Enjoy autumn in three states at once by going to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. The 24,000-acre park is deep within the mountains of southeastern Kentucky’s Bell County just past Middlesboro, but parts of it spill into neighboring Tennessee and Virginia.
Its name is more than figurative: between 1 mile and 4 miles wide, the park is a gap in the Cumberland Mountain range. Native Americans used the route to trade and make war with each other, and to hunt bison.
Daniel Boone blazed his Wilderness Road through the gap and early settlers used the route as they pushed westward. During the Civil War, both the North and the South viewed it as such valuable property that each side 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.
Start your tour just inside the park’s entrance at the visitor center, with its museum, interactive displays, gift shop stocked with local crafts, and a movie theater.
“The film Daniel Boone and the Westward Movement is not to be missed,” ranger Pam Eddy says. This story of western migration through the Cumberland Gap won the Western Heritage Award for Outstanding Documentary in 2002.
Leaving the visitor center on the 4-mile long Skyland Drive, you can take Pinnacle Road to the Pinnacle Overlook above the tree line. From its elevation of nearly a half-mile, you can see Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. At this vantage point, you also can make out the outline of the meteor crater in which Middlesboro is situated. Sumac bushes and maple, poplar, oak, and sourwood trees surround you with all the colors and smells of autumn that your senses can handle.
What would it have taken to live in this rugged land as a pioneer? Get a glimpse of the answer just a few miles northeast of the visitor center at the Hensley Settlement. Here you have two choices: hike the strenuous 4-mile trail to the settlement, or take a tour van from the visitor center. The scheduled, guided tours last about four hours.
The settlement is on a plateau, surrounded by a rail fence. Its historic scattering of buildings dates back to 1903 when Sherman Hensley decided he and his family would attempt to lead a self-sufficient life. The wilderness settlement grew and was prosperous for many years, with a population of close to 100 at its peak. Viewing what remains today will give you a real sense of the isolation of the area and the toughness of its settlers. The buildings still standing include several cabins, the one-room schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, and springhouse.
Next, go from high point to low: there are 26 known entrances to limestone caves in the park. The more prominent ones are Gap Cave, Skylight Cave, and Sand Cave, which is actually a massive sandstone rock shelter. Two-hour guided tours are offered into Gap Cave, the most popular, with its dripping stone and rock formations with names like Cleopatra’s Pool and the Pillar of Hercules.
“The cave is exquisite,” says tour guide and ranger Scott Teodorski.
Gap Cave, also called King Solomon’s Cave, Soldier’s Cave, and Cudjo’s Cavern, is rumored to have been used in the past by highwaymen, runaway slaves, and moonshiners. Rumors aside, it was a prominent landmark for early pioneers—when they saw the cave, they knew they were almost through the gap. It later was used by Civil War soldiers and you can still see some of their writing on the walls.
Southeast of the visitor center, the community of Cumberland Gap, on the Tennessee side, looks like someone picked up a small town and set it carefully in between the mountains. The spot is also the site of an iron furnace that was used to make iron in the 1800s by mixing charcoal, limestone, and iron ore. The furnace, a historic landmark, is nestled in a small valley next to running brooks.
The park has more than 80 miles of hiking trails, including some horse trails and a fitness trail. Trail length ranges from easy, quarter-mile stretches to the 21-mile ridge trail, where you can rent a cabin at Martins Fork. The Wilderness Road campground is about 3 miles from the park visitor center off of U.S. Highway 58 in Virginia, and backcountry camping also is available.
As locals Donnie and Sandi Vaughn will tell you, “The park is a place we just keep wanting to come back to.”
Filling in the gaps
Interstate 75 to U.S. Highway 25E is the most direct route. When coming from the north, exit on Highway 25E at Corbin and continue 50 miles southeast to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
The park is open 365 days a year and entrance is free. The visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. but is closed on Christmas Day. The visitor center complex and some other areas of the park are handicapped-accessible, but the rugged mountain landscape covered by tours is not.
Camping fees: $14 per site and $20 per site with electricity. Group sites are $35.
Gap Cave tours: adults, $8; senior passes, $4; children 12 and under, $4. Children must be at least 5 for the tour.
Hensley Settlement tours: adults, $10; senior passes, $5; children 12 and under, $5. Tours this year end Oct. 31.
Tour reservations are strongly recommended and can be made up to one month in advance by calling (606) 248-2817.
Middlesboro is adjacent to the park, as is the town of Cumberland Gap in Tennessee. Both have several motels and restaurants.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park’s Web site is www.nps.gov/cuga.
The Bell County Tourism Commission is at 2215 Cumberland Avenue in Middlesboro. The agency can be reached at (606) 248-2482 or (800) 988-1075. The Web site is www.mountaingateway.com.