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.

Ewing Trail, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Ewing Trail, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Approach to Sand Cave with waterfall, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

Approach to Sand Cave with waterfall, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

Waterfall at the entrance to Sand Cave, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

Waterfall at the entrance to Sand Cave, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

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.

View of Sand Cave from near the back, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

View of Sand Cave from near the back, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

Erosion patterns (yellow color is from flash), Sand Cave, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

Erosion patterns (yellow color is from flash), Sand Cave, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

More erosion patterns and fantastic coloration, Sand Cave, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

More erosion patterns and fantastic coloration, Sand Cave, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

Colorful sandstone, Sand Cave, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

Colorful sandstone, Sand Cave, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky

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.

Ridge Trail, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Ridge Trail, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

View from the ridgeline near White Rocks seen while trying to find the trail, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

View from the ridgeline near White Rocks seen while trying to find the trail, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Beginning of trail section leading into the rock joint, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Beginning of trail section leading into the rock joint, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Atop White Rocks, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Atop White Rocks, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Forest below as seen from White Rocks, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Forest below as seen from White Rocks, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Looking back into Kentucky from White Rocks, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Looking back into Kentucky from White Rocks, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Me atop White Rocks, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Me atop White Rocks, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

White Rocks, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

White Rocks, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Water-filled tree stump with reflections as seen on descent down White Rocks Trail, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Water-filled tree stump with reflections as seen on descent down White Rocks Trail, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Virginia

Looking back at the ridge I hiked from the base, Wilderness Road State Park, Virginia

Looking back at the ridge I hiked from the base, Wilderness Road State Park, Virginia