Autumn Along the Cumberland Mountains
Autumn came late to the Cumberland Mountains along the border of Kentucky and Virginia. There was not a better way to spend it than by traversing the backroads along Cumberland and Pine Mountains and visiting Pine Mountain State Resort Park, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kingdom Come State Park, and the Little Shepherd Trail.
Stretching for 130 miles between eastern Tennessee and West Virginia, the Cumberland Mountains is comprised of numerous valley-and-ridge topography and features several outstanding summits, including Big Black Mountain, the highest point in the state, Little Black Mountain, and The Doubles. It’s also home to numerous passages through the unforgiving terrain, including the infamous Cumberland Gap along the Wilderness Road.
I began my morning camping near Pine Mountain State Resort Park in Pineville, Kentucky. Featuring breathtaking panoramic views, old-growth forests, and a rustic lodge, the reserve is probably best known for Chained Rock that overlooks the city of Pineville. The weather forecast had called for cloudy skies, but when I awoke at sunrise and peered out, I was greeted with parting skies and dense fog that had enveloped the valleys. Turkish playwright Mehmet Ildan said it right when he noted that the job of fog was to “beautify further the existing beauties.” I returned later in the day to Chained Rock under overcast skies and although the fog had long passed, it was still a wonderful and serene sight to behold.
Just a half-hour drive down the Daniel Boone Parkway is Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and is centered around Cumberland Gap. Referred to as the first gateway to the West, the natural break in the Cumberland Mountains at the apex of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia fueled the westward expansion of early America. But the linear park is much more than just the passage; it encompasses mountainous terrain with countless overlooks, unique caves, and waterfalls with dozens of miles of easy to strenuous hiking trails.
On my last visit, the city of Middlesboro, Kentucky was shrouded in deep fog which is not unusual because of its unique topography: it is built entirely inside a meteorite crater. On cool summer mornings, the fog will lift over the Gap and spill into Tennessee and Virginia. Unfortunately, there wasn’t as much fog in the valley on this morning—and instead of spilling over, it simply burned off in the weak morning sun. The stunning colors made up for it.
Further east from the Gap is White Rocks along the border of Kentucky and Virginia, aptly named for the quartz pebbles embedded in the rocks that will glisten in the sunlight.
The next morning, I awoke from my campsite along the crest of Pine Mountain along the Little Shepherd Trail, a scenic 38-mile one-lane road between US Route 421 near Harlan and US Route 119 near Whitesburg. Named after John Fox Jr.’s novel, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, the serpentine route twists through the Kentenia State Forest, Kingdom Come State Park, and numerous nature preserves. The road’s creation was at the request of William Hayes, a former student and farm manager at the Pine Mountain Settlement School, and was built in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Little Shepherd Trail, lightly traveled by automobiles, is shared by backpackers trekking the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail. The 82-mile trail, extending from US Route 421 to Breaks Interstate Park, is relatively new and will eventually connect to the Ridge Trail at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
Next to the campsite is the skeleton of the Beschman Lookout Tower, one of many fire towers that dotted the mountaintops, many built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. and the United States Forest Service in the 1930s. Symboling natural resource protection in the nation, these lattice metal towers once numbered in the thousands and staffed by spotters who looked for smoke and fires near and far. Technological advances and aerial surveillance led to the abandonment of most lookout towers by the 1970s and 1980s.
Further east and located just off of the Little Shepherd Trail along KY Route 2010 south of Shell Gap is Rebels Rock, a massive sandstone slump on the side of Pine Mountain. There is a small informal hiking trail that winds to the top of Rebels Rock.
Several miles to the east near Hurricane Gap is Hi Lewis Pine Barrens State Nature Preserve which protects outstanding woodlands dominated by pitch pine and chestnut oak on the south-facing slope of the mountain. It also features numerous prairie species including little bluestem and Indian grass, and drought-tolerant plants such as low-bush blueberries. White the reserve can be seen from the road, there are no defined trails into its interior and access is currently restricted.
On the other side of Hurricane Gap is Kingdom Come State Park, which at an elevation of 2,700 feet, offers sweeping views of the surrounding valleys and five miles of hiking trails to places like Log Rock, a 60-foot long sandstone arch. Much like the road it adjoins, the park is named after John Fox Jr.’s novel, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come.
Further eastward along the spine of Pine Mountain, the Little Shepherd Trail predominantly traverses through the 5,000-acre Hensley-Pine Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Thankfully spared from the strip-mining and clear-cutting that has affected surrounding mountain ranges, this protected forestland features old-growth hardwoods, rare mountain bogs, and rare wildflower collections. Chestnut oaks, some several hundred years old, dot the ridges and hollows.
I finally made it to the eastern terminus of the Little Shepherd Trail at US Route 119 which features a small overlook of the North Fork Kentucky River valley and Whitesburg and a rather large parking area. Winding up both sides of the mountain is US Route 119, and although improved over the years with wider turning radiuses and lanes, it is still fundamentally the same crossing as motorists first took when the road was graded and paved in 1930. A tunnel has long been proposed for the US Route 119 corridor but its high expense and low traffic counts haven’t advanced the idea forward past the preliminary planning stages. After taking in the panoramic sights of the last evening light atop Pine Mountain, I descended and headed north to take in the last of the fall colors from the western fringes of the Cumberland Escarpment.