Backpacking Cumberland Gap
National Park is located at the point where Tennessee, Virginia
and Kentucky meet. This historical national park is an
undiscovered hiking, camping and backpacking destination.
from Ridge Trail at Cumberland Gap National Park
buddy Bryan Delay and I started a three night backpacking trip at
Pinnacle Overlook, a rock rampart overlooking Cumberland Gap. We
chose the leafless time of year to best enjoy the geological
wonders that can be found along the 20-mile Ridge Trail, running a
top Cumberland Mountain. Interestingly, this national park
exhibits characteristics of both the Cumberland Plateau -- rock
houses, stone spires and massive boulders -- as well as the
Southern Appalachians – high, parallel ridges divided by
deep valleys where rocky streams flow.
Boulders on the Ridge Trail
The bright sun lit the trail as we headed east from Pinnacle
Overlook. Great views could be had from this vista point, yet
it wasn't long before trailside outcrops opened onto the
Powell River valley below, dotted with farms fields and houses
that were absent during Boone’s day. Our five mile hike
undulated through boulder gardens and tall barren trees. I
made Gibson Gap campsite, one of five designated backcountry
campsites in the park, with an hour to spare before dark. I
immediately gathered plenty of firewood for the long, cold
night. Bryan rolled in later, lauding the rugged splendor of
this park, especially the myriad rock formations rising from
this ridge dividing Kentucky from Virginia.
Gibson Gap Campsite
Temperatures dipped into the mid-30s overnight, yet I rose
before dawn, stoking the fire. As usual, Brian slept in. After
a seemingly interminable period, I departed easterly on the
Ridge Trail, going up and down up and down, into chilly shade
and warm sun. Views continued to the southeast. Rhododendron,
mountain laurel and hemlocks added a touch of green to the
otherwise barren woodlands. The vertical walls of Shillalah
Creek gorge reflected the sun in the distance. Finally, I
reached the spur trail to Indian Rock, one of several natural
stone shelters in the park that were once used by aboriginals
dating back thousands of years.
I then headed to
the Hensley Settlement, a collection of pioneer homes dating
back to the early 1900s, when Sherman Hensley settled on this
mountaintop, ostensibly to get away from encroaching
civilization of phones and cars but he and his group were
getting away in order to make moonshine. To be fair, they also
grew crops and did metal forging, which they also took down
off the mountain to sell.
Home at Hensley Settlement
collection of over 40 buildings, from springhouses to barns to
homes, even a schoolhouse, was a sight to behold. Nearby, deer
grazed placidly in the meadows. The bright sun whipped up a wind
that blasted through the Hensley Settlement as I explored the
lonely buildings. The settlement was abandoned for good in 1951,
when Sherman Hensley, age 70, left. He was the last man on the
mountaintop colony that peaked at 100 residents. Jobs and
civilization proved to be too much of a lure.
Horse powered plow
was just a short distance beyond the settlement to our 2nd
night’s destination, Hensley Camp. The level grassy site is shaded
by pines and oaks. A nearby spring provided drinking water. We
passed the evening before a wind-whipped fire, occasionally
pushing smoke in our as we cooked brats and beans. The two of us
reflected on life at the Hensley Settlement and the isolation it
brought. Yet, the Hensley Settlement offered a simple way of
living, free of the rush-rush lifestyle we live today, complicated
by the electronic chains that bind us.
Ridge Trail not far from Sand Cave
Views near and distant continued the next day, as I hiked among
the summit’s boulder gardens. Two highlights lay ahead. Sand Cave
is simply one of the largest rock shelters in the Southeast. The
sand-floored rockhouse is complemented with a waterfall and is one
of those special places that make you glad it is a protected part
of a national park. It was a short distance from Sand Cave to the
White Rocks Campsite that completed our easy 5 mile day. The
campsite, located on a wooded slope, leaves much to be desired,
however its proximity to the White Rocks, made staying there
Sand Cave waterfall
Walking up the sand at Sand Cave
That afternoon we headed up to the open stone slab overlooking the
lowlands below. From White Rocks fell the ridge and valley country
of Virginia and Tennessee. The Great Smoky Mountains and the
Southern Appalachian chain provided framed the vista to the south.
A punishing wind atop the stone viewpoint limited how long we
stayed before retiring to the campsite.
Looking up at White Rocks
View down from the White Rocks
A front was moving in, so we pitched our tarps and waited for
the precipitation. But it didn't come until the next morning,
just as I was starting a pre-dawn coffee fire. Luckily, the
shower quickly dissipated, leaving us time to descend the
Ewing Trail where Bryan’s car awaited. Thus ended our 3 night
trek at Cumberland Gap National Park.
The Above Ground Trails Will Surprise
Spring, specifically mid-April,
is the best time to backpack Mammoth Cave National Park, with its 70 miles of
above ground trails and 10 backcountry campsites. The wildflowers here
rival that of the Smokies or any other mountain destination. Waterfalls,
rock houses and historic homesites are other sights to see. The
backcountry is also uncrowded. The only downside is trail conditions,
which can be muddy, due to horse traffic.
Pennywort Raymer Hollow Falls
Longtime backpacking pal Steve “Devo” Grayson and I left Maple Springs
trailhead and trekked up Raymer Hollow Trail. I was GPSing the trails for
my comprehensive guidebook to Mammoth Cave National Park. The leaves were
just popping out and the wildflowers were incredible. We hiked onto Blair
Spring Hollow Trail to Ferguson Hollow Campsite, for a long day. The
evening dropped to 48 degrees.
Fire Pink Author fills water bottle
We joined the scenic First
Creek Trail, which displays much biodiversity, from hemlocks to cactus.
After descending to the Nolin River, we saw thousands more wildflowers before
heading toward McCoy Hollow to camp. The day had warmed to 80 degrees and
we had had a 15 mile day. The evening cooled down quite nicely, however.
I slept like the dead. Next day we climbed Collie Ridge then passed
through the Dry Prong Buffalo valley, another wildflower rich area.
Wet Prong Buffalo flat
Bluebell close up
After walking Good
Springs Loop, Devo and I joined the Sal Hollow Trail and observed sinks,
overhangs, springs and homesites. I walked out Turnhole Bend Trail, while Devo
waited. I walked down to the Green River, where the bottomland was
electric green and seemingly growing before my eyes. We then we headed
north on Turnhole Bend Trail to camp at Homestead Campsite.
Devo on the Good Springs Loop
Another long warm day was followed by a
cool evening. We couldn’t complain about the weather. We were
whipped and relaxed our last night in the Mammoth Cave backcountry. It was
amazing how few people were out here, and didn’t know the beauty of these
Old homesite along Sal Hollow Trail
Green River bottomland
It was but a short walk to Maple Springs
trailhead next morning. Devo went back to Virginia, while I continued
working on the Mammoth Cave guidebook.
explore Mammoth Cave National Park? Get this book!
A Falcon Guide to
Mammoth Cave National Park
Belowground, Mammoth Cave National Park in southwestern Kentucky
is part of the largest known cave system in the world.
Aboveground, the park offers two winding rivers, numerous creeks,
and a lush forest full of trails to be explored. Discover all the
activities available in the 50,000-acre wonderland with A Falcon
Guide to Mammoth Cave National Park
Inside you will find:
- a foldout map of the park, complete with trails and activities
- cave tours, boat tours, scenic drives, and picnic areas
- where to walk, hike, bike, paddle, fish and ride a horse
- facts about the area's weather, history, flora and fauna
- lists of park accommodations, campsites, and area B&Bs
Backpacking Past Kentucky's Highest Falls
The warm and early spring day brought thousands upon thousands
of wildflowers as Johnny and fellow backpacking enthusiast Bryan Delay set out
from Yamacraw Bridge in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area,
which abuts the Daniel Boone National Forest. Immediately the two of us
broke out our digital cameras and began taking photos of the wildflowers,
including bloodroot, spring beauties and thousands of trout lilies.
Yahoo Falls (see person in pink at
We sweated up a storm as the trees weren't leaved out, allowing
the sun to pound us. We arrived at Negro Creek late in the afternoon and
toured the area, looking for more wildflowers and relaxing. That night we
cooked burgers and the temps only fell to around 50. I got up first as
usual and made the fire and boiled water for the coffee over the fire. We
set out for Yahoo Fall Scenic Area, and made it by lunch. We got multiple
views of Kentucky's highest fall at 113 feet, via trails that form a maze in the
area. Bryan liked the view from the massive cavern behind the falls.
The view from up high was good too. We also visited Yahoo Arch and Markers
Arch, more geologic features, before leaving Yahoo Creek and heading down Negro
Johnny and Bryan Lean Against the Log Where the "Spring
Bryan dropped off the side of the steep valley and found a
creekside campsite. We set up camp and hung out when along comes a
horseback rider who knew the area well and regaled us with stories. He
closed by asking if we wanted some spring water. Being a water aficionado,
I followed him to the "spring." We walked only a foot or two behind a log
upon which Bryan and I had been resting.
Then, he leans over and pulls out a jar of moonshine ... the
spring water!!!! We all laughed and he offered us some of the 'shine, then
went on his way. Little did Bryan and I know that we had set up camp right
at a moonshine hidin' spot!
Johnny with the Moonshine on Negro Creek
It was another pleasantly cool evening by the fire. Next
morning we took a side trip past Lick Creek Falls, yet another impressive
cascade with a massive rockhouse beside it. The Lick Creek valley was the
prettiest of them all and our favorite, especially when you include Princess
Falls, also in the Lick Creek Valley. All too soon we were heading back to
the car, another adventure in the can.
Want to backpack Kentucky? Get this book!
Day and Overnight Hikes
This book details the 282 miles of
Kentucky’s master path, the Sheltowee Trace. This path was the 100th
designated federal national recreation trail, dedicated in June of 1979. Hikers who tread this trail will be
“following the turtle,” a white painted turtle blazed on trees, extending from
the trail’s southern terminus in Tennessee’s Pickett State Park, north through
the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and on through the length
of the Daniel Boone National Forest nearly to the state of Ohio.
Along the way, hikers will see the best of
the Cumberland Plateau, from exquisite aches to bluffs that offer extensive
vistas to waterfalls that descend into sandstone cathedrals. The path treads
through deep forests in gorges cut by creeks and rivers and atop the Plateau,
where oak and pine forests range long distances. Rock houses, caves and other
rock features stand out in these rich woodlands. Some areas through which the
Trace travels are set aside purely for their natural beauty, such as Cumberland
Falls State Park, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, the
Clifty Wilderness, and Red River Gorge Geological Area. With the protection of
these areas has come protection of the plants and animals that live here,
including threatened and endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker,
Virginia big-eared bat, freshwater mussels, and white-haired goldenrod. The
black bear has made a comeback in these parts, expanding its range into eastern
Kentucky from neighboring states, as well as being reintroduced into the Big
northern Sheltowee Trace
The northern end of the Daniel Boone National Forest was the
setting for Johnny’s latest adventure. Here, Johnny took off from Cave Run
Lake on the Sheltowee Trace, walking north on a hot day in a leafless forest.
Johnny hiking Sheltowee Trace near Cave Run Lake in
Thirteen sweaty miles later, Johnny found a camp in a
narrow gap. He set up his Eureka tent, knowing the rains would come.
And they did. He broke camp in the rain, which is never fun, then put on
the poncho and kept on, making 13 more miles, much of it on a storm damaged
trail. The winter of 2003 had brought ice storms to the area and parts of
the Trace were blocked by literally thousands of trees. Johnny persevered,
even through the last 15 miles of the trail, which the forest service had closed
due to the extensive damage. After those last 15 miles, Johnny camped in
Henry Short Hollow, then walked out the last day, completing the entire
Big South Fork
National River and Recreation Area
A recent adventure took place on the Sheltowee Trace in
Kentucky. Johnny has recently finished writing a hiking guide for the
280-mile Trace, which stretches from Pickett State Park on the TN-KY state line
north through the Daniel Boone National Forest to Morehead, Kentucky, not too
far from Ohio.
John Cox at Marks Branch Falls
Johnny and John Cox left Pickett State Park on a warm day and
proceeded into the Biog South Fork National River and Recreation Area before
stopping to camp the first night. Fall colors were beginning to appear.
They cooked hamburgers that night, then proceeded down Rock Creek, seeing more
of what makes this area so great -- rock houses, massive boulders, arches,
waterfalls and everywhere-you look beauty that enhanced the trip.
They pushed on 17 miles that day and made a quick camp beside
a hemlock shaded stream before pushing on. This day was a little more
moderate, as their dogs were tired. Luckily, they once again found a creek
beside which to camp, jumping in Lake Cumberland to wash off the sweat and cut
down on the itching. See, they stupidly wore short pants on an open
stretch of trail. The lakeside camp also offered the option of going to
Yahoo Falls, Kentucky's highest waterfall. The above picture was taken as
Mark Branch Falls, which they also visited that day.
After this, they pushed past Lake Cumberland and into Indian
Creek, where they found another isolated camp and listened to the
Kentucky-Alabama footballs. Once again, the cool waters, this time
provided by Indian Creek, cut down on the severe itching of the chiggers that
were especially troublesome at night, in the warmth of the sleeping bags.
The final day took them to Cumberland Falls State Park via the
Cumberland River, where there were views aplenty of the mighty Cumberland River,
where rafters and kayakers ply their trade along here. The 64-mile trip
was just the first leg of the completing the entire 280-mile Sheltowee Trace!!!!