Cumberland Gap has everything that other national parks have—except the crowds.
I’m standing at the mouth of a massive cave with an arched opening spanning 250 feet across, carpeted by thick sand, and a waterfall tumbling down the entrance. The arched cavern is something you might find in the deserts of Utah, but it’s sitting on top of Cumberland Mountain along the Virginia-Kentucky border, tucked inside a lush forest of green hardwoods, an isolated ecosystem unlike anything around it. Even more amazing is that relatively few hikers even know that it exists. Sand Cave is part of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, a 24,000-acre paradise with some of the most dramatic landscape in the South—and only a fraction of the fanfare.
“We have everything that the Smokies has— except the crowds,” says Carol Borneman, an interpreter for the park. “You can set foot on most of the trails on the mountain and usually never see another person.”
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park is long and skinny, running 26 miles along Cumberland Mountain as it divides Virginia from Kentucky. The mountain itself rises 2,000 feet from the valley floor in an abrupt wall of green vegetation and white sandstone bluffs. The gap is a two-mile wide low notch in the otherwise impregnable 131-mile Cumberland Mountain that offered pioneers in the 1700s the most suitable path to the West along the entire Appalachian Mountain range between New York to Alabama. The low gap was formed when Yellow Creek eroded a path through the mountain, but Cumberland rose faster than the creek could erode, forcing the stream to change course and leaving the gap dry.
Large game like bison and elk first started using the gap as a link from the eastern forests to the salt licks and grazing prairies to the west. Native Americans followed the game trail to the hunting grounds on the western side of the mountains, and eventually white pioneers followed the Indian path through the gap to explore the western frontier that would later become Kentucky. In 1775, the Transylvania Land Company hired Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the gap enabling settlers to reach a 20-million-acre plot the company had previously negotiated from the Shawnee Indians. Boone and his crew of 30 marked and cut a 208-mile trail from Kingsport, Tenn., to Cumberland Gap in just three weeks.
This Wilderness Trail through the V-shaped gap was the first gateway to the West—a window of exploration that settlers along the Eastern seaboard were hungry for. By 1792, some 100,000 pioneers had made the trek into Kentucky, making the pilgrimage even through the turmoil of the Revolutionary War. Later, the trail was widened to accommodate wagons, turning the path into a veritable thoroughfare for settlers moving west. By 1810, 300,000 people had moved through the gap into the Bluegrass State. Use of the trail and Cumberland Gap would begin to decline in the 1830s, when steamboats and canals became the preferred mode of transport.
It’s unlikely that many of those original western pioneers ever set foot inside Sand Cave. Even today, it takes quite an effort to reach the door of this massive rock house. Of the 24,000 acres designated as a national park on Cumberland Mountain, 14,000 of them are currently proposed and managed as Wilderness. The only paved road inside the park leads to the Pinnacle, a rocky outcropping sitting at 2,440 feet in elevation on the northern lip of the famous gap. If you want to go anywhere else in the park, you have to hike there or ride a horse. The fastest way to reach Sand Cave, for instance, involves a 2,000-foot climb and several miles of hiking.
There are 85 miles of trail inside the park leading to rocky bluffs, sandstone caves, waterfalls, and preserved historical settlements. The ridge of the mountain is so remote that elk and bobcat have moved back into the park. Last spring, researchers found peregrine falcons soaring above White Rocks, the 500-foot sandstone cliffs on the northern end of the mountain. Rangers even receive two or three reliable panther sightings each year. Much of that diversity in wildlife is due to the lack of human interruption within the park. Cumberland Gap sees less than 1.5 million visitors a year (compare that to the 9 million annual visitors to the Smokies), and most of those visitors are history buffs or day hikers exploring the more developed Pinnacle near the visitor’s center. Very few bother to venture into the Wilderness that envelops the mountain away from the roads.
But Cumberland Gap has the potential to become a hub of trail activity again. Plans are underway to fill the missing links along the 300-mile-long Cumberland Trail, which has its northern terminus at Cumberland Gap. When that long trail is complete, hikers will be able to walk from Chattanooga to Cumberland Gap along the impressive Cumberland Plateau. And eventually, the 140-mile Pine Mountain Trail will reach Cumberland Gap near the Pinnacle, connecting the gap with Virginia’s Breaks Interstate Park via a rugged footpath.
Today, most of the trails within the park have a wide corridor to accommodate equestrians (this is horse country, after all), but the tread can be as rugged as anything you’ll find in the Smokies or Shenandoah. And the elevation gain can be startling when hiking from the base of the mountain to the ridge.
“You’re not going to find any trails more challenging than what we have here in the park,” says Curtis Combs, a Cumberland Gap, Tenn. local who grew up backpacking the mountain and eventually helped found the Hill Toppers, the local trail running club. “There’s a trail we run every Saturday morning that’s so steep, it’s as if they didn’t know what a switchback was when they were laying it out.”
No other park puts outdoor pursuits in perspective like Cumberland Gap. One of the historical markers situated along Wilderness Trail displays a journal entry from 1803 detailing the trek through the gap in the dead of winter. The author describes “five hundred [people] crossing the rude hills…men, women, and children, almost naked, paddling barefoot and bare-legged along, or labouring up the rocky hills, whilst those who are best off have only a horse for two or three children to ride at once.”
As I sit on the edge of the Gap, sweating and tired after a long hike, I imagine crossing this mountain by foot in winter, having to hunt for dinner along the way, worrying about Indian attacks and starvation. Suddenly I feel less exhausted—and a lot more grateful.
Sugar Run Trail is a 2.5-mile climb up to the ridge of Cumberland Mountain on the Kentucky side of the park. It’s wide, like most trails within the park, to accommodate horses. It passes through a stand of old-growth hemlocks at the bottom, but it gets steeper as it approaches the junction of Ridge Trail. Head south on the Ridge Trail to the Pinnacle, a rocky outcropping with views of Fern Lake and the surrounding valleys.
Hiking the first few miles of the northern terminus of the Cumberland Trail makes for a good out and back over varied terrain. The trek starts at Tri-State Peak, where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia all converge, then heads south along the ridge of Cumberland Mountain on the south side of the Gap. You can hike the Cumberland Trail for 11 miles to Cove Lake State Park, but you’ll pass most of the goodies within the first few miles from Tri-State Peak. You’ll hike along a vista-filled ridge, pass through a crevice in a rock outcropping, and trace the inside of a vertical rock wall with a natural window cut into its heart.
The Hill Toppers Running Club has mapped out a tough nine-mile loop that includes a cave, ridgetop views, and some of the finest singletrack in Tennessee. Start the run at the Daniel Boone Parking Lot just outside of the town of Cumberland Gap, then run the Boone Trail for 1.6 miles as it follows the base of Cumberland Mountain north. Hook up with the Lewis Hollow Trail from the Wilderness Road Picnic Area and begin your 1,500-foot ascent of Cumberland Mountain in one mile. The trail passes through a narrow gorge that houses Skylight Cave, a shallow rock house that makes a perfect water break. When you reach the top of the mountain, pick up Ridgeline Trail and head south for two miles as it rises and falls with the contour of the land. You’re literally running on the line that separates Kentucky from Virginia here. Pass by the Pinnacle and drop off the mountain via the Fort Cook Trail, which is primo, groomed singletrack that offers a fast, fun downhill. Pick up a piece of the Harlan Road, then hang a left on Wilderness Road back to your car. This final stretch takes you on the same path many Americans followed to a more promising future in the new Western frontier.
If you backpack the Ridge Trail, which runs along the crest of Cumberland Mountain for 17 miles, you’ll be able to visit all of Cumberland Gap’s must-see spots. You’ll need two cars or a shuttle to keep from backtracking. Start at the parking lot at the Pinnacle and head north, passing the chimney spires that mark the Pinnacle, then head north on the Ridge Trail which oscillates between singletrack and a wider primitive road. Hit Gibson Gap Campsite at mile 5.5, where you’ll spend the night 2,000 feet above the nearest town. Day two has six more miles of ridgeline hiking. Along the way, enjoy views from rocky outcroppings on the Virginia side of the trail. Head straight for Hensley Camp, then hike west to the Hensley Settlement, where a handful of families set up permanent residence in 1904 to escape the rapid changes of the 20th century. At its peak, Hensley Settlement was home to 25 completely self-sufficient families, living much the same way the pioneers did in the early 1800s. Today, you’ll find restored cabins and a family cemetery at the settlement. Day three is packed with highlights. Start your hike early and walk 3.4 miles along the Ridge Trail to the Sand Cave. Have lunch on the sandy cave floor, which was created by eons of water erosion that turned the sandstone into the fine sand, then climb back up the ridge and head to the White Rocks Overlook, where you’ll stand on top of the 500-foot tall sandstone cliffs with views stretching for hundreds of miles below you. Time it right and you might see peregrine falcons soaring away from the cliffs. The backpack ends with a three mile descent along Ewing Trail, which is a rocky roadbed that switchbacks down the side of Cumberland Mountain, dropping 2,000 feet in the process. Have your shuttle or second car waiting at Civic Park in Virginia at the bottom of the Ewing Trail. •