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The Underground World of Cumberland Gap Cave
The Mysterious Beauty of Kentucky's Cumberland Cave

by Linda Aksomitis

Cumberland Gap CaveI stared as the dim lantern beams illuminated the spectacular stalagmite known as The Pillars of Hercules. Grecian mythology had them as gates to the new world, while here, in the underground caverns of Cumberland Cave, the 75 foot pillars served as an impressive wonder of nature. Since it takes a stalagmite about 100 years to increase by an inch, it represented 90,000 years of growth-in another century it would reach the top of the cave.

Carol Borneman, National Park Service Ranger, continued leading my group through the third level of the Cumberland Cave. We'd entered at 1400 feet elevation, and the exit was at 1600 feet, so there was lots of climbing. While some manmade stairs existed, most of the walk was through the cave's natural terrain, as it had been explored centuries earlier. In fact, one large rock face held signatures of soldiers who'd sought shelter there during the Civil War. Carol noted that after 50 years that type of graffiti becomes an historical artifact, so remained untouched even after more recent intrusions into the cave's interior were removed.

The Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, which is situated in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, was a trip full of new discoveries, from history to geology. The Gap has been a key transportation corridor across the Appalachian Mountains since prehistoric times. Used first by bison and deer in search of food, it gained significance for aboriginal groups as the key pass on the Athawominee (path of the armed ones or the Warrior's Path). The Warrior's Path led south from the Potomack River, across the gap, and north to the Ohio River.

In 1750 the first European settlers walked the path, as Thomas Walker found his way through the mountains. Following a war with the Indians, the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, in 1775, granted a large part of Kentucky to the United States. Daniel Boone and 30 men marked the Wilderness Trail from Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. The 15th state - Kentucky - was admitted to the Union in 1792 with a population over 100,000 settlers. Traffic on the Wilderness Trail increased, with an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people crossing it on their way west by 1810.

Today, the Wilderness Trail has been returned to its original path, although it will be decades before the trees fill in the areas that were once used by interstate highways.

A tunnel, the largest national project of its kind at a cost of nearly 25 million dollars, now takes visitors safely under the mountains rather than over them. The Wilderness Trail restoration project is estimated at another four million dollars.

Of course I had to hike the Wilderness Trail, following in the footsteps of Daniel Boone and all those men and women who opened the American west. It was a warm day, but by the time I'd reached the saddle of the gap I was hot from exertion. Around me birch, wild magnolia, poplar, holly and hickory trees stood tall, their leaves just starting to don their autumn colors.

Following the advice of my guide, Carol, "Leaves of three, leave them be," I paid attention to the many different plants around me, avoiding the poison ivy. Kudzo vine, which was brought in from the Orient in the 1930s, also abounded. It seemed incredible to me that anything, even a plant, could actually grow a foot a day like the kudzu!

Other hikers met us on the trail. Equipped with walking sticks, they had been exploring more rugged terrain on the Tri-State Peak trail. The wooden signage in the area was all hand-carved by Park employees to mark the 70 miles of hiking trails, so they fit with the natural environment the National Park Service strives to create.

Smokey Mountains of North CarolinaEarlier in the day I'd taken the 4-mile drive up to Pinnacle Overlook where the tri-states are visible, since I wouldn't have time for the longer hike. It was a moment to remember! I'd walked over the state line from Kentucky, so Tennessee was below me and Virginia was to my right. In the horizon, 100 miles distant, I saw the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. While the sky was blue, fog filled the valley below, like a round bowl of fluffy cotton balls, completely obscuring the city of Middlesborough.

Middlesborough has a fascinating history of its own, since geologists have concluded it was built in a meteor crater. The distinctive round shape was certainly visible from above. Shattered rock in the middle, along with deformed rocks that have been bent, folded or shoved around the sides of the area, were enough to convince Willam M. Andrews Jr., a geologist with the Kentucky Geological Society that even though erosion and vegetation have covered many signs of the meteor's impact, there is ample evidence to confirm the event happened around 300 million years ago.

The theory indicates a meteor more than 1500 feet in diameter struck the area, creating the crater that is four miles long in diameter. Other remaining evidence includes huge sections of rock that have been flipped upside down or bent into odd positions, suggesting a powerful impact.

Cumberland Falls, in the Cumberland Falls State Park, is another one of the unique sights of this area. On a night with a full moon the mist of the falls creates the magic of the moonbow - a phenomenon that doesn't appear anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere! The falls are gorgeous on their own, as there is a 125-foot wide curtain plunging 60-feet into a boulder-strewn gorge below, even if you miss the full moon as I did.

With so many incredible adventures in Cumberland Gap, the cave was still my favorite. Stooping sometimes to fit under a four-foot archway and shining the lantern to light my way, I felt like a true caver, exploring the depths of the earth. It was hard to imagine water that had never rippled in the wind, like that in Cleopatra's Pool. On the other hand, it was easy to see the shape of a coal miner in a stalactite. At Lover's Leap I peered over the edge, wondering if somewhere in the centuries gone by, couples really had enjoyed secret rendezvous on the spot.

And the creatures of the night? Yes, I discovered some of those taking shelter in the Gap Cave as well. A tiny bat clung to the cold rock ceiling, looking more like a shrivelled mouse than anything else. Cave crickets scurried along the walls near the entrance where there was some light, their long skinny legs making them appear like a cross between a spider and the crickets I was familiar with. And of course, I also saw evidence of pack rats, the rodent I have the least appreciation for!

When I emerged from the cave into the bright afternoon sunshine, I felt a sense of loss for the dark of the underground world that had changed very little in thousands of years, unlike the environment above ground.


For more information on visiting Cumberland Gap:
Southern & Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association:

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park:

The Cumberland Gap Restoration Project: