Cumberland Gap National Park is an easy 100-mile drive from Johnson City, via US 58 leaving from Gate City, Va. Located at the point where Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky meet, this historical national park is an undiscovered hiking, camping and backpacking destination.
The area was made famous by Daniel Boone’s excursions from the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina through our own community (that is where the name Boones Creek comes from) and on through Cumberland Gap, which opened to the fertile lands of Kentuck’ and the greater Ohio River valley beyond.
The 600-mile rampart of the Appalachians proved such an obstacle to settlers that they would walk the extra distance to make their way through this passage leading to unclaimed lands beyond. The route through the Cumberland Gap became part of the Wilderness Road, an ambitious moniker for a hazardous track into the howling back of beyond and Indian territory, where none-too-friendly natives saw the pioneers as a threat to their way of life.
During the Civil War both sides sought Cumberland Gap as a strategic point to control troop movement. Ironically, despite the setting up of forts, no major battles occurred here. Cumberland Gap continued an important transportation corridor door, as railroads and automobile roads were built through the gap.
In 1955, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was established, protecting American history as well as the natural features found in this 20,000-plus acre park. In 2002, the highway through Cumberland Gap was removed and a tunnel built connecting Harrogate, with Middlesboro, Ky. Now, Cumberland Gap has been restored to its appearance when Daniel Boone and company traveled this way.
My buddy Bryan Delay and I started a three-night backpacking trip at Pinnacle Overlook, a rock rampart overlooking Cumberland Gap. We chose the leafless time of year to best enjoy the geological wonders that can be found along the 20-mile Ridge Trail, running atop Cumberland Mountain. Interestingly, this national park exhibits characteristics of both the Cumberland Plateau — rock houses, stone spires and massive boulders — as well as the Appalachians near Johnson City — high, parallel ridges divided by deep valleys where rocky streams flow.
The bright sun lit the trail as we headed east from Pinnacle Overlook. Great views could be had from this vista point, yet it wasn’t long before trailside outcrops opened onto the Powell River valley below, dotted with farms fields and houses that were absent during Boone’s day. Our five-mile hike undulated through boulder gardens and tall barren trees. I made Gibson Gap campsite, one of five designated backcountry campsites in the park, with an hour to spare before dark. I immediately gathered plenty of firewood for the long, cold night. Bryan rolled in later, lauding the rugged splendor of this park, especially the myriad rock formations rising from this ridge dividing Kentucky from Virginia.
Temperatures dipped into the mid-30s overnight, yet I rose before dawn, stoking the fire. As usual, Bryan slept in. After a seemingly interminable period, I departed easterly on the Ridge Trail, going up and down up and down, into chilly shade and warm sun. Views continued to the southeast. Rhododendron, mountain laurel and hemlocks added a touch of green to the otherwise barren woodlands. The vertical walls of Shillalah Creek gorge reflected the sun in the distance. Finally, I reached the spur trail to Indian Rock, one of several natural stone shelters in the park that were once used by aboriginals dating back thousands of years.
I then headed to the Hensley settlement, a collection of pioneer homes dating back to the early 1900s, when Sherman Hensley settled on this mountaintop, ostensibly to get away from encroaching civilization of phones and cars, but he and his group were actually getting away in order to make moonshine. To be fair, they also grew crops and did metal forging, which they also took down off the mountain to sell.
The collection of over 40 buildings, from springhouses to barns to homes, even a schoolhouse, was a sight to behold. Nearby, deer grazed placidly in the meadows. The bright sun whipped up a wind that blasted through the Hensley settlement as I explored the lonely buildings. The settlement was abandoned for good in 1951, when Sherman Hensley, age 70, left. He was the last man on the mountaintop colony that peaked at 100 residents. Jobs and civilization proved to be too much of a lure.
It was just a short distance beyond the settlement to our second night’s destination, Hensley Camp. The level, grassy site is shaded by pines and oaks. A nearby spring provided drinking water. We passed the evening before a wind-whipped fire, occasionally pushing smoke in our faces as we cooked brats and beans. The two of us reflected on life at the Hensley settlement and the isolation it brought. Yet, the Hensley settlement offered a simple way of living, free of the rush-rush lifestyle we live today, complicated by the electronic chains that bind us.
Views near and distant continued the next day as I hiked among the summit’s boulder gardens. Two highlights lay ahead. Sand Cave is simply one of the largest rock shelters in the Southeast. The sand-floored rockhouse is complemented with a waterfall and is one of those special places that make you glad it is a protected part of a national park. It was a short distance from Sand Cave to the White Rocks campsite that completed our easy five-mile day. The campsite, located on a wooded slope, leaves much to be desired; however, its proximity to the White Rocks made staying there worthwhile.
That afternoon we headed up to the open stone slab overlooking the lowlands below. From 3,400-foot White Rocks fell the ridge and valley country of Virginia and Tennessee. The Great Smoky Mountains and the Southern Appalachian chain framed the vista to the south. A punishing wind atop the stone viewpoint limited how long we stayed before retiring to the campsite.
A front was moving in, so we pitched our tarps and waited for the precipitation. But it didn’t come until the next morning, just as I was starting a pre-dawn coffee fire. Luckily, the shower quickly dissipated, leaving us time to descend the Ewing trail where Bryan’s car awaited. Thus ended our three-night trek at Cumberland Gap National Park.