Walking the Wilderness Trail, where Daniel Boone and nearly 300,000 settlers had trod in the late 1700s, turned back the pages of time for me. Maybe because I’d already watched the new movie, “Daniel Boone, the Westward Movement” at the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park Visitor Center, I could almost see them struggling over the rugged terrain.
The day was warm, almost hot. I could envision the wagons of settlers, women in bonnets, children playfully walking along, men with their horses. How difficult had it been for them to traverse this wilderness?
From the top of Pinnacle Overlook in Cumberland Gap park, I stood in the state of Virginia, while the town below was in Tennessee and the vehicle parking lot was in Kentucky. Although the view was somewhat hazy, the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, a hundred miles away, were visible. Of course three centuries earlier, the borders hadn’t existed.
Back in 1775, Boone had negotiated a deal with the local Cherokee people for the land. The final negotiations had been held at Sycamore Shoals (now Elizabethton, TN), an ancient sacred Cherokee treaty ground on the southern bank of the Watauga River. After it was signed Boone and his men chopped a trail through 200 miles of wilderness.
Gazing out, I could see Middlesboro, Kentucky, hidden in a large bowl of fog below me at Pinnacle Overlook. The bowl, I discovered, has a history even longer than that of the original peoples of the area, since it is a meteor crater. Geologists have uncovered enough evidence to support a theory that a meteor hit the area around 300 million years ago, creating a crater four miles long in diameter.
However, the really unique thing about Cumberland Gap is that it is being restored to its 1790s appearance. US highway 25E, which once clung to the mountain’s sides until 1995, has been removed and is now routed through one of the safest tunnels in the world under the pass. It will take several decades until the trees grow up over the landscape—but it will happen.
I soon met a group of hikers coming through the hills, their walking sticks providing secure footing. Trails cover over 70 miles, providing visitors with access to some of the most beautiful park area in the world. The shortest hike into the Gap is 6/10 of a mile, making it accessible for even novice hikers and families.
The foliage was just starting to take on its rich mix of yellows, oranges, and reds for fall. Black gum, sassafrass, and dogwoods, the first to turn, stood out in the against summer’s greenery. Overhead, Red tailed hawks soared against the clear blue sky.
Much of the rock face was covered with green large-leaved vines I soon found out were the kudzu vine. It sprawled across everything, overtaking the landscape wherever it could. The vine, promoted for erosion control during the 1930s, has the nickname of “mile a minute,” “foot a night vine,” and “the vine that ate the south,” because it grows so fast. Indeed, it readily grows sixty feet a year!
Historic Hensley Settlement is another part of the park that provides a view of days gone by. The Wilderness Road Tour guided tour by Park Rangers goes through weathered hand-built massive chestnut log cabins, barns and other structures. This settlement documents the lives of the Hensley and Gibbons families, who lived off the land in a self-sufficient community from 1903 until the 1950s.
One of my favorite parts of the park experience was Gap Cave. Following the Park Guide, I used my lantern to view such exquisite formations as: Cleopatra’s Pool, the coal miner, the Pillars of Hercules, and Lover’s Leap. While most man-made intrusions into the cave have been removed, there are still several stairways to make it safe for visitors to navigate the underground caverns.
Of course, once I’d explored the park I had to stop at the Visitor’s Center, and look at all the locally produced goods. Over 220 craftspeople, including potters, weavers, basketmakers, and woodworkers sell their work through the Southern Highland Craft Guild shops. Some of the crafts really captured my imagination–like the cornhusk doll. While others, like a Jonesville crafter’s quilt, were more traditional, but no less beautiful.
No matter what kind of adventure you’re looking for, you can find it in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.
If you go:
Contact Southern & Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association (SEKTDA) in Somerset, KY for full information and details. Call 877-TOUR-SEKY or visit www.tourseky.com
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park Visitor’s Center is located near Middlesboro, KY. Website is www.nps.gov Phone 606-248-2817
Copyright 2006 by Linda Aksomitis. All Rights Reserved.