Back to the Gap
A huge restoration project in America’s second largest national park has returned the Wilderness Trail to the way it looked in the 1700s
Ten thousand years ago, great buffalo herds carved the trail on which I walk, crossing hundreds of wilderness miles for a mere drink of salty water. They were heading south along the formidable Cumberland Mountains looking for that break in the barrier—the Cumberland Gap, the path of least resistance. It would lead them to large salty springs, bubbling from deep beneath the earth—natural salt licks.
The Native Americans followed the buffalo, using the Gap as their route to the hunting grounds of Kentucky. It was also part of “The Warrior’s Path” that led from the Potomac River to the Ohio River.
Next came early frontiersmen—long rifle hunters and land surveyors including Dr. Thomas Walker, who named Cumberland Gap and the Cumberland River. Daniel Boone came next, with his crew of 30 backwoodsmen who hacked a 208-mile trail in less than two weeks. Immigration began immediately and 300,000 settlers followed. Boone’s trail evolved into the “Wilderness Road” and the American West opened up.
The next part of the story isn’t very pretty. People paved paradise, putting a highway on top of this historic road. Eighteen thousand cars and semi-trucks roared through here every day, climbing the 10 switchbacks to cross Cumberland Mountain. Fog, ice, and miles of backed-up traffic resulted in more than half a dozen fatalities a year. It came to be called “Massacre Mountain.”
But now there is no concrete, guardrails, or cars with fumes and noise. Redbud blooms frame the Wilderness Road with splashes of orchids. Birds sing, the air is fresh and clean, and a deer walks out of the forest onto my dirt trail.
Something unique has occurred here, in a country that normally surges forward in the name of progress. The highway was broken up and carted away! Even the many tons of fill brought for the highway were removed. Native plants were introduced and every detail was addressed to restore the road to what it looked like back in the late-1700s.
The highway was actually rerouted down the ridge where a colossal 4,600-foot tunnel was blasted through the solid rock of Cumberland Mountain. It took the Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service 23 years to complete this project, which proved to be one of its most challenging. They gave back to the people of Kentucky and the nation a beautiful historic footpath in America’s second largest national historical park.
The reconstructed road is now 3 miles long, beginning just over the Kentucky state line in Virginia and stretching north through the historic gap into Kentucky. The route is entirely on property owned by the National Park Service. There is convenient parking at each end. You can add another stretch of about 2 miles by hiking the connecting Boone Trail that leads onto the Wilderness Road.
My family and I have come to retrace the footprints of Daniel Boone and the courageous people who taught us what independence and adventure are all about.
Instead of long rifles, we clutch hiking sticks. Instead of black powder horns around our necks, we have cameras. Instead of crossing hundreds of miles we’ll only do four or five. But we will hike in three states in one day—Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee—for this historic gap is located at a tri-state corner.
We enter on the Boone Trail, a 2-1/2-mile stretch leading from the Wilderness Road Campground on US 58 in Virginia. At the Daniel Boone parking lot we meet up with Park Ranger Interpreter Matt Graham. The Boone Trail shortly becomes the Wilderness Road and leads to Gap Cave in Virginia.
When the park service acquired the cave, it had been operating as a commercial cave for 80 years. The park service ripped out the 100 light bulbs, corroded wires, unsafe bridges, and stairs and carted out 20 bags of trash. The settlers along the Wilderness Road stopped here for shelter and for a cold drink of water, for Gap Creek thunders out of the cave in such a wide gush that it supplies the drinking water for the town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. Matt leads us into the cave for a two-hour “wild cave” tour, complete with headlamps.
At the entrance, we are told to notice the “breath” of the cave, as sometimes the air moves through at a stiff breeze of 8-10 MPH. The droplets of water we see in our headlamps tell us the cave is active, alive, wet, still growing. It was formed by one thing—moving water. It continues to form today although it takes 200-300 years to grow one cubic inch of limestone formation. The largest formation in the cave is the 65-foot Great Pillar of Hercules, formed 2 million years ago.
“Please don’t touch any formations,” Matt asks. “The oil and salt on your hands forms a barrier on the rock. The water will run right off and never grow into a formation again.”
We’ll only travel about a mile but there are seven mapped miles provided by the local caving club, which has permission to explore and map the cave. It’s cool inside— a constant 56-58 degrees —just the escape for a warm day.
Bats hang from the ceiling and we aim our headlamps to the side and leave them undisturbed. At dusk, they’ll fly out for supper. We see soda straw formations, ribbon formations that look like bacon strips when they’re backlit, flow stones that look like thick grey silly putty running over rocks, and giant “Frozen Niagara,” which is covered in white pearly calcite. There are pools of aquamarine water where orange and black spotted salamanders lay eggs. Above our heads, pyrite glistens on the cave ceiling and thousands of ancient sea creatures are imbedded in the rock.
Matt leads us into a large room where the local Kiwanis Club and Masonic Lodge used to hold their meetings in the 1940s. They’d fit 50-60 people in this “ballroom.”
Out of everything in the cave, however, the most fascinating is the historic Upper Section where some smudged black graffiti dates back to the Civil War. Here was a makeshift hospital for wounded soldiers. Their names were rubbed on the walls with black soot or gunpowder.
We read names like Lieutenant James E. Raines, who was stationed at Pine Mountain Overlook. At this section of the cave, we are directly below the Pinnacle Overlook, the park’s main viewpoint, where there is a great view of the Gap and the Wilderness Road.
Once we make our way back to the cave entrance and bid farewell to Matt, we continue on the Wilderness Road. Ahead is Devil’s Staircase, a series of steep pitches that lead to the summit of the ridge, and the high point of the Gap. It strains our muscles and steals our breath as it once did to the settlers, but in a short push we reach the high point. The settlers had to pull loaded wagons, coax their cattle up the incline, wrestle with full-flowing skirts, and wonder if Indians were in the forest ready to ambush them.
At the saddle, there is a massive boulder called “Indian Rock,” where the Indians would hide behind and jump on the unsuspected settlers. The settlers tried to hack away at the rock to make it smaller and you can still see the chip marks.
The remaining mile of the Wilderness Road is a narrow intimate trail through the forest. We slow our pace, wanting to savor the experience. The settlers were on the downswing now, the formidable Cumberland Mountain behind them and the land of milk and honey ahead.
VISITING CUMBERLAND GAP NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK
Before you visit the Wilderness Road, head to the park’s Visitor’s Center for a fine introduction. See the award-winning new film entitled, Daniel Boone--The Westward Movement. It won the Outstanding Documentary of the Year Award for 2003 from the Western Filmmakers Association. It brings tears to your eyes thinking about all Daniel Boone and the settlers went through as they forged their way down the Wilderness Road.
From there, head for the new Cumberland Crafts Outlet where artists from nine Appalachian states are represented. Artists demonstrate here 50 days of the year.
The front desk of the Visitor’s Center is also the place to sign up for a tour of Gap Cave. Tours leave daily on weekdays and twice a day on weekends during November through May. June through October they are scheduled three times a day. This is also the place to sign up for a fascinating tour of the Hensley Settlement, a restored isolated Appalachian farmstead on the north end of the park.
Cumberland Gap Park encompasses 20,000 acres in Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. For the best overview of the park, take a drive up to Pinnacle Overlook. Here you’ll see a panorama of the three states and the famous gap in the Appalachian Mountains. A short hike leads to earthen remains of Fort McCook. Here you’ll also find signatures of Civil War soldiers in old-time script carved right into the rocks on the summit.
MORE ON CUMBERLAND GAP
For directions, lodging suggestions, and to read about other attractions near Cumberland Gap National Historic Park including the Hensley Settlement and the Abraham Lincoln and Lost Squadron Museums, just click gap park