Come explore the “first great gateway to the west” as you experience the rich history, natural features, and activities of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Located on 24,000 acres at the three borders of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, this national park is one of the largest in the northern United States and offers a plethora of activities and features suitable for any traveler.
The Cumberland Gap is a natural break in the Appalachian Mountains, and has served as a gateway for eastern travelers to access the Western lands of North America. The Cumberland Gap has been traveled on for thousands of years, by wildlife, indigenous peoples, and colonial pioneers. With the region’s long history of use comes a rich history of the land and various animals and people who have populated it over time.
The National Park invites visitors to explore this history and experience the extraordinary features of the park. Since its designation as a National Park in 1940, visitors to the area can immerse themselves in the beauty and history of the gap through hiking its trails, viewing its geological features, seeing its diversity of flora and fauna, and participating in guided historical tours.
Read about some of the more popular activities and attractions the park offers below to plan your trip to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.
Hiking and Backpacking
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park offers 85 miles of hiking and backpacking trails, offering visitors the opportunity to experience the diverse terrain, geographical features, and historical sights within the park. Hiking these trails also allows one to get a glimpse of what the gap’s travelers experienced during their trek.
Trail lengths vary from ¼ mile to 21 miles. With a wide range of trail length and difficulty, hikers of every level of expertise are bound to find a rewarding experience suitable for them.
Many of the park’s trails lead to prominent geological features- such as cliffs, caves, and limestone formations- and scenic vistas of the Appalachian Mountains and surrounding landscape.
Those looking for a trail with historical significance can trek along the Wilderness Trail. Blazed by a crew led by Daniel Boone in 1775, the Wilderness Trail served as the main route for western pioneer movement for the next half-century after its establishment. Today, visitors can follow the footsteps of those pioneers by hiking on a 3.5 loop that traces sections of the Wilderness Trail.
Avid backpackers will find an abundance of options for their next trek, many of which stem off the Ridge Trail. At 21 miles long, the Ridge Trail is the longest in the park, following the top of the Appalachian Mountain ridge. Backpackers can branch off onto other trails from this main vein as they enjoy the scenery and wildlife surrounding them. There are 5 designated backcountry camping locations along the trail; be sure to pick up a free permit before you set off on your backpacking journey.
Other popular trails are those that lead to the White Rocks and Sand Caves areas of the park. White Rocks is a massive limestone outcropping that sits atop a 3,500 foot mountain top and offers spectacular views onto the Virginia valley. Sand Caves is a 75-foot limestone overhand that features (seasonally) a cascading waterfall that falls over 7 distinct colors of sand.
Visit the National Park’s website to find more details and maps of the park’s extensive trail network.
Aside from backcountry camping options for adventurous backpackers who choose to stay overnight on the park’s trail system, Cumberland Gap National Historic Park offers other camping options for park visitors.
The Wilderness Road Campground offers 160 sites for RV and tent camping. The campground is complete with electrical hookups, hot showers and potable water, and a dump station.
Group campsites are also available for those looking to enjoy the park with the company of many others.
The Wilderness Campground sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Group and backcountry sites can be reserved up to three months in advance by calling the park visitor center. Please remember to obtain a permit before backcountry camping.
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park holds an abundance of natural geologic features to see and explore. One of the most prominent of these features are the various caves located on Cumberland Mountain.
Cumberland Mountain hosts over 30 caves on its south face. Due to safety concerns and the preservation of these delicate habitats, most caves in the park are closed to the public. Visitors looking to try their hand at spelunking, however, can find their adventure at Gap Cave.
Guided tours of Gap Cave take visitors on a two-hour journey exploring the “majestic underground cathedral”. Visitors can view flowstone cascades, dramatic stalagmites, and catch glimpses of the cave’s native creatures- such as salamanders, bats, and crayfish.
The tour is moderately strenuous and includes a 1.5 hike to reach Gap Cave. Plan accordingly.
This tour is an opportune experience for those interested in exploring one of the area’s most notable and known-for attractions. Caves are an important part of the region’s history and carry rich cultural and natural significance. Tour tickets must be purchased ahead of time in person or by calling the park visitor center.
The park’s diverse terrain and range in elevation provides diverse habitat types that host a range of plant and animal species.
371 types of animals have been recorded within the park’s grounds. More common sights include deer, bobcat, black bear, rabbit, fox, snakes, and turtles. Lucky visitors might even catch a glimpse of an elk.
Avid birders will be happy with the variety of avian species within the park. Song birds, turkeys, hawks, and vultures are all common sights. For a spectacular birding opportunity, visit the park in the fall season to see the autumn hawk migration. This phenomenon can be viewed from various vantage points along the park’s Ridge Trail.
With the diversity of animal life comes a wide diversity of plant life, too. The park has recorded 855 floral species within its grounds. Rare plants can be spotted in various unique vegetation communities, such as mountain bogs, low elevation wetlands, and sheer rocky bluffs that lie on the park’s mountain sides.
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park is a place full of historical significance for all the groups that have populated its land over the years. Cherokee and Shawnee groups used the gap as a hunting ground, often confronting and conflicting with each other over the land’s use. European settlers to the United States explored the gap to get to the Kentucky wilderness. During the Civil War, Union and Confederate forces vied for control of the gap, which presented itself as a stronghold for each group.
After the displacement of indigenous peoples on the land, some pioneers and settlers moving west through the gap decided to stay in the rugged mountain territory. These Appalachian settlers carry with them a history of rugged survival, unique traditions, music, and language.
Visitors to the state park can explore this Appalachian history and lifestyle at the Hensley Settlement. The settlement is a living history museum which aims to emulate traditional Appalachian life. The settlement is made up of 45 settlement structures original to the area that were occupied by Appalachian inhabitants from the early to mid 20th century. These buildings have been restored to give visitors an educational experience.
Those interested in exploring Appalachian history can take guided tours of the Hensley Settlement. Tours take visitors through various settlement buildings to show them different aspects of settlement life, such as a blacksmith, one-room schoolhouse, and a springhouse.
Tour reservations come with a small price and can be made up a month in advance by calling the park visitor center.