Blue Ridge Tunnel Accessibility Day Makes Dreams Come True
Greg Hosaflook and his family got up at 5 a.m. in preparation for their trip from Louisa County, Virginia, to the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel, but it was actually an event that Greg, a history buff, had been waiting for his entire life. Constructed in the 1850s to bring the new-fangled railroad through the mountains and into Staunton, the tunnel was an engineering marvel.
“I couldn’t sleep all night thinking about today,” Hosaflook enthused. “It was an even better experience than I thought it would be. Having the opportunity to go through the tunnel while hearing the stories about its history and construction was amazing.”
Over in Chester, Virginia, Will Oldaker was ecstatic when he found out the second accessibility day to the newly opened tunnel was Saturday, Sept. 24. That was his “Freedom Day,” the first day he was allowed out of isolation after a stem cell transplant for multiple myeloma.
Closer to home, the trio of Amy and Greg Eye and Barbara Ramsey live in the western shadow of Afton Mountain through which the 4,264-foot tunnel passes, accessible via the Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail. They had heard about the tunnel all their lives, but they never felt physically up to taking on the 2.6-mile roundtrip to experience the tunnel firsthand. Then came news of Blue Ridge Tunnel Accessibility Day, offered by Nelson County Parks and Recreation Department in partnership with the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, and they jumped at the opportunity to see the marvel for themselves.
The trio was as excited at the conclusion of their tour as they were at the beginning. “We are thankful for this opportunity,” said Ramsey. “We never would have gotten to see the tunnel without this special day.”
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Nelson County’s parks and recreation department under Jerry West oversees the tunnel’s operations and works closely with the foundation, a group that draws its name from both the historic tunnel name (Blue Ridge) and the 19th-century engineer (Claudius Crozet) who designed it. Collectively, the public-private partnership supports the restoration, reuse and historical interpretation of the tunnel that links Virginia’s Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley.
The Blue Ridge Tunnel had a rich life as a railroad conduit until the 1940s, when modern diesel engines found the tunnel a tight squeeze. Crozet’s engineering marvel was abandoned, and for over half a century, the tunnel deteriorated. In 2006, Allen Hale was elected to the Nelson County Board of Supervisors just as some were eyeing the historic tunnel as a potential rails-to-trails corridor, and he fully embraced the project.
Since the tunnel’s 2020 opening, the $5 million–$6 million restoration project has accommodated 180,000 visitors, who have journeyed (from the tunnel's eastern or western parking lots) three quarters of a mile on a crushed-stone trail through the damp darkness, 500 feet beneath the mountain, to reach the other end of the tunnel and then retraced their steps.
Although thousands have now trekked the tunnel, many people with disabilities could not visit the engineering marvel until West hatched the idea of holding a tunnel accessibility day in April 2022—where visitors could experience the tunnel by golf cart. Members of the tunnel committee reached out to the area’s retirement communities to spread awareness about the opportunity, and the foundation helped generate interest as well. The event left people clamoring for more, resulting in a fall event that replicated the spring success.
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During each accessibility-day event, more than 100 people explored the tunnel, hosted by volunteer drivers who regaled visitors with stories about the tunnel’s history and restoration. The conclusion of each 35–45-minute trip through the tunnel resulted in effusive thanks, hugs and a few kisses. One of the most enthusiastic golf cart drivers was a grinning Allen Hale, eager to show visitors “his tunnel.”
“It has been gratifying to see how many people are enjoying this tunnel,” he said. “But some wouldn’t be able to see it and enjoy it without a wonderful event such as this.”
Nelson County’s West echoed Hale’s enthusiasm. “We would occasionally receive phone calls asking if there was a way to help people [with mobility impairments] get up to the tunnel. Thus, it was a no brainer to have a dedicated day. The first event in April turned out to be a huge success, so we decided on making it a twice-annual event and plan to do so in years to come,” he explained.
The affirmation of his idea came from the participants. From her golf cart seat, 94-year-old Janet Ewing leaned on her cane and gazed up at the western portal. “Isn’t it amazing?” she said. “I am thinking about the ingenuity and hard work of those original builders and also for those today who made this opportunity available. I want to thank them all—those from the past and those now.”
As the Oldaker family scrambled from their golf cart after their tour through the dark tunnel, each tried to put into words what the experience meant to them. “Beautiful,” “fun” and “a trip to the past” were phrases spilling from their lips.
Will Oldaker, experiencing his first trip back to the real world after his 100 days away from society, probably said it best: “To come out of isolation and take a trip like this is a great way to celebrate!”
Related: Trail Moments | Adapting Trail Trips for a Hiker With a Disability: A Family’s Advice
Rail-Trails: Mid-Atlantic Guidebook
Want to experience this rail-trail or some of the other great trail destinations in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., or West Virginia? You’ll find maps, helpful details and beautiful photos of 60+ multiuse trails across the region in our Rail-Trails: Mid-Atlantic Guidebook, available from RTC’s Trail Shop.