History, Heritage, and Hikes Abound at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park preserves one of the most significant routes for westward expansion in the U.S., anchored by a pass that served as the primary route for early settlers into Kentucky from Virginia and Tennessee.
Daniel Boone carved out the Wilderness Road through this pass before the Revolution, but before doing so, it was a game trail for bison, which migrated through the pass in search of salt licks. It was also the Warriors’ Path, used by Cherokee and Shawnee raiding parties in their perpetual conflict with each other. Later, it became a contested supply route during the Civil War, with fortifications lining either side of the road.
Visiting Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
As always, be sure to hit the visitor center for excellent exhibits on the history of the pass through the wall-like Cumberland Mountains. Check in with the ranger for recommendations on a good hike and the availability of tours at Gap Cave and Hensley Settlement (both presently closed due to COVID-19).
Sunset at Cumberland Gap/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair
Then it’s time to hit the trail! Hike up to the top of Tri-State Peak, explore the Saddle of the Gap, and the Wilderness Road Trail. In short, walk the same road Daniel Boone used to cut through the wilderness.
After that, head up to the Pinnacle Overlook for staggering views. The road up will not accommodate vehicles longer than 20-feet, so leave the camper behind. That said, the views at the top are more than worthwhile, especially at sunset!
Bonnie hiking the trail/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair
You will also find Fort Lyon and Fort McCook up there, both earthen fortifications overlooking the gap left over from the Civil War. While there were no major battles in this area, both sides regarded the gap as a crucial supply line.
You can easily accomplish all of that in a day, but there is a lot more to explore if you spend the weekend! We recommend hiking one of the longer trails—we did the Sugar Run Trail up to the Pinnacle Overlook area in a long loop trail, but there are plenty of other options. In fact, Cumberland Gap NHP has nearly 85 miles of hiking trails and four backcountry campgrounds to enjoy.
Also, don’t miss out on the nearby Wilderness Road State Park in Virginia. The park has a recreation of Martin’s Station, which served as both the westernmost fort and way station along the Wilderness Road, but also the jumping off point for settlers heading into Kentucky. The two parks tell two sides of the same story.
Blacksmith working the bellows at Martin’s Station/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair
Final Thoughts on Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
We already are expecting a return visit to see the Hensley Settlement and Gap Cave, which are only available via ranger-led tours. Unfortunately, the tours were curtailed by COVID-19 when we visited. Still, we are looking forward to going back to hike more trails and see more of this historic area!
Header photo: By Bonnie and Grant Sinclair
Grant and Bonnie Sinclair are the founders of the travel blog, Our Wander-Filled Life. Both Georgia natives, they’ve lived in the Southeast their entire lives, and currently reside in Woodstock, Georgia, where they both work as high school teachers. When school is out, they hit the road to explore and learn more about the country through its national parks.