by Laura Kuczera, ’05
Exciting tales of frontiersmen and pioneers are frequently told and retold, offering glimpses into a world that we have never seen and can never really understand. These stories come from a world lost, where the natural world was primitive and untamed, where maps were being written, and where it could take an entire day to journey just 6 miles. It seems that there is no piece of our world that has not been touched by a human hand, or seen with our eyes. Pioneering now lies within realms we have already discovered. Or does it?
Indeed, caves may be that last frontier, the last existing piece of nature in its purest state. When you want to see large, well known, exhaustively explored cave systems, you go to Luray Caverns or Mammoth Cave National Park. But when you want to feel like a pioneer, you travel 200 miles east to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in Middlesboro, Kentucky. You sign up for a tour of Gap Cave and truly enter a completely unique world.
I have entered this world many times. One morning I ventured in with two members of the Cave Research Foundation (CRF). We climbed deep into Gap Cave, until we came to the end of the map. I took a step, knowing that only one or two others have ever before stood exactly where I stood. That day, maps were being written, and they still are.
The rangers of Cumberland Gap NHP will take you and a very small group on a hike up Wilderness Road, and paint for you a picture of what the pioneers faced as they crossed the Gap to the west. These rangers are some of the most knowledgeable and passionate that you will ever meet, perhaps in part because so many of them are descendants of the original settlers. Soon you’ll arrive at the entrance to Gap Cave, and if it’s summer, the cool air that drifts out of the cave will be a pleasant surprise.
And more surprises wait within the cave. Keep your eyes up and perhaps spot an endangered Indiana bat. Keep your eyes down and avoid a close encounter with the vividly orange and black cave salamander. Keep your eyes everywhere in between and marvel at the living cave formations: bacon, cave coral, columns, stalactites and stalagmites, rimstone, shields, soda straws. In addition to the biology and geology of the cave system, learn about how the human relationship with Gap Cave has changed throughout history, and even see some proof!
If you’re up to the challenge, take the 4 ½ (or so) mile hike up to Sand Cave and cool off under the mini waterfall. Warning: It is quite probable that you and your party will find this area vacant of all other human life. Or take the Lewis Hollow Trail for a self-guided exploration of Skylight Cave. And still there are so many more small wonders! While other natural destinations may bolster bigger is better, they pale in comparison to the certain intimacy, integrity, and element of adventure that characterizes Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and its caves.