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A Trip Inside the Cumberland Mountains

If it's too hot to hike up the Cumberland Mountains, then go inside - the mountain, that is. Believe me, a walk through a cave is cool in every sense of the word.

Two friends and I recently joined a Park Ranger, Scott, and some other folks on a cave tour in the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park located in Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee - all at the very same time! It was hot and humid as we hiked up the historical Wilderness Trail, blazed by Daniel Boone in 1775,  to the dark, yawning mouth of the Gap Cave, known by locals as Cudjo's Cave.

We paused along the way as Scott,  a marvelous story teller, took us on a journey through time to the days when early settlers struggled up the same path. We could almost hear the creak of the wagon wheels and feel sharp rocks biting into our bare feet as Scott described the pioneers' journey toward the only known pass-through in the Cumberland Mountains, the Cumberland Gap. 

You can see my buddies below, squinting into the sun with the Cumberland Gap in the background.


We didn't squint for long; we were soon inside the cool, breezy, dark cave on a two hour tour that covered 1/4 of a mile of awesomeness!

A cave is not just a tunnel through some rocks. It's a living, moving, changing system of water, minerals, insects, and mammals (bats). We traded our tree-lined path for one lined with Stalagmites, that grow up from the floor (they might make it to the ceiling) and stalactites that hang down (and hang tight to the roof). They're formed when a drip of water runs off the ceiling onto the floor, leaving a tiny deposit of mineral. It takes 100 years for one of these formations to grow an inch. (If a drip lands on you, you've been given a cave kiss.)

We moseyed along oohing and aahing, and stopping while Scott told us geological facts, spelunker news (the offshoot caves have been tracked - on hands and knees -  for 15 miles!) and regaled us with the legends and lore surrounding this beautiful cave.

During the Civil War, soldiers from both sides of the Mason-Dixon used the cave as a hospital and refuge from the war and to indulge in the age-old custom of graffitiing. In the early 1900's the cave was used as a sort of theme park with light bulbs strung from the ceilings, more initials carved in the rock, and, a place to indulge in yet another age-old custom, littering. Bits of now-antique debris lie where they fell all those years ago. In the 1940's the locals fled the heat of the summer on Saturday nights to dance in a large cavern inside the cool cave.

All of that has changed The cave is now part of the National Park system and treated with the reverence it deserves. In other words, it's allowed to just be.

My favorite part of the tour came as we crouch-walked through low hanging stalactites, up a slope, and around a bend to this...

A rippling, clear pond that seemed to possess magical cleansing powers. Alas, only newts and water bugs are allowed to test the waters.

A moment later, we came to this...

The picture isn't very clear but it's a behemoth of a stalagmite over 200 feet tall! (Remember the one inch per 100 years?)

In this next picture, you can see the face of Cudjo, a runaway slave who hid in the cave, was discovered, and killed. To this day, his ghost walks the cave. It's true... Scott said so.

As you can probably tell, these pictures don't do a thing to capture the sheer magnificence of this cave. So, if you get a chance, pack up the family and head to Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee and check it out for yourself - you won't regret it!


Now here is an adventure I would have to pass up, Liza. Caves (and all small spaces) freak me out. Good for you for going in and bring back the story for us scaredy cats!


ps. You should check out the new SITF book called EXTREME SCIENTISTS, by Donna M. Jackson; it features a spelunking heroine.
Loree, I've been in Cudjo Cave three times and each time my first words are, "Who would ever come in here?" It is pretty weird, especially when we all turn our flashlights off!

There was a spelunker on our tour and she goes in for weekends at a time to map the unexplored parts - yikes!
Oh this is beautiful! Thanks for sharing your photos, Liza - I haven't been inside a cave in years (a tour in Kentucky in high school, maybe?), and your stories make me long to have an underground adventure.
If you decide to go underground in Tennessee, my doors are always open to ya'll!
I love cave tours! JEALOUS!
Hey, you heard what I told Kate, ditto to the Lupers!