Backpacking the Cumberland Gap
It has often been said that you should “be careful what you wish for.” If you were the two novice backpackers who volunteered to go hiking with Your Humble Servant this week, that advice goes in spades.
Our adventure of the week was a three-day, end-to-end backpacking trip of the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, located at the point where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia rub shoulders.
Both regular readers of Wildindiana.com know that we have visited Cumberland Gap N.H.P. on a frequent basis in the last few years. As the park is only a five-hour drive from Indianapolis and offers history, 70 miles of great hiking and wonderful facilities, Cumberland Gap is a no-brainer for Hoosiers who enjoy backcountry adventure.
This trip was hatched last fall when frequent co-conspirator Ken and Yours Truly were conducting a hike that has since become known as the Cumberland Death March.
What started out as a simple September two-day adventure became a survival ordeal after temperatures soared into record levels. In spite of the terrible temperature, lack of water, horrific climb and subsequent thunderstorm that came within a few feet of turning us into smoking lumps of carbon, we decided a return spring backpacking trip might be fun.
Our plan was to finally hike the entire 20-mile Ridge Trail, a foot and horse path that runs the length of Cumberland Gap park along the top of the mountain of the same name that served as a substantial barrier to the westward expansion of America in the late 1700’s. As an afterthought, we chose to invite some friends who had expressed a slight interest in undertaking such an adventure.
One of those friends, with only six months lead time to plan, was forced to back out at the last minute due to a conflict. Instead, we got Kevin, who turned out to be a great guy and wonderful hiking companion. Kevin was available due to one of those little downsizing decisions that nowadays make corporate executives seem to resemble pond scum.
He took the whole job-loss thing in stride, while we would have probably driven a rental truck full of manure through the front doors. But I digress...
Fast forward six months to this past Monday and you would see this writer, Ken, Tony and Kevin standing at the Pinnacle Overlook parking lot ready for the challenge. With a second vehicle parked twenty miles east at the trailhead in Ewing, Virginia, we stepped off under china blue skies and leafless trees that offered an open view of the valley a thousand feet below. Life was grand.
Our mental portfolio of adventures can seldom remember such a sublime hiking experience as that first day on the ridge trail. The temperature was perfect for hiking in the lower 60’s and a steady wind provided a bit of refreshment whenever the climbs generated sweat.
It seemed like every few minutes there was another outstanding view that seemed to go on forever, or at least until Georgia. We burned up much digital memory in our cameras as while attempting to capture the impossible.
There were a few tough climbs along the trail, especially the climb out of Lewis Hollow. After much huffing and puffing, we finally climbed back to altitude and enjoyed a relatively easy trek along the ridgeline.
Around noon we stopped at Table Rock, a nice spot for lunch out of the chilly wind. The hour was spent lounging around on the large rock slab and discussing the rest of the poor unfortunate souls in the world who weren’t likewise eating their noon meal in the backcountry.
Your Obedient Servant noshed on our standard trail lunch of foil-pouch tuna and whole-wheat tortillas from a large plastic bag. As the lifetime total of miles under our boots increases, we lean more and more towards dining simplicity rather than extravagant tastes. On the other hand, everything tastes better in the outdoors, especially when you've been working hard to reach your lunch spot in the first place.
Lunch finished, we shouldered our packs and staggered back up the trail. Though Ken and I had visited this area last year, apparently the heat had baked our brains and we didn’t realize that table rock was less than a half-mile from our first overnight campsite at Gibson Gap. We staggered into camp around 1 p.m. having done approximately 6 miles.
The campsite at Gibson Gap is located in a slight notch and sits 100 yards above a good flowing spring, a rarity on top of Cumberland Mountain. That night, Kevin and Ken build a large campfire with wood that some kind soul had left behind and we sat around telling stories, poking the fire and taking the occasional nip of snakebite medicine. Each man packed a flask of spirituous beverages in case of attack by reptile and we all made sure to take a preventative draught or two each evening. Cigars were also included on the bill of fare as added protection against mosquitoes and respectable ladies.
The next morning we headed out early under windier but still-clear skies. Our destination was Chadwell Gap near the Hensley Settlement.
As day two progressed, everyone fell into the rhythm of the hike and we often went long periods without conversation. Lunch was held on another large sun-warmed rock that seemed to overlook a good portion of the commonwealth of Virginia. The hiking on this day didn’t involve as many large climbs but did provide numerous elevation changes that quieted everyone as each man sought to conserve strength and continue the grind of up-and-down.
In the early afternoon, after walking along an unseen but heard creek in a tunnel of rhododendrons, we began seeing signs of human habitation such as clearings that were reverting to forest and finally the ruins of old cabins. We had reached the outskirts of the Hensley Settlement.
Here the Ridge Trail makes a right hand turn and sees much more horse traffic.
Before we continue, we feel the urge to rile up horse owners.
It became obvious to all that the amount of trash and trail destruction increases in proportion to horse usage. While we feel that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the backcountry, we would again publicly ask horse riders to refrain from discarding their water bottles, cigarette butts and beer cans along the trail.
Cynically (and sadly), I believe this plea falls on deaf ears. Please prove us wrong.
For the sake of argument, we will admit to not having seen any horse riders pitching Natty Light cans into the wilderness but my counter-argument is that I've also never seen a hiker carrying a 12-pack of beer seven miles from the nearest trailhead. As they say, "Do the math."
The Chadwell Gap campsite was at a high spot on ridge, larger than most anf gave the appearance of having been an open field when the settlement was in operation. With a scraggly collection of trees, tired outhouse and no water nearby, the campsite wasn’t the most desirable in the park. After a quick conference, we agreed to move along to the Martin’s Fork cabin area, approximately half a mile away. At least it was closer to our destination.
Part of our reasoning was a weather system that was reportedly bearing down on the Cumberland. None of us savored the idea of being caught in a bad storm on the high open ground at Chadwell.
Foreshadowing Alert: our fears proved well founded.
We walked another .3 of a mile and then took the .2 mile side trail down into the small valley where the cabin is located. Turning a corner on the steep downhill, we were pleasantly surprised.
In a small clearing framed by rhododendron and hemlock, a picturesque cabin stood guard over a verdant one-acre clearing in the forest that was wrapped by a clear burbling brook. In all, it was a picture of Appalachian paradise. After seven miles of hiking, it was a great place to call an overnight home.
The evening was uneventful as we told more stories, took our standard precautions against snakebite and then turned in under clear skies. One member of the party who happens to own this website enthusiastically stated (repeatedly) that the weather system had blown over and the forecast was wrong.
Our trail mascot "Jason" and a salamander
I was reminded of this prediction around 5 a.m. when the hail started in earnest…for the first time.
It was fortunate that we had picked such a sheltered campsite as I shudder to think about our fate had we stayed at Chadwell. Based on the wind gusts, it seems likely that our tarps would probably have been found somewhere near South Carolina or perhaps Bermuda.
The cabin was a godsend as its meager porch provided a sheltered space to eat breakfast and pack our gear in the rain and gathering gloom. “At least,” I told our rookie hikers, “you get the full-meal-deal. Now you will experience real backpacking in all its glory!”
Judging by the looks I received, it is fortunate that: A) these people were really good friends and B) I was carrying a pistol (legally, of course.)
Actually, I must commend everyone in the expedition as there was no grousing, whining or complaining during the entire day. We all just geared up, hit the trail and slogged onward toward our car and the decadent possibility of dry underwear.
The entire final day was spent hiking in rain, heavy fog and the occasional downpour of misery. As visibility was often less than a dozen feet, I expended my entire arsenal of bad jokes, worse songs and rambling gibberish in an attempt to not surprise any bears as we tromped through the mire. As it was cub season, I didn't relish the idea of inadvertently getting between mama and her babies.
After one long climb, Kevin and I waited for the other two to catch up when I was startled to see a giant skull staring at me in the fog. I thought that things had finally reached the point where hallucinations had set in when realization struck: I knew where we were!
The apparition was actually a 30-foot rock was that, in the fog, presented a remarkable likeness to a human skull. Even better, I recognized that we just 100 yards from the junction with the Ewing trail that would lead down to our car.
Our original plan was to hike to White Rocks before heading down but the fog made those extra two miles an exercise in futility. In all, nobody seemed especially upset. We could hear clean clothes calling our name.
The 2.5 mile hike down was a nice change from the pulse-pounding climbs and we hiked out of the clouds within the first mile. Once below the clouds, the hike was visually interesting as dozens of springs and small creeks cut across the trail due to the cloudbursts at the peak.
Several times we saw the small orange salamanders endemic to this area lounging around in the middle of the trail. We kept our head down to avoid slipping on the water-slicked rocks but regardless, we would have been equally attentive because accidentally crushing one of the benign little lizards would have ruined the mood.
Finally, after what seemed like a week on the trail, we arrived back at the trailhead in Ewing for a round of handshakes, rest and dry socks.
Overall, the hike remains one of my favorite backpacking destinations. With plenty of challenges and scenery but easy access to the frontcountry and low probability of getting lost, the park is ideal for introducing first-time backpackers to the sport. To our subjective minds, the trail would merit a solid "moderate" rating.
Now that Tony and Kevin are grizzled backpacking veterans, they're already talking about the next backcountry challenge.
Of course, judging by the looks I got back on the cabin porch, I'm assuming I won't be invited along.