Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, the largest in the National Park System, composed of 20,000 acres, has been called the "first great gateway to the west.'' Located in Middlesboro, or Middlesborough, Kentucky the park has historic roots in early westward expansion: an estimated three-fourths of the approximately 400,000 people who ventured out west by 1800 had traveled through Cumberland Gap. The park was formally dedicated on July 3, 1959, an event that even Vice President Richard Nixon attended, visiting, in commemoration, the Pinnacle Overlook and participating in nearby town festivities. With the exception of the visitor center's closing on Christmas Day, park grounds, picnic areas and the visitor center are open year-round, offering visitors a chance to experience the past through two different guided tours, individual exploration of scenic trails and even a Civil War reenactment if one happens to be visiting at the time of the annual three-day showcase.
One tour offered is of the Hensley Settlement atop Brush Mountain, which remained occupied from 1904 until 1951 after its establishment by Sherman Hensley. Tours, led by park rangers, include a shuttle ride to the settlement followed by a one-mile walk upon arrival. Touring of all-original historic buildings can take 3 1/2 - 4 hours so it is recommended that visitors dress comfortably and take something light to eat and drink. Departing from the visitor's center, tours run May 16th through October 31st twice daily at 9am and 1:30pm, with tickets priced at $10.00 for an adult and $5.00 for senior citizens and children under 12 years old.
Park rangers also serve as tour guides of Gap Cave, presenting stalagmite and flowstone formations beneath the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The 1-mile hike along the historic Wilderness Road, and 183 stairs leading to four cave levels, makes for a fairly strenuous 1-1/2 mile tour. For reasons of safety, children under age 5 are not allowed on the tour and sandals and open-toed shoes are prohibited. Departing from the Daniel Boone parking area, tours leave at 10am and 2pm with different scheduled days throughout the year. Tickets cost $8.00 for adult admission and $4.00 for senior citizens and children ages 5-12.
Visitors can also take in the Southern Appalachians, composed of waterfalls and forests, by hiking the trails, covering a stretch of 70 scenic miles, or by driving 4 miles on the Skyland Road to the 2,440-foot-elevated Pinnacle Overlook. Tourists looking to take it easy can hike the 1/4 mile loop trail, while those who wish to have the ultimate Cumberland experience can hit the 21-mile Ridge Trail. In case of inclement weather, the Skyland Road does occasionally close.
Once each year Cumberland Gap hosts a living history of the Civil War, bringing to life individuals of the period, featuring the stories of Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln and other period-associated characters. Other events during the three-day reenactment include a candlelit trip into "Soldier's Cave,'' a Civil War Era Ball, an afternoon of tea and corsets, and the unveiling of a restored cannon.