A Gap in Experience

I’ve lived in Virginia for decades, and yet there are still a bunch of spots here that I’ve never seen. We just visited one of them, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, in the far southwest corner of the state.

While I’d not been down here before, it turns out that I’m not the first person to experience this place. For thousands of years, people have migrated through the gap, which was historically one of just a handful of ways west through the Appalachian chain. Native Americans hunted and fished their way across the gap dating back hundreds of years (at least), and a quarter million settlers passed through on their way to Kentucky and the Ohio Valley in the early 1800s.

My trip came by way of modern highways, of course, while the settlers’ journey was made possible in part by Daniel Boone. His explorations of Virginia and Kentucky made him one of the first folk heroes in the United States—and inspired a coonskin-capped character in an incredibly stupid 1960s TV show (I stumbled onto that show recently, and, much like my childhood moptop, it didn’t really stand the test of time).

In 1775, Boone and his men built the route through the gap, called the Wilderness Road. He left his mark here and all across the region, and a lot of things in the area still bear his name–including Boonesboro, Kentucky, Boone, North Carolina, Daniel Boone State Forest, counties named Boone in seven different states, and of course Boone’s Farm strawberry wine (maybe the coonskin cap was for headaches?).

Planning for our trip to Cumberland Gap was helped along by Brittony, a friendly and knowledgeable ranger with the Park Service. She was a fantastic resource and went out of her way to help us plan an interesting hike. At one point, I thanked her for all that she was doing for her park. She replied “thank you so much for visiting YOUR national park!”

Our day’s hike was up to Sand Cave, a unique feature on a high ridge with a great overlook nearby. Getting to the cave and overlook was about nine miles round trip, but it was well worth the trek.

Sand Cave is a cleft in Greenbrier limestone that was carved out by the wind, one of about thirty caves on the south face of Cumberland Mountain. It’s opening is 250 feet across and at least 100 feet deep, and the sand is several feet deep in the middle. The cave’s ceiling is filled with color, and there are some amazing reds and golds and browns. It was incredible to see all of that color and all of that sand so high up on the mountain.

After the cave, our next stop was White Rock Cliffs, just a mile or so to the east. It offered views of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, and we enjoyed lunch as we were literally looking down on birds in flight.

Thanks in large measure to the National Park Service, the natural beauty of the gap is a constant–but the human history keeps writing new chapters. The most recent chapter is from the mid-1990s, when the Cumberland Gap Tunnel opened *below* the park. The mile-long tunnel replaced a section of the historic Wilderness Road, which is now restored to its more primitive state.

I can’t imagine what Daniel Boone would say about a modern tunnel replacing his wagon road, but that seems a lot more like progress than strawberry wine.

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