For an outstanding mix of southern Appalachian hiking and frontier lore, you can do no better than Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Located at the juncture of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, the park straddles the Cumberland Mountains — a small but rugged offshoot of the vast Appalachian Plateau.
Carved by wind and water and used as a transportation corridor since prehistoric times, the narrow mountain pass became a busy gateway for commerce and human migration. Between 1775 and 1810, as many as 300,000 early pioneers and settlers — including Daniel Boone himself — crossed this natural notch heading west into the wilderness of Kentucky.
You can explore more than 85 miles of hiking trails ranging from short, easy strolls to multiday backcountry treks. Here’s how.
Spend the afternoon hiking one of many shorter-distance out-and-back treks like the 2.6-mile Sugar Run Trail. Or spend multiple days on the 21-mile-long Ridge Trail, the park’s premier trek.
Accessible from several trailheads, the footpath spans the length of the park, rising to a high point of 3,513 feet to the east, about 2,300 feet in elevation higher than the visitor center. The trail hugs the backbone of the Cumberland Mountains as it winds through forests of oak, hickory, maple and pine, skirts pristine mountain creeks and, on occasion, breaks out onto rocky outcrops that afford striking vistas of the valleys below.
History abounds. You can find old rutted wagon roads, Civil War cannon emplacements and the Hensley Settlement, the restored remnants of a dozen farmsteads from the early 1900s scattered on an isolated plateau astride Brush Mountain. Keen-eyed hikers might spot anything from deer, foxes and black bears to songbirds, pileated woodpeckers and soaring hawks.
Backcountry Camping Details
An out-and-back hike on the Ridge Trail takes three to five days and gives you the choice of five primitive campsites. Another option is to leave a shuttle vehicle at one end of the trail and traverse it only one way. In either case, a backcountry permit is required and can be obtained, free of charge, at the park visitor center.
Car Camping Details: Open from mid-March to mid-November, the park’s 160-site Wilderness Road Campground is about 3 miles from the visitor center off Highway 58 in Virginia. Electrical hook-ups, running water and restrooms with hot showers are available. Camping fees range from $14 to $20 per night per site. Reservations for group campsites ($35 per night) can be made up to 90 days in advance.
Although much of the park is roadless wilderness, the few roads there make for fascinating drives. A favorite is the 4-mile-long Pinnacle Road that switchbacks up the steep, rugged slopes east of the gap. Several pullovers lead to sites of interest. The first is Fort McCook, where Civil War cannon emplacements still stand guard on the high ground, aimed at the mountainside approaches below. A little farther on, at a parking area at road’s end, a walk of 200 yards leads to the Pinnacle Overlook (elevation 2,440 feet), where spectacular views can be had into Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
A few miles east of the Hensley Settlement and reached by the Ridge Trail is Sand Cave, with its 75-foot-high sandstone overhang — one of the largest “rockhouses” in the eastern United States. Also nearby is a sheer cliff face called White Rocks, which has long been a landmark for travelers crossing the gap. Even Daniel Boone was enthralled by this massive limestone outcropping. Passing the White Rocks in the fall of 1773, he wrote: “The aspect of these cliffs is so wild and horrid that it is impossible to behold them without terror.”
Did You Know?
Cumberland Gap was so strategically important during the Civil War that it was called the “Keystone of the Confederacy” and the “Gibraltar of America.” Both armies held and fortified this key passageway against the invasion that never came. The gap exchanged hands four times, to be finally abandoned in 1866 by the Union army.
A variety of special programs are held at the park from spring through fall, including foot-stomping bluegrass hoe-downs, mountain dulcimer and banjo concerts, spine-tingling Appalachian tales, wildflower hikes, rails-to-trails bicycle rides, quiltfests and shooting-star extravaganzas. For schedule information, call the park or check nps.gov/cuga
When to Go
Spring and fall are usually best; in October, the mountains come alive with brilliant fall foliage. Summers are typically hot and humid while winters are generally mild, with rain and some periods of snow January through March. If backcountry hiking, note temperatures on the mountain are at least 10 degrees cooler than the neighboring valleys.
The park’s visitor center is at the juncture of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia and is entered via U.S. 25E, about 60 miles northeast of Knoxville, Tenn.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, 606-248-2817, nps.gov/cuga