We saw dragonflies and morning cloak, wood nymph and frittilary butterflies.
There was also a bright blue bird, most likely an indigo bunting, and deer. Although indigo buntings are actually black, sunlight makes the birds feathers look bright blue.

This little bunny was resting at the edge of the parking lot at the U.S. 221 access portage.

You could see hellbenders, a salamaner that can grow as large as 2 feet long, along the edge of the New. The hellbenders’ habitat is threatened, so if you see this aquatic creature, its best to leave it alone. We didn’t see one, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

The New River State Park also offers a community building and a covered picnic area for those looking to rent facilities for gatherings.

For more information, visit the park’s Web site or contact the park at (336) 982-2587 or new.river@ncmail.net.