Trail Notes: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Trail Team 11

A view into Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee from the Pinnacle Overlook. (B. Stack/WJHL)

The Place: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, TN/KY/VA

The Hike: Harlan Road Trail to Fort McCook Trail, from Pinnacle Overlook down the Ridge Trail to Sugar Run Trail, then down that trail back to the truck. I don’t even know. Thankfully, I had a guide.

“Hiking experts” say you should never hike long distances in brand new boots before properly breaking them in. If you do, they say you’ll get blisters. In 95% of cases that’s probably true. In this case, it wasn’t, which I’m thankful for. The hike turned out much longer and had more opportunities for me to turn my ankles than I usually care for.

It is hard for me to describe this the route this hike took, simply because it was multiple trails that my friend “S’mores” had hiked before and strung together to form a big loop.

The day of our hike was a typical late-fall day: cool and cloudy and fortunately snow-less. We met up for the hike at the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park welcome center. From there, we drove down Kentucky State Highway 988 to about the Sugar Run Picnic area. Keep an eye out – the trailhead you want is actually right before the picnic area.

From there begins a gentle uphill climb. This first part, largely area-typical forests, is quiet. Surprisingly, there weren’t any others on the trail at the time, although we did spot signs of other hikers. This part of the trail is largely dry, with no creeks.

You eventually end up dead-ending at the road that takes you to the Pinnacle Overlook. That’s right, it’s time for part two of this climb. This is where it gets steep.

At the road, you hang a right to what’s left of Fort McCook. I encourage you to poke around the ruins a bit before heading uphill, especially if you’re a history nerd. Then, you’re headed practically straight uphill for .7 miles. According to the AllTrails app, the incline grade is 45% at one point.

The climb up the switchbacks (a.k.a. The Worst Things Ever) had me whining like a toddler the entire time. However, it was well worth the view from the Pinnacle Overlook. (For those not wanting to hike up the mountain, you can also drive to the Overlook.)

After a break including people watching, rice cakes and tea, it was on to the next bit of the hike.

The next trail S’mores led me down is the Ridge Trail. It runs the entire ridge, nearly 20 miles, from the Pinnacle Overlook northeast on the Kentucky/Virginia line. We would only hike about 1.7 miles, where the Sugar Run Trail branches off to the left.

I love hiking ridges. Sometimes, looking down the mountainside, you’ll see deer. Looking up into the air, the occasional hawk will soar past. Outcroppings along the way give you a chance to step out from under the trees for views miles away.

However, that came to an end as we hiked off the ridge and down Sugar Run Trail. This trail, when coming from the ridge, is roughly 2 miles straight downhill. Part of the trail parallels the Sugar Run Creek, making way for a couple of small cascades. There are also some cool rock formations for the geology-minded to check out.

Overall, this is one of my favorite hikes around. Be prepared for it to kick your butt. You’re hiking 6.7 miles (roughly) with steep inclines headed to the Pinnacle Overlook, and steep inclines back to the car. Places to replenish water are scarce, so be sure to pack plenty.

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