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Cumberland Gap National Historical Park


Thomas J. Straka

Photographs by

Patricia A. Straka



“Gateway to the West” by artist H. David Wright.  “Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization , marching single file—the buffalo following  the trail to the salt springs, the Indians, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattleraiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by.” Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893.

The Appalachian Mountains extend for nearly 1,500 miles from Newfoundland in Canada to Central Alabama in the United States. They are really a series of mountain ranges with an average elevation of 3,000 feet, with some peaks exceeding 6,000 feet.  They were a natural barrier to westward expansion from America’s coastal plain to the boundless interior lowlands. Only a few gaps existed in the mountain range. One feature of the Appalachians is a series of interior lowland valleys that forms a “trough” that runs from Canada to Alabama, called the Great Appalachian Valley. That valley was a major transportation route for Native Americans and later for colonial settlers. The Great Wagon Road used this route to move settlers from Pennsylvania south.  The road began in Philadelphia, crossed the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, and followed the Shenandoah Valley up to the town of Big Lick (Roanoke today).  At Roanoke the road split, one route into the Carolinas and ending in Augusta and the other route leading to the Wilderness Road.  

The boundary issue is quite interesting.
The exact spot the three states come together Is accessible to those who like to hike.

The Cumberland Gap was a timeworn wildlife and Native American trail that allowed a great wave of westward expansion to open the Ohio Valley.  In 1750 Dr. Thomas Walker headed an expedition to stake out an 800,000 acre land grant in what is now Kentucky.  He is credited with bringing the gap to popular awareness of settlers. But the land west of the mountains remained wilderness.  Daniel Boone migrated south from Pennsylvania in 1750 with his family (See Pennsylvania Trails in the Winter 2013 edition) along the Great Wagon Road.  Boone hunted in present day Kentucky as early as 1769 and in 1773 attempted the first colonial settlement in the area with a party of about 50 settlers, including his family.  The settlement failed. In 1775 Boone was commissioned to blaze a road through the Cumberland Gap.  This became the Wilderness Road and established Boone’s reputation as a frontiersman and explorer.

Gateway to Kaintuck.

The Wilderness Road started at Fort Chiswell in Virginia, looped southward into Tennessee, and then northward into Kentucky.  It split with a southern route that eventually reached today’s Nashville and a northern route that eventually reached the Falls of the Ohio (Louisville). Boone and 35 axmen cut the road that really more like a trail or path. The Wilderness Road was dangerous due to natural obstacles, Native American attacks, and highwaymen. Settlers flooded into the Ohio valley and within a decade after the Revolution, Kentucky became the fifteenth state. The Wilderness Road remained the primary route to the west until 1810. Notice there is a link to a map of the Wilderness Road below.

The park is full of Civil War sites, including small forts and minor battle sites

The Cumberland Gap has Civil War History.  It was considered strategic by both sides. No major battles were fought there, but it did change hands several times. An early attempt by the Confederates to gain control of neutral Kentucky was thwarted (Battle of Camp Wildcat).  General Ulysses S. Grant referred to the Cumberland Gap as the “Gibraltar of America.”  Grant said, “With two brigades of the Army of the Cumberland I could hold that pass against the army which Napoleon led to Moscow.”  The Confederates used the Gap for excursions into Virginia. The park contains significant monuments to Civil War action.

The view from Pinnacle Peak is spectacular, but can be confusing.  The map displays help. 
You are looking at three states  and the Cumberland Gap simultaneously.

Pinnacle Peak Overlook offers a spectacular view of three states. The exact spot Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina join is clearly visible and very near the Gap itself.  You can drive almost to the top.  Civil War fortifications are still on the mountain and even a few cannons. There are lots of other things to see on the 70 miles of hiking trails: Fern Lake, one of the many valley lakes dominated by mountains; Southern Appalachian Mountain habitat, including ferns and spring blooms of the trillium; and beautiful White Rocks at the eastern tip of the park atop Cumberland Mountain.

White Rock Cliffs.   When viewed from the Wilderness Road these cliffs cast a white glow due to white
quartz pebbles in the sandstone.  The first hunters through the gap made the White Rocks landmark

As you’d expect the park has caves.  Starlight Cave can be reached only by trail. Gap Cave (formerly called Cudjo’s Cave) is open to ranger-led tours.  It offers opportunities to see cave crickets, bats, salamanders, and a glorious variety of cave formations.  A second guided tour is the Hensley Settlement, an early twentieth century homestead with original buildings and farmland. The settlement is located on a plateau on top of Brush Mountain almost 1,000 feet higher than Pinnacle Peak. It includes fence-lined lands, a blacksmith’s shop, springhouse, and one-room schoolhouse.  The settlement was established in 1904 and occupied until 1951.  This tour can last up to four hours. 

The historical park has an attractive visitor’s center that includes many historical themes

There is also a tunnel for the kids. The Cumberland Gap Tunnel was built in the 1990s.  The four-lane road passes under the mountain and is nearly a mile long.  The old Gap road was considered dangerous and was claiming about five lives a year.  The old road bed was totally removed and the original trail is now in its place.

Cumberland Gap in early winter.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park offers something for everyone.  Fantastic vistas; spectacular hiking trails; history from exploration, to civil wars, to federal highways; caves and rock formations for the geologists; and even an early twentieth century farmstead. No location map is needed for this article. Just look for the  point that joins the three states. If you are on Interstate 75, 40, or 81 in the Appalachian Mountains, and are interested in a more “natural” shortcut, consider a route through the Cumberland Gap.    

Iron furnace at the park.  One of many interesting side trips.



Authors: Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. His wife, Pat, is a consulting forester. Both have a keen interest in history.


For more information:  

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (National Park Service)


Highway History of Wilderness Road (Federal Highway Administration)


History of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park


Cumberland Gap National Historical Park Maps:

Park Map:

Cumberland Gap Area Map:    

Route of the Wilderness Road:


































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