Come with us to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park where you can enjoy autumn in three states all at once. Located in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky’s Bell County just past the town of Middlesboro with parts of it in the states of Tennessee and Virginia, it’s 26 miles long, covers 24,000 acres and is from 1 to 4 miles in width. The Cumberland Gap is exactly what it says it is, a gap in the mountain range known as the Cumberland Mountains. This is the route that native Americans took to hunt the bison on their winter grazing grounds, Daniel Boone blazed his Wilderness Road and early settlers used it to head out west to seek their fame and fortune. In the Civil War both the North and the South viewed the gap as valuable property and both sides occupied Cumberland Gap twice.
The Gap area has a rich history and a down home culture, but it’s the fall season that really sets it apart with a kaleidoscope of colors.
Just inside the park’s winding entrance road is the visitor center. This well maintained two story building itself hosts an information center with a museum, interactive displays, a gift shop with items crafted by local artisans and a movie theater. Aptly put by ranger Pam Eddy “The film Daniel Boone and the westward movement is not to be missed”.
Leaving the visitor center on the four-mile long Skyland Road you will arrive at the next feature of the park, the Pinnacle Overlook which is at an elevation of almost one half of a mile. Standing on the guard-railed edge you will be able to see Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Looking out towards Kentucky you can still see the outline of the meteorite crater that the city of Middlesboro was built on. Sumac bushes, maple, poplar, oak and sourwood trees surround you with all the colors and smells of autumn that your senses can handle.
A few miles northeast of the visitor center is Hensley Settlement. Hiking to the Settlement is possible but it’s best to take the scheduled tour bus from the visitor center, the guided tours last approximately four hours. Set on a plateau and surrounded by chestnut rail fence this Appalachian historic scattering of buildings date back to 1903 when Sherman Hensley decided he and his family would have an entirely self sufficient life. The settlement grew and was prosperous for many years and at one time had a population of close to one hundred inhabitants. Your first look at Hensley Settlement will make you think, whoa, this was one tough bunch to build all this in the middle of wilderness. You immediately get a real sense of the word isolation. Many of the buildings still stand today including several cabins, the one room schoolhouse, blacksmith shop and spring house and the cemetery. What you see before you was all built by hand.
There are twenty six known entrances to limestone caves in the park. The most obvious ones have names like gap cave, skylight cave and sand cave. Of these caves Gap cave is the most popular and guided tours will take through these underground caverns. The gap cave has had several names including King Solomon’s cave, soldier’s cave and Cudjo’s cavern .It has been rumored that gap cave in the past was used by highwaymen, runaway slaves and moonshiners. In reality when traveling settlers saw the cave they knew that they were almost through the gap. Later on it was used by civil war soldiers and some of their writing is still visible on the walls. Guide and ranger Scott Teodorsk explains that “The cave is exquisite”The tour lasts approximately two hours and you
will see drip stone and rock formations with names like Cleopatra’s pool and Hercules Stalagmite”.
Southeast of the visitor center is the town of Cumberland Gap which looks like someone picked up a small town and set it carefully in between some mountains. This is where situated in a small valley and next to running brooks is the iron furnace. This historic landmark is where charcoal, limestone and iron ore were mixed together to make iron in the 1800's.
The park has miles of hiking and horse trails,a fitness trail
and both front country and back country
camping. The Wilderness Road campground is located approximately 3 miles from
the park visitor center off of Highway 58 in Virginia. There are over 85 miles
of hiking trails in the park ranging from short, easy 1/4 mile hikes to the 21
mile ridge trail where you can rent a cabin at Martins Fork. Many re enactments take place here.
As locals Donnie and Sandy Vaughn will tell
you “The park is a place we just keep wanting to come back to” and it surely is
worth the trip.
By Jimbob Baird
Kentucky Living Magazine