Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Part 4: Sand Cave and White Rocks
One of the things I loved about Cumberland Gap National Park was that once you got away from a handful of places, the park was relatively empty. Even Sand Cave and White Rocks, which are two (apparently) very popular destinations within the park, were people-free. In fact, on my nine mile hike I saw exactly one person, about a mile from the trailhead during my descent.
Sand Cave and White Rocks are located on the ridge of Cumberland Mountain and are less than a mile and a half from each other so making a loop of the trails made sense; I hiked up the Ewing Trail first to Sand Cave before taking the Ridge Trail to White Rocks and then switchbacking down the White Rocks Trail to meet up again with the Ewing Trail. The Ewing Trail, which begins at the north end of the park on the Virginia side, is a wide horse trail that is so nicely graded that the 1,700 elevation gain over 3.6 miles was hardly noticeable. As I crossed over the ridge into Kentucky and approached Sand Cave on the spur trail I entered lush rhododendron forest and walked along a stream that I discovered was fed by a small waterfall near the cave entrance. It was secluded and beautiful.
The cave is massive. I spent a good deal of time exploring the interior, enjoying the fantastic swirls and erosion patterns in the rock as well as the varying colors. Unlike other caves and arch formations nearby, Sand Cave was formed almost entirely by wind, the millennia of gusts battering the sandstone overhang and reducing the rock to fine sand.
After having an early lunch on a log by the stream, I followed the spur trail back up and crossed back into Virginia to meet the Ridge Trail which led out to White Rocks. Famous for being a marker that indicated settlers were one days walk from the crossing at Cumberland Gap, the White Rocks are huge sandstone formations made white by embedded quartzite. At the terminus of the Ridge Trail there is a bit of confusion about where the actual trail actually goes and I crisscrossed the area multiple times before scrambling up a rock joint and finding myself on top of the White Rocks. The view into Virginia’s Powell River Valley was fantastic. Really, just perfect. The hazy atmosphere created unending gradations of blue between mountain and sky that I spent a long time enjoying.