Along the Virginia and Kentucky state line lies Cumberland Mountain, a high ridge which stretches almost one hundred miles all the way from Norton, Virginia to Caryville, Tennessee. Marking the eastern edge of the rugged Cumberland Mountains, the ridge’s rocky outcrops and soaring cliffs reach heights of over three thousand feet. It serves as a popular hiking destination and is home to the Cumberland Trail State Park, offering sweeping views of the Tennessee Valley far below and the Unaka mountain ranges beyond.
In the earliest years of our nation, the steep slopes and cliffs of the mountain weren’t enjoyed for their beauty, but were instead a source of consternation for weary travelers. With no significant water gaps, explorers were forced to make difficult climbs or faced significant detours. It wasn’t until the year 1775, that a rather famous character known as Daniel Boone blazed a trail through the Cumberland Gap and beyond into the wilds of Kentucky.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is centered around that mountain pass which served as the gateway to the Midwest for hundreds of thousands of settlers looking to make a new life for themselves in those newly-opened lands. Covering more than 20,000 acres, the national park is home to a visitor center, campground, picnic area, 85+ miles of trails, and a guided cave tour. In addition, the historic Hensley Settlement preserves an authentic mountain community and can be toured as well. Several days are needed to explore the park in its entirety, but for those of use lucky enough to live a short drive away, a day trip is a great introduction to the park as well.
Visitors approaching the park from the Tennessee side will pass through the Cumberland Gap Tunnel. This marvel of engineering was constructed in 1996 to alleviate the high levels of traffic passing along the original highway which passed through the gap on a daily basis. Immediately after exiting the tunnel is a ramp which leads to the park’s main visitor center. Stop by to pick up maps, explore the historical museum, and get your national park stamp cancellation. Ranger Sharon Griffin was amazing on our visit and can guide visitors towards a myriad of destinations depending on their time and what they want to see. A paved bike trail passes in front of the building, and a short one-mile loop trail provides a quick introduction to the mixed mesophytic forests which are found across the Cumberland plateau region.
First time visitors to the park will want to make a right turn onto Pinnacle View Road, the park’s main scenic drive which leads to the Pinnacle Overlook. Steep switchbacks climb the side of Cumberland Mountain until the road terminates at a parking lot. From here, it’s just a short walk along a paved trail to the overlook. A well-known tourist attraction in time before the park’s establishment, the sweeping vistas of the overlook were capitalized on as cars paid a fee to climb the first road which led to the summit. Views stretch for over a hundred miles on a clear day, ranging from the Powell River Valley and the town of Cumberland Gap immediately below to Mount LeConte and the Smokies on the distant horizon. Middlesboro, Kentucky lies to the right with the scarred mountainsides of the Cumberlands beyond.
Although several trails begin at this point and scatter across the park, we decided to head back down the mountain to hike through the gap itself. Returning along Pinnacle View Road, park at the Thomas Walker Parking Area at the road’s intersection with Kentucky 988. Object Lesson Road Trail begins at the south side of the parking lot and lazily climbs through the forest and several fields as it approaches the gap. Interpretive displays discuss the history and importance of the gap, from Daniel Boone’s first trip through all the way to the Civil War. Several forts protected the gap and were occupied by Union and Confederate forces at different times throughout the war.
As you finally reach the saddle of Cumberland Gap, it’s hard to believe that a highway used to pass through this area. When the tunnel was opened in 1996, the paved road through the gap was removed and the area restored to its natural state. Although it will take another hundred years for the forest to reclaim and restore the area to its original state, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the bison, Cherokee warriors, or European settlers who passed through this gap making their way along the wooded path.
From this point, there are several hiking options for those who are more adventurous. A right turn will climb half a mile to Tri-State Peak; here visitors can stand in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia all at the same time. A left turn onto Harlan Road Trail climbs back up to intersect with Pinnacle View Road. We decided to return a short ways and then take the Wilderness Road Trail. This mile-long trail makes a loop back to the parking area and provides the only place in the park where visitors can walk on the original Wilderness Road. While the tread is fairly rocky, it’s a great experience to walk in the footsteps of Daniel Boone himself and see such a legendary part of our local history.
Photo: Historical cannons are found throughout the park reminding visitors of the gaps importance during the civil war.
Directions: From I-81 South, take exit 12 and merge right onto TN-160 towards Morristown. At 3.2 miles, merge right again onto U.S. 25E North. Follow this road for 47 miles and take the first exit after the Cumberland Gap Tunnel onto Pinnacle View Road. The park is free and open year round. For further information, visit www.nps.gov/cuga.