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The Coolest Hike in Virginia

The long-anticipated opening of the Claudius Crozet Tunnel has moved the spotlight to beautiful, peaceful Nelson County and exciting, artistic Waynesboro, Virginia. The juxtaposition of these two places create a unique opportunity for visitors to visit both sides of the much-visited Blue Ridge Mountains. The tunnel bridges the gap between cityscape and countryside, and makes a fun destination that works for everyone- artists, gardeners, history buffs, railroad aficionados, environmentalists, hikers, campers, craft beverage enthusiasts, and lovers of the unusual.

The Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel is a part of a greenway system connecting three counties. It runs through Afton Mountain under Rockfish Gap. The Appalachian Trail is located above it as well. The Eastern portal is in Nelson and the Western entrance is in Augusta County near Waynesboro. This trail is for hikers and cyclists of every level, wildlife watchers, history enthusiasts, railroad buffs, heritage tourists, school children on field trips, and nearby residents.

The tunnel pierces through history; those with an interest in history should look out for the interpretive signs along the 2.25 mile trail that relay more information as one travels the trail. The tunnel itself was designed by French engineer Claudius Crozet and was built between 1850 and 1858, years before the invention of dynamite. When it was completed, the Blue Ridge Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the United States.

The trip through the tunnel is about a mile long, and it’s a stirring experience for a variety of visitors.

Visitors can jog, walk, or bike while admiring the raw, exposed rock and bricked walls and ceiling. Of course, this isn’t the only jarring thing about the tunnel. There’s another surprising twist to this attraction- those who enter must bring flashlights and headlamps! That’s right- the tunnel isn’t lit! Be very brave.

What’s more- there are plenty of activities in Nelson County and in Waynesboro, so you and yours can pack in days’ worth of experiences. Once your eyes adjust to the light again, enjoy a few of Waynesboro’s attractions, then wind down in Nelson County. Create your own mix-and-match day or weekend excursion with a jump over the Blue Ridge.

Visitors to Waynesboro can enjoy a walkable downtown area, restaurants, shops, museums, and art installations.

Waynesboro’s Heritage Museum features both permanent and rotating exhibit galleries. A quilt hand-sewn by Waynesboro residents is available at the front entryway as a symbol of community pride.

The artist in you will find interest in the Waynesboro Murals. They cover entire buildings and can be seen in various places throughout the city. StreetArt360 named the murals #1 in Top 100 Urban Art in 2019. There’s even a Waynesboro Street Arts Trail, an annual Virginia Street Arts Festival and a free scavenger hunt. There are also other self-guided walking excursions available: the Tree Street Historic District Tour, the downtown historical tour, and a tour of the murals of Waynesboro. The visitor center is located at 301 West Main Street.

If you are thinking of adding a hands-on experience to add your child’s online learning, or you’re just a history buff yourself, visit Augusta County’s former manufacturing boomtown, Basic City. Named after the process of basic oxygen steelmaking, For a more in-depth visit, see Basic City Beer Company, which is set up in the former Virginia Metalcrafters complex. If you want to bring Fido, it’s no problem- dogs are allowed!

Visit the city’s parks next. Stroll over to Waynesboro’s Ridgeview Park and/or the South River Greenway. Ridgeview Park 85-acre park offers views of the South River. If you’re a gardener, you’ll like viewing one of Ridgeview Park’s many gardens. The South River Greenway, aptly named, runs for over a mile along the South River.

To enjoy a little bit of the unusual side of history, visit the downtown Russell Museum. The museum also focuses on the former residents of Swannanoa Palace (head over to Nelson County and see Swannanoa for yourself, too). The museum is no lightweight; sixty tons of artwork created by Walter Bowman Russell, an Impressionist American artist and author, is held in the building, which encompasses 32,000 square feet. Also featured are photos and documents from Swannanoa Palace.

There isn’t much that can prepare you for all Nelson County has to offer, but before heading to the Central Virginia hidden gem, you may want to visit a store on your way out our town to prepare for hiking and more naturalist adventures. Check out Rockfish Gap Outfitters before you leave Waynesboro. The huge store is over 7,000 square feet of backpacking, bicycling, camping, and hiking gear. The store itself is named for the wind gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains between Charlottesville and Waynesboro, where the Blue Ridge Tunnel is located.

For a more relaxed pace, Nelson County is the destination. No place can better compliment the action in Waynesboro. It’s the birthplace of the hit TV show, The Waltons. Visitors flock to the tranquil locale to pay homage to the show, hit the ski slopes at Wintergreen and be treated to some of the most inventive and varied craft beverages in the world. Don’t forget picking some of the most crisp, sweet apples that you’ve ever tasted.

If you’re visiting Nelson during the fall, you’re not alone- Nelson is wildly popular when the Blue Ridge changes out of her green dress and dons her fiery gown. Start with a wildlife experience. View majestic birds at the Rockfish Hawk Watch. The Watch is one of over 200 in North America and collects data during the birds’ fall migration. It’s possible to drive to the location, park, and watch the hawks. Enjoy the 180-degree views of Rockfish Gap, the Piedmont, and the Shenandoah Valley.

Want to do a little picking yourself? Travel to Nelson County to Critzer Family Farm next. This 5th-generation farm provides county residents and visitors alike with fresh produce. They offer seasonal fruits and vegetables, plants, and hand-churned ice cream. Travel on Nelson County’s picturesque Route 151 and stop at Dickie Brothers 151 Farm Market. Grab fresh apple cider, tomatoes, jellies, apple butter, pumpkins, tomatoes, and check out their selection of fresh apples straight from the orchard in Massies Mill.

Continue along Nelson County’s Route 151.

It’s affectionately called “Virginia’s Long Weekend Address,” and this famed craft beverage trail includes breweries, cideries, distilleries, wineries, and a meadery. Most 151 craft beverage producers host special events on selected weekends and usually include music and food along with tastings. Nelson 151 is located along a beautiful stretch of scenic byway, complete with Blue Ridge Mountain views. Flying Fox Vineyard in Afton is reminiscent of The Waynesboro Murals, so keep them in mind as you approach. Those who visit Flying Fox Vineyard relish the stunning décor. Industrial furniture and huge murals furnish and adorn the building, and art is everywhere you look. A huge black-and-white outdoor mural adorns the building. Further south is Hill Top Berry Farm and Winery, where you can enjoy the indoor beehive. Watch bees enter and exit the building and get a little buzz of your own on Hill Top’s wine and meads.

With the wonder of nature’s and human art still in your heart, visit Afton Mountain Vineyards. This beautiful vineyard is one of Virginia’s first farm wineries, and some of their first vines are still producing today. Nearby Veritas Vineyard and Winery, with a verandah that has some of the best mountain views around. If hard cider is your passion, Nelson County boasts three cideries: Bryant’s Small Batch Hard Cider, Blue Toad Hard Cider, and Bold Rock Hard Cider.

Cardinal Point Winery is near the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline drive and creates high-quality, creative wines. Another wonderful winery is 12 Ridges Vineyard, which offers 360-degree views and sparkling, cool-climate wines.

Nelson County has many craft breweries to visit as well. Brewing Tree Beer Company offers craft brews and the Scratch Kitchen food truck, and Devils Backbone Brewery treats patrons to a dynamic dining experience and outdoor spaces. Devils Backbone Camp has campsites as well, with both RV hookup sites and primitive sites available.

Don’t forget to make a visit to Silverback Distillery, the only mother-daughter distilling duo in the nation crafting high quality, award-winning spirits.  

If you are needing a little WanderLove, take a drive on the Nelson Scenic Loop. The Loop is a 50-mile auto and bike tour that includes four Virginia-designated scenic byways. The drive winds around the Rockfish Valley, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Tye River Valley in beautiful Nelson County.

For more information about the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel and suggestions for how to create your own Tunnel-based getaway, call the Nelson County Visitors Center at 434-263-7015.

All photos by Jack Looney

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