Friday, December 3, 2021

Tri-State Peak, Pinnacle Overlook, Cumberland Nat'l Historical Park

The Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is located at the far southwestern point of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Cumberland Gap is a notch in the nearly 100 mile long Cumberland Mountain where three states meet: the southwestern tip of Virginia, the southeastern corner of Kentucky, and the northeastern corner of Tennessee. This relatively short hike, located within the park, has a number of interesting features that make it fun to explore.  Part of the journey on this hike is on the old Wilderness Trail, dating back to the 1700s, when it was blazed and hiked by Daniel Boone – one of the oldest trails in the United States.  Part of the route is in Virginia, part in Kentucky, and a pavilion on Tri-State Peak allows you to stand in three states at once.  Finally, the hike ascends to Pinnacle Overlook, the most famous overlook in the park with spectacular views spanning from the parking lot starting this hike east to peaks in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

Cumberland Gap seems like a long way from anywhere!  From the north and east, this trailhead is over a two-hour drive west of Abingdon and Interstate 81.  Access to the trailhead parking requires driving into Tennessee, even though the trailhead parking is a few feet north of the Tennessee state boundary in Virginia.  This National Historical Park features a wonderful and incredibly inexpensive campground, free backcountry campsites, a visitor’s center with interesting exhibits, and over 80 miles of hiking trails.  It is definitely worth the effort to reach and explore over multiple days.

Mile 0.0 – Start the hike at the Iron Furnace Parking Area, located just over the border from the town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee.  There is room for a dozen vehicles here and an overflow parking area across the street in Tennessee.  The trail starts at the back end of the main (paved) parking area. From the parking lot, you can look up and see Pinnacle Overlook above.  A sign indicates that the hike starts out on a paved path known as the “Tennessee Road Trail.”


Mile 0.1 – Cross a stream, pass a switchback, then view the iron furnace that gives the parking lot its name.  Continue on the Tennessee Road Trail, which is wide and flat at this point, but the rest of the hike is on unpaved trails.

Mile 0.3 – Come to a T intersection and turn left onto the Wilderness Road Trail.  The Wilderness Road Trail follows the path of the original Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap, blazed by Daniel Boone in 1775 and used by native tribes for hundreds of years before that.  The trail currently extends 8.5 miles, linking Cumberland Gap with the park’s campground and then to Virginia’s Wilderness Road State Park to the east along U.S. 58.  It is important to note, however, that the Wilderness Road Trail is also the roadbed of U.S. 25 before the 1996 opening of a nearby four-lane road tunnel which diverted the earlier route of the highway.  Therefore, this path does not have a continuous use as a trail and the US Park Service reconstructed the route into a trail after vehicles began using the tunnel.


Mile 0.6 – After a short, somewhat steep section, reach the actual Cumberland Gap, marked by a sign and trail intersection.  The Wilderness Road Trail continues west, but for now turn left onto the Tri-State Peak Trail and ascend.  In about 100 feet is a stone marker constructed in 1915 by the Daughters of the American Revolution commemorating “Daniel Boone’s Trail.”

Mile 0.8
– Pass an exhibit discussing a Civil War encounter in September 1862, in which Union troops retreated safely thanks to extensive explosions at a warehouse on this site.  Shortly after that is a side trail to the remains of Fort Foote, originally constructed by the Confederates in 1861 to protect cannons during the Civil War - one of eight similar forts placed along both sides of the road to prevent enemy movement through the Gap. The Gap area and forts changed hands multiple times before landing in Union control at the end of the War.

Mile 1.2 – The trail continues to ascend until it reaches the wooded summit of Tri-State Peak at 1990 feet elevation.  A powerline cut is just on the other side of the summit pavilion, but if you are doing this entire hike, the general lack of views is no big deal – really great views lie ahead!  The pavilion shows the state lines and where they meet, allowing the hiker to stand in three states at one time.  It also contains plaques about each state, so you can answer the question, “which state is larger, Virginia or Kentucky?”  (They are nearly equal in size!)  The plaques are old, however –Virginia has not had an official state song since 1997. The trail continues on Cumberland Mountain to the south, but reportedly deteriorates quickly due to lack of maintenance.  After checking out the Tri-State Pavilion, retrace your steps back to the Wilderness Road Trail. 


Mile 1.8 – Return to Cumberland Gap and turn left on the Wilderness Road Trail.


Mile 1.9 – The Harlan Road Trail heads uphill to the right.  Take this trail.  (The Wilderness Road Trail continues another half mile past this point to a parking lot – do not go straight on this trail.)


Mile 2.0 – Cross a park road twice in quick succession.  This is the Pinnacle Road, which drivers use to access the Pinnacle Overlook parking lot. 


Mile 2.2 – Ascend to a parking area.  To the left is a side trail that ascends to a Civil War era cannon and several exhibit signs but provides no views.  Check that out if interested, or take a right from the parking lot onto the Fort McCook Trail, which ascends. Note that there is no sign here telling you that you have switched to the Fort McCook Trail.  Just keep heading uphill. (Straight across the parking lot and on the other side of the Pinnacle Road the Harlan Road Trail continues – do not take this.)


Mile 3.0 – Ascend to the parking lot for the Pinnacle Overlook. On the opposite end of the parking lot, the Ridge Trail begins, and travels over the ridge of Cumberland Mountain for nearly 15 miles to White Rocks overlook, on the other end of the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. The Ridge Trail can be backpacked, even though there is no camping on trails in this hike description. Cut right prior to the parking lot and take the paved path out to the Pinnacle Overlook. Although this is the only viewpoint on this hike, the views here are spectacular!  I experienced these views twice on the same day, driving first at dawn when I was alone - experiencing clear conditions to the east of the Gap and total cloud cover west of the Gap.  Later in the day, I hiked to the Overlook joining others who had driven, where I could look down to the parking lot that marks the start of this hike, or to the horizon and see Clingman’s Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the highest point in Tennessee, over 75 miles away.


After soaking up this view, return down the path and avoid the stairs, which takes people back to the other end of the parking lot.  Take a left when you reach the parking lot, descending on the trail you used to get to the overlook.

Mile 3.9 – Descend to the parking lot hiked through earlier, but take a left onto the Harlan Road Trail and continue descending.

Mile 4.3 – After again twice crossing the Pinnacle Road, come to a T intersection at the Wilderness Road Trail.  Take a left here and continue straight when reaching the sign for Cumberland Gap. 

Mile 4.6 – Reach the intersection with the Tennessee Road Trail.  Take a right here and stay on this trail back to the trailhead parking lot. 

Mile 5.0– Arrive back at the trailhead parking lot.  Be sure to look up to see the Pinnacle Overlook high above!

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Hanging Rock Observatory/Allegheny Trail

The Hanging Rock Observatory hike is a long way from my Charlottesville home - 150 miles and 2 hours, 40 minutes driving time via Interstate 64 to Covington, south to Paint Bank on Virginia Rt. 18, then local roads to the trailhead.  The hike is in the Jefferson National Forest, but in West Virginia, not Virginia.  The views from this trail are worth the trip!  This trail has some of the more awesome views I've encountered in the Virginias.

This is actually the tale of two hikes.  The first, between the trailhead and the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory is locally very popular – the trailhead parking lot frequently fills up early on autumn weekends.  The second, on the Allegheny Trail past the Observatory to a second overlook, sees much less activity.  The entire hike is pretty easy, as the parking lot is located on the crest of the ridge of Peters Mountain.  Be sure to wear blaze orange during the hunting season so hunters can see you from a long way away!

Mile 0.0 – Start the hike at the Hanging Rock Observatory Parking Lot, with space for about 15 vehicles.  Finding the trailhead parking lot may be the hardest thing about this hike!  Fortunately, you can find the trailhead in Google Maps labeled as “Hanging Rock Observatory Trailhead/Allegheny Trail,” but do not let your GPS take you on Fire Tower Road – stay on Limestone Hill Road until you reach a sign for the parking lot.    The trail follows the yellow blazed Allegheny Trail, starting in the back end of the parking lot, heading uphill.

Mile 0.2 – After an initial ascent of 130 feet, the trail starts a descent.

Mile 0.5 – Begin the big climb of this hike, a relatively mild 280 feet over nearly a half mile. 

Mile 0.9 – A trail sign signals a blue blazed trail on the left.  A nearby sign states, “You can either turn left her and take the short very steep rocky climb up to the Observatory or continue along the Allegheny trail another 200 yards or so passing below the Observatory then turning left on the opposite end of the blue blazed loop trail taking a much less steep and rocky route to the Observatory.”  Of course, this description is taking the “short very steep rocky” option.  Turn left.

ile 1.0 – Reach the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory, elevation 3812.  The views – wow!  This tower was originally built in 1956 as a fire tower, but was closed in 1972 and the land on which the tower sits was purchased by the United States Forest Service in 1983.  The tower was restored by birders, as this has been a popular raptor count location dating back to at least the early 1950’s.  The tower was rebuilt after vandals set fire to it in 1996.  Inside the building, recent raptor counts are logged on a white board. There is a log book for human visitors to leave a record of their visit.  There is also some information on the types of birds observed from this viewpoint.

Views to the south include Peters Mountain where the Allegheny Trail ends at an intersection with the Appalachian Trail just outside of the Peters Mountain Wilderness<> and Wind Rock along the Appalachian Trail.  Views to the east are of Potts Mountain and the West Virginia/Virginia border.

When you have finished these views, head back down the observatory steps and take a right on the blue blazed trail.  You will pass a porta-potty.

Mile 1.1 – Reach the Allegheny Trail.  There is a small sign on a signpost indicating the side trail, and another sign on a nearby tree.  Harder to see is the Allegheny Trail, which receives considerably less use after the second turnoff to the Observatory.  There is a yellow marker on a tree to your left as you reach the trail signs – look for it and head left if you wish to extend your hike beyond the Observatory.  Keep an eye out for yellow signs keeping you on the Allegheny Trail as you progress – the trail itself is sometimes faint, but the route is marked much more frequently than you will find on the Appalachian Trail.  I made a game of how many yellow blazes  I could see at the same time when hiking this section.

Mile 1.7 – Encounter a grassy roadbed and follow trail markings.  You cut left on this roadbed for about 20 feet then right onto trail again.  You do not hike as far as the nearby woods road to the east.

Mile 1.9 – The Allegheny Trail exits woods and crosses an open field, following trail signs on carsonite posts.  Keep an eye for these posts leading directly across the field, as the trail briefly merges into and then leaves a roadbed.  Do not follow the roadbed past a short distance, as it leaves the trail route quickly.

Mile 2.0 – Just after reentering the woods, look for another carsonite post signaling a blue blazed side trail to a vista.  Leave the Allegheny Trail and follow the blue blazed trail.    

Mile 2.1
– Make your way through some trees to a rock vista looking west into West Virginia.  There are also views to the south along the crest of Peters Mountain.  This view is not as expansive as the one experienced back at the Observatory, but chances are you will have this view to yourself.  When you are ready, retrace your steps back to the Allegheny Trail, again cutting through the meadow to return on your northbound return.  (The Allegheny Trail continues south for another 10 miles to its terminus at the Appalachian Trail, but this description does not follow that part of the trail.)

Mile 3.1 – Reach the southern end of the blue blazed Observatory trail.  You can either experience the Observatory views a second time, or continue straight on the Allegheny Trail directly back to your vehicle, with views up to the Observatory as you hike.

Mile 4.2 – Arrive back at the trailhead parking lot.