The Cumberland Gap is one of those places every schoolchild in the United States learned about during history class. The Appalachian Mountains formed a natural barrier to western expansion during the colonial era. The lower section, however, contained a natural gap that had long been exploited by Native Americans. Dr. Thomas Walker, a Virginia physician and explorer, recorded the gap in 1750 and brought it to the attention and imagination of the colonists. Daniel Boone widened the trail through the gap a quarter century latter as the key element of the Wilderness Road. Settlers streamed through the passageway and into the Ohio Valley by the tens of thousands during the earliest years of the nascent United States.
I’d long been captivated by that geographic and historical artifact and had wanted to go there for many years.
Tri-State Trail Area
The Weekend Roady gave added incentive in So Close, Yet So Remote (Lee County, VA) a couple of year ago. He flagged a particular local geo-oddity at the trailhead:
At the very end is a parking lot – situated, yes, in Virginia territory! This little lot represents the furthest west you can drive a car around in Virginia (so, of course, I had to take a photo of my car parked there – at that moment I was the westernmost vehicle in Virginia – that’s ‘geekspeak’ for cool.)
So I drove my car from our hotel in Middlesboro, Kentucky a couple of miles to the Cumberland Gap Tunnel where I entered Tennessee, then a couple more miles to the outskirts of the town of Cumberland Gap where I clipped the Virginia border, then back into Tennessee through the town proper, and finally into the same parking lot mentioned by Weekend Roady on the Virginia side of the boundary. That’s how the day went, crossing state lines frequently and unexpectedly.
We planned to hike 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometres) from the trailhead at Virginia’s westernmost parking lot to the Kentucky-Tennessee-Virginia (KYTNVA) Tripoint, and then back down.
The first leg, the Tennessee Road Trail (aka Iron Furnace Trail) lasted 0.3 miles (0.5 km), with the first trail segment leading to the Iron Furnace paved in asphalt and easily accessible. Signage indicated that an iron smelting complex known as the Newlee Iron Furnace operated here from the 1820’s to the 1880’s, using a nearby creek and a waterwheel as its power source. Only the furnace structure remained and it was quite large. Several people could walk into the ruins and stand inside of it simultaneously.
From there, the Tennessee Road Trail left pavement, doglegged once, and then joined the Wilderness Road Trail at a T. We turned left at the T and continued uphill.
The Wilderness Road Trail was a portion of the same pathway used more than two centuries ago by Daniel Boone and the early Kentucky settlers. We had it pretty easy compared to the pioneers and traveled in their footsteps for only another 0.3 miles (0.5 km). We approached the "Saddle of the Gap," and crossed back into Kentucky. This was THE SPOT, a place of stunning historical significance, the point where thousands of people left the eastern side of the settled continent and entered a wild frontier.
It may seem underwhelming on first glance. Here, at this amazingly important point of geography, one could hardly distinguish the Saddle from any other random trail. One should understand that this was an intentional design. Formerly a road cut through this place before being replaced by the Cumberland Gap Tunnel in 1996. Old U.S. 25E linked Cumberland Gap, TN to Middlesboro, KY using the gap, and its gash can still be seen in satellite images. The National Park Service removed asphalt, obscured the roadbed and continues to restore the Cumberland Gap to its original Wilderness Road appearance. Forest will completely obscure the gash within a few decades and the process will then be completed.
One artifact of the old road remained, a large marker placed in commemoration of Daniel Boone and the early pioneers by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1915. Until 1996 it would have been located just south of the paved road over the mountaintop and an easy pull-off for motorists. Today only hikers can reach it.
The marker was located at the Saddle on a side-trail found to the left as one walked up the Wilderness Road Trail from Virginia into Kentucky. That was a convenient waypoint. It also marked the start of the Tri-State Peak Trail and the halfway point of our excursion. It also provided a nice place to stop and rehydrate on a typically humid mid-Summer day in the Appalachians.
The final leg stretched from the DAR’s Daniel Boone marker to the top of Tri-State Peak, a distance of 0.6 miles (0.9 km). It passed the long-ago remnants of a Civil War fortification. Union and Confederate troops traded control of the Gap throughout the war, hauling cannons and supplies to the various mountaintops, although no major battles took place there. We didn’t stop to poke around, however. Our goal was the top.
The trail went through a long switchback and climbed to the crest, where it crossed back into Virginia. Then it pushed up upwards to the summit to a pavilion that marked the KYTNVA tripoint. Each state had its own plaque. Lines marked state boundaries. We stopped for a snack and posed for the obligatory photos of each of us standing in three states simultaneously. That’s what happens on a geo-geek vacation.
It was one of the more nicely marked tripoints I’ve seen.
- Trailhead: Parking lot on VA side of the border at the very end of Pennlyn Ave., in Cumberland Gap, TN.
- Tennessee Road Trail (0.3 miles): Asphalt to Iron Furnace then trail to T intersection with Wilderness Road Trail; turn left onto Wilderness Road Trail
- Wilderness Road Trail (0.3 miles): Hike up to the Saddle of the Gap, then turn left at the sign for Tri-State Peak (Daniel Boone marker will be clearly visible)
- Tri-State Peak Trail (0.6 miles): pass the Daniel Boone marker, pass the remnants of the Civil War fort; switchback, and continue uphill to the Tripoint.
This was a pretty easy climb albeit the entire route pointed uphill. The trails were well marked, they were in good shape, and it never got too rocky or too steep. There were also plenty of historical features spaced appropriately to break up the walk, and hold the attention of our kids.
I’d recommend this short hike for anyone interested in geography or history.
Kentucky Adventure articles:
- Part 1 – Getting There
- Part 2 – Blazing a Trail
- Part 3 – Appalachian Heritage
- Part 4 – Power of Water
- Part 5 – In the Middle
- Part 6 – And the Rest