Legends tell and retell the story of a young couple desperately in love but forced by their families to remain separate. Across the centuries, whether portrayed in Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy or passed down in the legends of the Cherokee, the tale of two kindred souls torn apart is once of the most romantic and doleful stories that will be ever told. Located in the rolling countryside of Scott County, Virginia, Lover’s Leap is the famed site of one iteration of the tale.
Longtime enemies, the Cherokee and the Shawnee fought for the control of resources and hunting grounds throughout the areas where the Southeast and Midwest merged. Romance knows no tribal boundaries, however, and so the forces of love brought together the lives of a young maid and a brave from the rival tribes. When faced with the wrath of their clans, instead of bending to the will of those who would control them, they stole away into the night to meet one last time. Climbing the rocky pinnacle that overlooks Natural Tunnel, they watched the sun rise one last time before joining hands and jumping to an eternity together in the afterlife.
Today you can climb to that windy peak and take in the same breathtaking view, as the craggy summit has been protected as part of Natural Tunnel State Park. Established in 1967 to protect the remarkable cavern known as Natural Tunnel, the park was opened to the public in 1971. Visitors had been coming to the location for well over a century, however, as the site has been famous throughout the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic region ever since Daniel Boone discovered it while blazing the Wilderness Road. Many visitors saw the area then by train, as a passenger rail line was routed through the tunnel back in the late 1800’s.
Currently the state park covers 909 acres of rolling hills, plunging cliffs, rocky spires. The park facilities a split on either side of the canyon which divides the natural playground. Entering the main gate on the southern side of the park will bring you to the main park visitor center. Here you will find a museum which covers the park and surrounding area’s varied history as well as a store with great park souvenirs and trail maps. This is also where you’ll be able to purchase tickets for one of the park’s most popular attractions. The chairlift station lies just across the road from the visitor center and takes those who can brave the heights on an exhilarating trip down the steep mountainside to the valley floor far below.
If that’s not your thing, a wonderful hiking trail weaves its way slowly down to the same point, allowing more time to pause and take in the amazing canyon walls that plunge from heights of several hundred feet. At the gorge floor, the trail splits in two different directions. A quick trip to the right will lead to the historic Carter Cabin, while a left turn will take you to the park’s main attraction. The boardwalk crisscrosses the creek which spills from the tunnel, allowing for some picturesque photographs. Please be careful on the last portion of the trail, for you will need to cross the train tracks which still pass through the tunnel. While the passenger trains of the last century are gone, locomotives loaded with coal still pass through the area several times a day.
Finally, you will have reached the amazing geological feature for which the park is named. Stretching almost a thousand feet through a limestone ridge, the tunnel was carved out with water and the stream which passes through it over ages gone by. The tunnel stands almost one hundred feet high. It is somewhat disappointing that visitors are not allowed to walk through the tunnel due to the presence of the rail line, but the view from the outside is by no means unimpressive. Further adding to the grandeur are the sheer cliffs which almost completely encircle the entrance, making a natural amphitheater which echoes and reverberates the sounds of the stream.
Back up on the gorge rim, you can get an even more impressive view by walking the Lover’s Leap Trail which begins just behind the visitor center. An observation area allows for stupendous views which might cause some to get weak in the knees. Don’t worry; a strong fence lines the cliff edge to keep inquisitive folks safe. Keep going 0.36 of a mile to reach the end of the trail, high atop Lover’s Leap itself. Here you are almost directly above the tunnel entrance, and nothing but air separates you from the creek hundreds of feet below.
We have barely scratched the surface of all the activities available for those who visit this little-known gem of southwest Virginia. The Bowling Cave is accessible only by ranger-led tours and features some of the karst rock formations that helped to create the natural tunnel. Hiking trails wander through all the landscapes of the state park and offer access to bikers as well. Swimming is a great activity in the summer season, and a picnic area nearby can accommodate larger events or intimate family gatherings. A large campground encourages visitors to linger during the warmer months. Cabins are also available to rent for two-night minimum stays during the off season. It is advised to reserve the cabins up to thirty days in advance during the busy season to make sure they are available.
December is possibly one of the best months to visit the park, as the reserve is currently holding their Christmas Lighting of the Tunnel event. While the park grounds and facilities near the visitor center are adorned with festive lights, a fabulous light show takes place at the tunnel entrance below. Lights line the boardwalk and hiking trail as well. Local bands serenade the natural amphitheater with the festive sounds of the season, while Santa Claus himself welcomes everyone with open arms for a one-on-one meet and greet. Historical reenactments of Christmases long, long ago are brought to live at the Carter Cabin. You can enjoy all these festive activities while also enjoying the warm gooiness of s’mores or sipping hot cocoa. Check the park website for information on this special event and to find out what days you can visit.
Photo: From atop the rock cliffs, you can see the mammoth opening of Natural Tunnel with the railroad and observation deck.