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Cumberland Gap National Historic Park

 

Gibson Gap Loop (Parts Gibson Gab Trail, Ridge Trail and Lewis Hollow Trail)

 

April 2011

 

 

 

Before I begin this one I’ve got to remark about the significance of this park in terms of both history and geography because I don’t think either can be overstated.  In fact, this is a location that I think every American should probably try to see at some point in their lifetime. 

 

 

History

 

From the beginning this was where two major wildlife migratory paths met and then ascended up and over the gap in the Cumberland Mountain.  The north/south route later came to be known by the Indians as the Warriors Path; while the east/west road came to be known by the white settlers as the Wilderness Road (a route which would also come to incorporate part of the Warriors Path).

 

Geography

 

If you’ve ever wondered why the boundaries of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee look so jagged on a map as they come together it’s because of the mountains that define this area - their ridges converge like shards of broken glass to give the states their borders.

 

 

Given all this, you’re not really just hiking out here; you’re literally walking in the footsteps of history and if you dwell on this – even for a little while – you’re apt to be left with a profound impression.

 

On to the hike… 

 

In a nutshell, it begins in Virginia along the right side of the old Wilderness Road at a point just prior to where it would have gone through the Cumberland Gap.  The path then ascends up Cumberland Mountain to Gibson Gap (a smaller pass further east) and levels out for about 3 miles along Ridge Trail (this one directly follows the ridge top which forms the dividing line between Kentucky and Virginia).  A descent of Lewis Hollow will then complete the loop back to your origin.

 

I wouldn’t enter into this one lightly, however.  In fact, I’d file it under strenuous overall.  Not only is it 10 miles in length, but the trek up the mountain is a 1 ½ mile ascent with almost no let-up until you reach a point of roughly 2500 feet in elevation.  It took me 7 hours to complete this one and the climb felt just as difficult as the one I took up the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado (although I can’t say that with certainty - I had friends along on that one to help take my mind off the climb).

 

Anway, I began today by parking just before the Wilderness Road Campground entrance in one of several spaces they have individually paved off the side of the road.  I then started on my way as per Michael Browns’ Falcon Guide on Kentucky Trails (http://www.falcon.com/hiking_kentucky_2nd-9780762736508).  This is a personal favorite book that I’ve carried with me many times.

 

What you’ll want to do here is follow the campground road to your left and then pass (if you want to travel in this same direction) the first trail turnoff which comes up on the left.  This is actually where you’ll come out. 

 

A second trail will soon come up (again on your left) and this is the one you want.  It leads you down a gravel road into the woods.  Keep left at each split from this point and you’ll eventually pass by what looks like a farm on the right.  Notice how the road becomes less and less gravel and more dirt the further you go!

 

 

Then, when you reach a point where there’s a trickling creek right beside you and it looks like two roads (ancient-looking at this point) meet, you’ll make a right and cross over the stream.  This is either Station Creek or a branch of it - it’s hard to tell - but what you’ll find is that this Station Creek has more twists and tributaries than Quakers’ got oats!  I may have made more stream crossings in the first few miles of this hike than I’ve made on any other.  Here's one of the prettier ones...

 

 

A couple marked trail intersections will come up now, with the first having Honey Tree Spur Trail and Green Leaf Trail indications.  These, I found out later, are paths of a mile or less that meander around the general area of the campground to provide nice interpretive and recreational activities for kids and families.  Green Leaf, in particular, looks like a great interpretive trail.  Check it out:  http://www.nps.gov/cuga/planyourvisit/upload/Trail%20Guide%20-%20Greenleaf-Final.pdf

 

The second trail split comes after you’ve made a cross to the northern side of the Station Creek:  one direction veers right and follows directly alongside the stream while another heads straight.  The latter is the recognized trail and it’s where you want to go after signing in at the back-country box they’ve provided. 

 

From here you’ll be led up the ridge on a fairly steep climb to arrive somewhere around the low/mid level of Cumberland Mountain.  This isn’t yet part of that long climb I mentioned – that’s coming up soon enough - but what you’re essentially embarking on here is a light arc up and then back down the ridgeline as you roam around enjoying this forest path and its’ many Station Camp tributary crossings.  I was surprised to encounter a little tent in an open area directly beside the trail in here!  No one seemed to be “home” as I passed quietly by…

 

Once back down at the main branch of the creek, I at one point remembered what Mr. Brown had mentioned in his book about jonquil plants and about the possibly of there having been a gardener out here at some point.  Of course, not being familiar with jonquils I had no idea of what to look for, but maybe I could somehow spot these along with what were described as some kind of building ruins?

 

Well, I immediately turned around after forming this thought…

 

Was it my subconscious that had clued me in that I’d just seen something incongruous?  It must have been.  I’d just passed up the very spot!  There, only about 10 yards off the path was a section of green “shoots”.  They weren’t yet flowering, but they were different and I looked around for some sign of ruins…

 

…and sure enough, there they were!  If this was an old homestead then it had truly been in an idyllic spot along this sweetly trickling stream.

 

 

Enjoy the rest of your walk in here, but you’ll want to be aware that you’re about to get some work in if you choose to continue.  At the next trail intersection a sign indicates that Gibson Gap is 1.4 miles away.  Do you want to head back the way you came (you’ve come 3.5 miles at this point) or do you want to complete the loop with 6.5 more miles to go?  There’s no shame in going back, of course – you’ll have made a 7 mile out-and-back hike!

 

If you do decide to go on, however, you’ll cut to the right as per the sign and begin a 1.4 mile climb straight up Cumberland Mountain.  I paused in here a few times to rest along the way, but never for too long.  The views down the mountainside beckoned me:  “This is what you’re in for – only better – once you reach the top”.

 

…and near that top you’ll see a garden of boulders up and to your right as you level out for a bit…

 

 

…to then descend temporarily through a thicket of rhododendrons and cross a little stream.  This area seemed like an oasis to me today - not only because it was a break in the climb but because I’d seen very little green in the midst of the ascent and this was something different.  I simply hadn’t been expecting the sudden scene-shift.

 

 

The climb resumes after you cross the stream, but it’ll be the last part as you move up through some rocks at the top of the mountain.  I was somewhat surprised to encounter some other hikers in here.  A mother and her sons, I guessed - one teenage and one maybe 10 to 12 – but I don’t imagine that climbing this mountain could have been a favorite activity for the kids to do – especially the younger.  They were impressive.

 

Anyway, as you crest out you’ll catch your first vistas through the trees just before you dip down to reach Gibson Gap and here they have a campground complete with an outhouse.  I wasn’t able to get many pictures though - there was a group making what looked like overnight preparations.

 

 

Also here is a trail junction and I got a little confused.  I was expecting to be walking along a level path for a while, but what you’ll actually want do at this point is make a curve down and to your left (although going right would have you continuing on a level plane toward Martins Fork about 7 miles away). 

 

Making the curve I found myself walking along a beautiful old road which was “paved” in grass!  Look at this!  It seemed to me at the time that this must be the most beautiful road in existence!

 

 

From this point the trail actually does begin to level out and it’ll have you walking along the ridge top that divides Kentucky and Virginia for about the next 3 miles.  The first picture below is an interesting example of one of the straighter portions, but when the path begins to wind – even a little - it’s not too much of an overstatement to say that you’ll find yourself in one state or another with just about every step you take!

 

 

 

…and the views, of course, are pretty amazing (though a bit hazy)!

 

 

The ones in Virginia tended to be more open today while the ones in Kentucky were of “smoky” ridgelines, but the best might have been at the very end atop an exposed rock outcropping – the same outcropping that you’ll wind around to begin you’re descent.

 

 

A somewhat awkward encounter occurred in this stretch...  See, even though I am prepared to meet with unfriendly dogs, I’m not generally accustomed to it - people are usually very considerate - but when one came running toward me here I had a snap decision to make.  Do I take my chances or do I try to repel it? 

 

If you’ve got a dog and you aren’t sure if you can keep it heeled on the trail, then please keep it leashed – not just out of courtesy to others but out of concern for the dog!  Not only do you risk the possibility of an unexpected snake or stinging insect nest encounter, but the animal can also be a source of anxiety for other hikers who, having absolutely no idea of the dog’s temperament might actually spray it.  Today I let this dog come and thankfully it turned out to be just a large “puppy” (by the way, I do really like dogs – especially the larger breeds). 

 

The first part of your descent from the ridge will actually be a big dip in the Ridge Trail before it ascends anew to reach The Pinnacle (another outcrop of rock in the park with stunning views) and at the nadir of this dip you’ll reach another trail intersection:  the Pinnacle is to your right along Ridge Trail while the Lewis Hollow Trail will begin with a descent to your left. 

 

The Pinnacle is a great spot to visit too (see another entry), but on this particular hike you’ll follow along Lewis Hollow as it runs down the mountain beside another tributary of Station Creek.  This stream came seemingly out of nowhere today even though I must have passed its’ origin and it really carved a beautiful little valley out of the rock here!

 

 

Skylight Cave is also on this trail in a particularly spectacular spot.  In fact, I have to include a couple pictures of it, but the cave itself has been closed like all the others in the nation due to a disease the bats have gotten.  I sure do hope they can figure this one out.  Bats eat a ton of pesky insects!

 

 

Anyway, once you reach the bottom you’ll encounter the Picnic Area/Campground Trail split and here you’ll go right toward the campground with about a mile to go through the woods, partially along the road you’ll have driven in on.  This is a nice stroll upon which you can contemplate what you’ve just done, and after you cross the road to the picnic area you’ll soon arrive back at your car (which is apt to suddenly appear on your right side).

 

 

DIRECTIONS:

 

 

From Lexington I took the 25E exit (marked with Cumberland Gap indications) off I75 and headed through Pineville (originally called Cumberland Ford because this is where the settlers crossed the Cumberland after ascending up through the gap) to the Cumberland Gap tunnel.  Then going through it, I took an immediate exit onto US58 and headed east for maybe a mile until I reached a sign indicating the “Wilderness Road Campground”.   I took a left here and went past the picnic area turnoff to the point where the road splits in two at the campground.  I parked just before this.  There are a few individual spots here.