Cumberland Gap is just that — a natural gap, or passage — through the Cumberland Mountains, which are part of the Appalachians. From the top of Pinnacle Overlook in Cumberland Gap park, you stand in the state of Virginia, while the town below is in Tennessee and the vehicle parking lot is in Kentucky. And although the view may be hazy, the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, a hundred miles away, are often visible.
It goes without saying that the spot is an amazing place to visit!
Standing at Pinnacle Overlook and gazing out, I could see Middlesboro, Kentucky, hidden in a large bowl of fog below me. The bowl, I discovered, has a history even longer than that of the original peoples of the area, since it’s 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.
The town of Middlesboro was actually built at the bottom of the crater in 1886. Why? Well, to take advantage of the iron and coal deposits. However, nobody realized what the hole was really all about until 1962 when a geological survey explored the area.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Today, we can turn back time exploring more than 80 miles of trails in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park that follow the original routes of settlers. In the late 1700s, Daniel Boone and nearly 300,000 settlers struggled over this rugged terrain. Now, we can take anything from a 1/4 mile leisurely walk to a wilderness hike through the park’s 32 sq. mile (82.99 sq. km) land area that surrounds Cumberland Gap.
Back in 1775, Boone negotiated a deal with the local Cherokee people for the land. The final negotiations were 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 that became known as the Wilderness Road.
Wilderness Road and Cumberland Gap National Historic Park span the borders of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Between the three states, there are many facilities and opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors, as well as history.
Hiking in Cumberland Gap
Of course, no day is complete without a walk, so I had to explore some of the Cumberland Gap trails. I soon met a group of hikers coming through the hills, their walking sticks providing secure footing.
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!
More Things to Do
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.
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.
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.
Lake Cumberland may be man-made, but it’s an appealing natural outdoor destination no matter what season you love. The lake — or more accurately, reservoir — was created in 1952 by the brand-new Wolf Creek Dam on the Cumberland River, swallowing up Kentucky towns and villages and farmlands. Today, the lake darts in and out of coves, splashes up against rocky outcrops, and laps against slivers of ancient ocean floor more than 480 million years old, in the Cumberland Mountains.
I soon discovered that Lake Cumberland is best known for three things. What are they? Well, it’s one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, running for around 101 miles (163 km), with an average depth of 85 feet (26 m). Plus, it was designated the Houseboat Capital of the World in 2014 through a resolution of the Kentucky Senate. Since the houseboat idea itself started in Somerset in 1953, right after the lake was created, it’s a well-deserved title.
And the third? The Guiness World Record (set in 2010) for the largest raft up. And what’s a raft up? Well, a number of boats all tied up together, side-by-side!
I missed the annual raft up, but had to spend some time on a houseboat during my visit. So, we rented one and set off exploring.
Our houseboat journey took us down the lake to Cumberland Falls.
Cumberland Falls are sometimes called the Niagara of the South and it’s easy to see why. These impressive falls have a 125 foot wide curtain of water that falls 60 feet before hitting the rocky gorge below. While our houseboat was no “Maid of the Mist,” we could still feel the spray of water from our deck as we listened to the roar of falling water.
The falls do have something that Niagara Falls doesn’t — a moonbow. In fact, Cumberland Falls are the only place in the Western Hemisphere that moonbows exist. You’ve likely guessed from their name that moonbows are similar to rainbows, and that they appear in moonlight.
However, not just any moonlight creates a moonbow. All the conditions must be perfect. There must be a full moon or two days before or after one, the right weather conditions and the right water conditions. It may sound impossible, but visitors do get to see this amazing sight all year round. Indeed, Cumberland Park publishes an annual schedule so you can plan around the “right” days.
Fishing on Lake Cumberland
We cruised along on our houseboat at around four or five knots, just enjoying the ride, before deciding to moor for a while in Devil’s Cove. While it seemed almost impossible that a heavy rope tied from the boat to a sturdy tree would keep us from floating away, it did.
Because of the lake’s depth, anchors are impractical. Also, since it’s easy to find shelter in the coves, there are lots of safe places to harbor.
The rocky cove was a great place to kick back and drop a fishing rod over the edge of the houseboat. While there are many different species of fish in Lake Cumberland, I had my heart set on pulling a good-sized Striper (also called a rockfish). How big? Well, the current record is 58 lbs, 4 ounces. Now that’s a big fish!
The lake is well known for its five types of bass (smallmouth, largemouth, white, Kentucky and rock), along with bluegill, catfish, walleye, and trout. Some world records include an 11 lb 15 oz. small mouth bass, a 22 lb. 7 oz. walleye, a 208 lb catfish, and a national brown trout record of 26 lb 10 oz!
Sadly, while I saw deer, water snakes, crows, ospreys, turkey buzzards, herons and hawks while we were parked, I didn’t hook a fish.
Houseboating in Kentucky
Floating along on our houseboat, I soon realized why Lake Cumberland is the houseboating capital of the world. Simply put, the shoreline is spectacular with its amazing forests of oak, maple, cedar, hickory and pine.
In fact, there’s nothing better on a hot day than sitting back in a lounge chair and sipping ice cold lemonade while the shore slowly slides by. It made me think of my school days, reading about Huck Finn’s adventures, and how he once found a whole house floating downstream. I’d always longed for that kind of adventure — all but the body!
You don’t need a special license (you do need a driver’s license) to drive a houseboat on Lake Cumberland, especially as there’s training included in your rental. Since getting the boat in and out of dock is the toughest part of the trip, there’s always an experienced staff person around to help with that! When I took my turn at the helm, it was easy to sit back and just relax and enjoy the drive.
Each houseboat is equipped with a marine radio monitored 24 hours a day in case you do need to contact someone. While we didn’t take along any additional boats, we saw several houseboats towing either wave runners or ski boats, for additional fun on the water. The watersports were great for us to watch too, from our upper deck! The houseboat, though, was just like a home away from home anyway, with television, movies, and even air conditioning for those hot summer nights.
Sleeping on a Houseboat
Of course, I decided to spend a night on the houseboat as well as the day.
While the gentle slapping of the water against the side of the boat lulled me to sleep, I found the morning even more peaceful. Indeed, there’s a kind of magic to waking up surrounded by swirling mists that only a houseboater can experience.
Sounds, I discovered, stuck in the fog, so the splat of a trout as it jumped outside the bedroom window lasted as long as a crack of thunder. The ducks seemed to be quacking right on the deck overhead, while the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of the houseboat pulling against the mooring on shore became a lullaby luring me back to dreamland.
Visit Cumberland Gap and Lake Cumberland
This Google map takes you to many of the places I visited on this adventure!
I was a guest of Southern & Eastern kentucky Tourism Development Association during my visit to Lake Cumberland and Cumberland Gap.
More Places to Visit in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia
About the Photo
The photo above is of Cumberland Falls in the state of Kentucky, USA.