Length/Type: Approximately 4.0 miles one-way, out-and-back; Difficulty: Strenuous (very steep, sustained climbs and rugged to unstable footing at times); Other Considerations: This hike climbs nearly 2,000 vertical feet and contains extremely difficult grades both ascending and descending. Be sure to allow adequate time to make this trip as a dayhike, as progress can be slow across many of the trail’s tougher sections. A detailed trail map is available via the park’s website.
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park – and its 85 miles or so of trails – is easily one of the South’s most easily missed yet unforgettable hiking destinations. Cumberland Gap lacks large tourist centers like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in the Smokies, and it tends to draw lower crowds since it also lacks the presence of a long-distance, premier hiking trail like the Appalachian Trail within its boundaries. That doesn’t mean that the park lacks outdoor activities and scenery, though. In fact, there’s perhaps no better component of the National Park System in the South that brings history, Appalachian Culture, and scenery together than Cumberland Gap.
Located at the junction of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina, Cumberland Gap stretches for some 26 miles mostly along the Virginia-Kentucky border, acting as a narrow corridor of preserved land buffering the crest of Cumberland Mountain. The park never gets much wider than 3-4 miles across along this corridor, but it still manages to house an incredible amount of natural and cultural attractions within its borders.
Perhaps the best way to experience the history, scenery, and backcountry setting common to Cumberland Gap in a single day hike is by traveling to the Hensley Settlement, an early 20th century community-turned-living history museum located in a high, isolated valley between the summits of Cumberland and Brush Mountains. The park holds occasional guided tours seasonally via a park shuttle, but the best way to experience the settlement is to hike there from one of several routes on the valley floor, all around 8-10 miles roundtrip in length. This hike will detail one of the most popular routes to the settlement (hiking via the Chadwell Gap and Ridge Trails), which provides a bit of everything the park has to offer, from quiet woods walking to rugged clifflines and history around every turn.
This option to the Hensley Settlement begins at the Chadwell Gap Trailhead, a small gravel pullout located at the foot of the mountain just north of the community of Caylor, Virginia. The Chadwell Gap Trail was relocated slightly in the early 2000s to move it off of private land and provides a direct – if not strenuous – route to the summit of Cumberland Mountain. For the first mile or so, however, the trail resembles more of a typical Appalachian woods-walk, meandering from the back corner of the parking area through a beautiful hardwood forest pockmarked by occasional limestone outcrops – a common feature on the valley floor.
Around 1.1 miles from the trailhead, the footpath turns right up a hollow and begins the climb in earnest to the top of Cumberland Mountain at Chadwell Gap. Much of this route follows series of old roadbeds, climbing steadily at times via switchbacks and at others more sharply against the grain of the hillside when cliffs and smaller rock outcrops block the way. The route passes an abandoned concrete structure (either an old foundation or a weir) at mile 1.6 and then reaches the base of the major cliff system below the summit around mile 2.0. This climb threads its way through the cliff system on a series of switchbacks and intervening strenuous scrambles up to its final several hundreds yards before the gap, passing a sign for horseback riders to dismount and an accompanying concrete section covering an especially rough stretch on the way up. The cliff structure here is particularly complex and rugged, providing some of the best scenery along the entire hike.
The trail tops out just east of Chadwell Gap at mile 2.8, where a brief but faint side trail winds out to an outcrop on the edge of the ridge, providing a panoramic view of the Powell River Valley just below and – when the sky is exceptionally clear – a view of the high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the far distance. The Chadwell Gap Trail ends in the gap at a signed T-intersection with the Ridge Trail, the main hiking artery across Cumberland Mountain. To the right, the Ridge Trail leads several miles to the famous Sand Cave and White Rocks (two of the park’s most popular destinations). The left option heads towards the Hensley Settlement and forms the rest of the route for this hike.
Leaving its junction with the Chadwell Gap Trail, the Ridge Trail climbs initially around a knob on the Cumberland Mountain ridgeline and then enters Chadwell Gap (the actual low point on the ridge) at mile 3.0. A signed side trail heads off the north side of the ridge from the gap here towards the Martin’s Fork headwaters and a camping area (complete with a cabin) maintained by the national park. Continuing on the Ridge Trail at this intersection, the footpath takes on more of a ridgewalk character, reaching the signed Chadwell Gap Camp at mile 3.4. This theme continues, passing the Henlsey Camp and eventually reaching a fork in the trail at mile 3.75. The signed left fork is the continuation of the Ridge Trail, but to reach the Hensley Settlement, take the unsigned right fork straight ahead. This trail leads to a clearing and interpretive sign on the east end of the settlement at mile 4.0. This marks the “official” end of the hike in terms of mileage for this guide, but you will definitely want to continue into the settlement itself to explore before backtracking.
The “trails” within the Hensley Settlement are in reality a network of faded, doubletrack gravel and grass roads that wind between cabins and other buildings within the open expanse of the valley. It is actually possible to walk the length of the settlement all the way to the upper end of the Shillalah Creek Trail (another popular route to the settlement) approximately one mile away on the west end of the valley. Be sure to plan enough time into your trip to explore the settlement and its numerous educational signs and structures (more info on park programming at the settlement can be found here) before backtracking to the Ridge Trail the way you came in to return back to Chadwell Gap and the trailhead.
Although it’s easy to tell when you’re making the climb to Chadwell Gap, Cumberland Mountain is an incredibly significant ridgeline in this part of the Appalachians. Beyond forming the modern-day Virginia-Kentucky border (and being a significant hurdle for early settlers seeking to move west into the interior of the continent), the long ridge of Cumberland Mountain is also part of the Tennessee Valley Divide. The Divide forms the physical boundary between watersheds flowing into the upper Tennessee River and those flowing into different river systems on the other side. At this point on the Divide, Cumberland Mountain separates the Powell River watershed to the south from the Cumberland River watershed to the north. Although these rivers both ultimately flow into the larger Tennessee River, the waters falling on top of Cumberland Mountain and running down either side of the ridge will not meet again until near Paducah, Kentucky – hundreds of river miles to the west.
The Powell Valley, in particular, is a key natural feature on this hike. The Chadwell Gap climbs through the northern side of this valley on its way up the mountain, and the headwater streams encountered on the trail ultimately run into the Powell beyond the park boundary. The Powell is significant biologically for a number of reasons, most famously for containing a wealth of freshwater fish and mussel diversity along its length, from its source near Norton, Virginia all the way into Tennessee.
Along this stretch of the Powell Valley, the numerous caves and sinkholes formed by the underlying limestone rock only help to enhance this biodiversity. Rain and groundwater can quickly dissolve limestone which, over the years, can open up a honeycomb-like network of subterranean habitats found almost entirely out of human sight. These underground ecosystems, though, can harbor an astounding number of species adapted to belowground life, including fish, crayfish, bats, salamanders, and invertebrates. One such invertebrate, in fact, the Lee County Cave Isopod, is found only in a handful of underground habitats farther up the Powell Valley from this trail. It’s hard to imagine, but even with the incredible scenery aboveground in the park, an entirely different world lies hidden here, unseen below your feet.
Directions: From the intersection of US-25E and US-58 just outside of Harrogate, TN, travel US-58 east for 10.3 miles to signed SR-690. Turn left onto SR-690 and proceed for 2.2 miles to SR-688. Continue onto SR-688 where SR-690 turns left, and drive 0.7 miles to the signed, gravel trailhead parking area on the left.