The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel – a Wonder, a Marvel, a Dream

The first time I crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, I thought I was in a dream, my recurring one. In it, my father drives me alone, age 4, in the backseat, telling me about this amazing place where our car will glide on water. Suddenly, we’re there. A magic road. And water is everywhere I look. Then he tells me we’re about to go underneath the water. I grip the door. “Don’t be afraid,” he said.

When I first experienced the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT) in 2017, it seemed just like my dream.

Driving from Upstate New York to Virginia Beach with a childhood friend, I was a sightseeing passenger and didn’t know we’d be crossing until I saw the signs. Having an unobstructed view on such a long bridge, made this feel surreal, like a floating roadway.

View of CBBT from front car window.
View of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel from the car. Photo by Karen M. Free

To fully understand the magnificence of this structure, you need to see an aerial view.  

aerial view of CBBT tunnel section
Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
aerial view of CBBT
Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

The Roads, Bridges, Tunnels, and Islands of the CBBT

The CBBT travel brochure shows some impressive figures:

  • 17.6 miles from shore to shore
  • 12 miles of trestle roadway
  • Two mile-long tunnels
  • Two bridges
  • Four artificial islands
  • 5.5 miles of approach roads

The two tunnels allow ships to pass through two shipping channels from the Atlantic Ocean, the Thimble Shoal Channel and the Chesapeake Channel. Ships that use the Thimble Shoal Channel include cargo ships, cruise ships and various types of military ships (submarines, destroyers, aircraft carriers) from the nearby military base.

We saw a ship headed toward the bridge-tunnel during our trip.  

Ship approaching the CBBT.
Photo by Karen M. Free

As someone with a bit of claustrophobia, I was especially glad my friend was driving when we got to the tunnels and that the traffic was light. And her way of experiencing engineering marvels is to blare music to create a soundtrack for the occasion. So, sing-yelling the lyrics to our favorite Meat Loaf rock anthems for over 17 miles of bridge-tunnel seemed right for the occasion.

The Award-Winning Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

The CBBT was chosen as one of the “Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World” following its opening on April 15, 1964.

The American Society of Civil Engineers named it an “Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement” in 1965.

Sightseers, Birders and Fishers are All Welcome Here

This bridge-tunnel is more than a way to connect Virginia Beach/Norfolk with Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It is also a place where bird lovers and fishers gather on a 625-foot pier to pursue their passions. Birders can catch sight of birds stopping to rest on the islands.

When we were passing through, we saw signs that the pier was closed. It remains closed in 2022. However, birders can still go to Island #3 and Island #4 at the Chesapeake Channel to watch birds. Next time, I know to plan ahead and submit an application so I can get a permit as birders need to be accompanied by CBBT staff.

Some of the birds seen on the islands include the American white pelican, king eider, brant, harlequin duck, red-breasted merganser, peregrine falcon, American oystercatcher, little gull, black-tailed gull, northern gannets, according to the CBBT website page on birding.

And if you like harbor seals, you may be able to find them resting or playing at the base of the rocks on the islands from mid-November to mid-April.

The Scenic Overlook on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

If you’re on the southern section of Virginia’s Eastern Shore and headed toward Virginia Beach, you can stop off at the Scenic Overlook. It’s open 24/7. You can park and get out to see the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and the CBBT as well.

For more information on birding, see the Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Programs.

Changes at the CBBT

The construction that began in 2017 is for a parallel tunnel at the Thimble Shoal Channel. The southernmost island that had the gift shop, restaurant and pier was affected. The restaurant and gift shop were demolished. The pier will be renovated and reopened to the public when the construction for the new tunnel is completed, which will be around 2026, according to Paige Addison, marketing specialist for the CBBT.

View of CBBT looking out front car window
Photo with dream filter by Karen M. Free.

Wandering into my recurring dream was a little jolting. But it filled out the details suitable for a fantasy novel. Miles of floating roadway. Wide-open views of the bay, the ocean beyond it, with water that looked close enough to touch. An underground passageway or two that only the brave dare pass through. Military vessels coming and going. What better world could be built for a hero’s journey? Maybe a place to rest, get out the binoculars and search for strange-looking flying creatures lurking nearby. And a rock anthem soundtrack. Definitely.

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