Monday, May 3, 2010

A Visit to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park


I vividly remember my first trip through the Cumberland Gap. Back then you didn't drive through the nice Highway 25E tunnel that now quickly transports you from Kentucky to Tennessee (or the opposite, of course, if you're coming from the other direction). No, back then you had to climb the gap (usually struck behind an 18-wheeler if your luck was like mine), and then at the highest point there was a roadside souvenir shop and Cudjo's Cave. I don't know if you can even still access that road any more or not, but I also remember I always thought it was neat to be able to pass through three states (Virginia got tucked in there too on the old road) in a matter of seconds.

On our recent trip to East Tennessee, Michele and I stopped in at this historic "gateway to the west" for a quick visit. I must say I was a little disappointed with the park's Visitor Center. Being a book enthusiast, I always like looking at the selections at National Parks. Unfortunately, they just didn't have much of an offering. I know that there are a lot more quality books on the region and history of the region than they had available, but apparently, either their budget is extremely limited, or they didn't know about them, or there is some other reason not to offer them.

The museum exhibits there had some of the usual dioramas that one often finds in older National Parks. These illustrated some of the different eras of Cumberland Gap history, such as Dr. Thomas Walker's exploration in 1750, Daniel Boone's later exploration, and Boone's construction of the Wilderness Road. Also included were some Civil War scenes, as the Gap proved to be an important avenue between the Eastern and Western theaters in war. But, overall the exhibits were not real impressive and the interpretation could stand to be updated. They did offer an interpretive film that was free, but which we had to decline due to our travel schedule. One neat feature was the wonderful mural of Daniel Boone and fellow settlers coming through the Gap that was portrayed on the wall of the second floor. This beautiful piece of art was painted by David Wright, a highly regarded artist that focuses on historic personalities and events. In addition, the Appalachian crafts store, also on the second floor, had some interesting regional items for sale.

No trip to Cumberland Gap would be complete without a trip up the mountain to Pinnacle Overlook. This breath-taking view is well worth the winding drive up to it. At the Pinnacle you can see for miles and miles on the Tennessee and Virginia side. The railroad and highway tunnels are easily seen, as well as the little towns of Cumberland Gap and Harrogate, Tennessee. Interpretive plaques explain the geographical features and landmarks. One of the knobs on one of the mountains is the point where Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia meet. From the Pinnacle Overlook you can easily see why the Gap was the best alternative to get through the mountains for the early settlers moving west.

Cumberland Gap is a wonderful place to visit. If you get a chance to go, be sure to read up on the history before making your stop. Or, if you have time, catch the interpretive film or take a guided tour by the staff.

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