Cumberland Gap National Historical Park


Cumberland Gap from the Pinnacle Overlook
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park from the Pinnacle Overlook
Brush Mountain Schoolhouse

Cumberland Gap is a large natural break in the generally northeast/southwest trending ridges of the Appalachian Mountains and is located in (what is now) the tri-state area of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Cumberland Gap was the primary route pioneers traveled when they first settled Kentucky. Some estimates put the number of migrants through the area between 1775 and 1810 at about 300,000.

Hunters had been crossing the mountains through Cumberland Gap for several years before Daniel Boone and about 30 axmen blazed the first open trail in 1775 and founded Boonesboro. The Shawnees had been forced to give up the area in late 1774 and the push was on. However, the British had good connections with most other tribes in the area and were able to essentially stop the flow of immigrants until George Rogers Clark and his 175 trained Indian fighters took the British forts in Ohio and Indiana and laid claim to the Northwest Territories. Between 1775 and 1783 the population of Kentucky boomed from about 300 to about 12,000. It was that population that caused the British to recognize the Mississippi River as the western boundary of the United States when the treaty ending the Revolutionary War was signed in 1783. Cumberland Gap was the preferred method of entry to Kentucky until the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when General Anthony Wayne finally broke the Shawnees and made other routes into the state safe.

After 1810 the Gap became a primary route for stagecoaches and cattle drives. Then it gained importance during the Civil War as both sides recognized the pass as a vital route into each other's territory. Troops stationed in the area, supplies moved over hastily constructed military roads, battles fought back and forth... when the war ended Cumberland Gap was a wasteland of rutted wagon roads, military trenches and tree stumps. Then came geologists in the 1880's and they found rich deposits of iron and coal in the area. That was followed by the founding of Middlesboro and an industrial boom with mines, railroads, iron furnaces and factories built all through the region. The general financial panic of 1893 brought much of that to a dead stop and Cumberland Gap again became a place of quiet.

By 1900, the area of Cumberland Gap had become a backwater and that attracted settlers who were uncomfortable with societal changes happening in the early 1900's. Many of them were family members (Gibbons and Hensley were the primary last names) and they settled in a community centered around Brush Mountain. The community thrived, to a point, then saw population diminish as their youth moved elsewhere for work and for non-related marriage partners. The last to leave was the founder, Sherman Hensley, in 1951.

Shillalah Falls
Shillalah Falls

Today, the 24,000-acre Cumberland Gap National Historical Park protects and preserves the pristine nature of the area, including the Hensley Settlement. About 14,000 acres of the park are being considered for wilderness designation. The park stretches out for about 26 miles along Cumberland Mountain and varies from one mile to four miles in width. US Highway 25E used to run through the park but was rerouted through Cumberland Gap Tunnel in 1996 and now runs under the park. The former roadbed of the highway has been returned to being the 19th wagon path the highway had followed.

Another feature of the park is Gap Cave, a result of millions of years of water flowing underground in the karst (limestone) topography. Gap Cave is probably the largest cave behind the 24 discovered underground entrances in the park and there is still live water flowing in the deeper levels of the cave. The moderately strenuous ranger-led tour is about 1.5 miles long and includes 183 steps up and down through four levels in the cave plus a 1 mile hike between the Daniel Boone parking area and the cave entrance along the original Wilderness Road.

The Cumberland Gap Visitor Center is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm, except for Christmas Day when it's closed. The park grounds and picnic area are open daily. The road to Pinnacle Overlook is sometimes closed due to inclement weather. There are no entrance fees involved but tours of Gap Cave run $8 per adult, $4 for seniors with Golden Age passports and for children age 5 through 12. Tours of the Hensley Settlement are offered from mid-May through the end of October, $10 per adult, $5 for seniors with Golden Age Passports and for children age 12 and under. The park also offers about 85 miles of hiking trails. Camping is available year round in the Virginia section of the park at Wilderness Road Campground, about 3 miles from the visitor center on Virginia Highway 58. There are 160 sites, 41 with electricity. Campsites are available first-come, first-served and run $14 per site per night or $20 per site per night with electric (seniors with Golden Age Passports pay half).

A view in the Cumberland Gap area on a foggy fall day
Cumberland Gap on a foggy fall day