White Rocks-Sand Cave Loop, Cumberland Gap NHP (3-26-16)
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park has always intrigued me as a possible hiking destination but I had never for some reason pulled the trigger on trip there. Recently though I stumbled across this particular loop, which includes two of the National Parks' most outstanding natural features, on another hiking blog and I decided immediately I needed to go...NOW.
The two stars of this hike are, obviously, Sand Cave and the White Rocks. Sand Cave, first off, is quite unlike anything you'd expect to find in this part of the country. Made of sandstone, it's not so much a cave as a massive rock overhang. Eroded over the eons by wind rather than water the massive acre-plus floor of the 'cave' is covered in a thick layer of fine sand. On top of it all a small waterfall cascades over the caves eastern lip filling the cavern with the echoes of falling water. It's an incredibly unusual and spectacular place to say the least. A mile or so east of Sand Cave is the massive cliff face that is the White Rocks. Marking the eastern extremity of the Cumberland Ridge inside the National Park, White Rocks is an imposing wall of rock which towers 2,000'+ over the Powell River Valley to the south. Named for the whitish hue given the cliffs from bits of quartzite embedded in their rocks, White Rocks have been a famous landmark for a very long time. Early settlers travelling the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap noted the cliffs as an important landmark along their journey. The view from the top is, quite simply, amazing. Hazy waves of hills stretch away to the horizon while clouds of raptors soar in the updrafts created by the ridge. It's a place of overwhelming natural beauty.
The hike would begin from Thomas Walker Civil Park just outside the town of Erwin, Virginia. From there I would ascend the ridge via the Erwin Trail, climbing some 1,900 feet in the first three miles. Its a strenuous hike, no doubt, but the trail is well-made and switchbacks are placed in just the right places to keep the climb from being too ridiculously hard. My first stop would be at Sand Cave, just shy of four miles in. From Sand Cave I would follow the Ridge Trail on a leisurely climb up to White Rocks. The lollipop loop would then be completed by descending back to the Erwin Trail on which I would retrace my steps back to the car. This was a fantastic hike and one I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Just make sure 9.5 miles and 2,500' of elevation gain sounds like something you can handle first.
So, without further adieu, come along with me on my first foray into the Cumberland Mountains. It's a hike I won't soon forget, as I think you'll see as you follow along with me through this album...
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 36.652194, -83.435708
Mileage Hiked: 9.5 miles Hike Duration: 4:30
Trailhead Temp: 55'F Trail Traffic: 25-50 people
Min. Elevation: 1,520' Max. Elevation: 3,513'
Total Vertical Gain: 2,490' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 262'