Hike of the month: Northern section of Cumberland Trail begins where three states meet

The ridge line of Cumberland Mountain, left, stretches northeast into Virginia away from an overlook just above Tiprell, Tenn.

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The ridge line of Cumberland Mountain, left, stretches northeast into Virginia away from an overlook just above Tiprell, Tenn.

CUMBERLAND GAP, Tenn. - At the southwest end of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is a 1,990 foot-high overlook called Tri-State Peak where you can stand in three states at once.

Not only does Tri-State Peak mark the convergence of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, it's also the northern terminus of the Cumberland Trail, a long-distance footpath slated to stretch 300 miles from Cumberland Gap National Historical Park to Signal Mountain.

From the Tri-State marker, the Cumberland Trail follows the ridge line of Cumberland Mountain into Tennessee. The trail is blazed with white markers. At the very beginning of the hike, look to the left for an impressive view of the town of Cumberland Gap. The gap itself is impressive from this angle, thanks in part to an opening in the trees created by a powerline cut.

After 0.2 miles, the trail passes the earthwork remains of Fort Farrugut, a Civil War cannon position built in 1861 that was controlled alternately by Union and Confederate troops until the end of the war. A quarter-mile from Tri-State Peak the Cumberland Trail takes a short but steep ascent to the ridge top and continues toward LaFollette and onto Interstate 75 along the crest of Cumberland Mountain.

So far volunteers have built about 170 miles of the Cumberland Trail in discontinuous segments that are open to hikers. Trail construction began in the early 1960s when the Tennessee Trails Association adopted the Cumberland Trail as its pilot project. By the time funding for the project dried up in the early 1990s, volunteers had completed 102 miles of the proposed 300-mile trail.

After several years of dormancy, the Cumberland Trail was revitalized by the nonprofit Cumberland Trail Conference, and in 1998 the trail received another boost when the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation designated it a linear state park.

The trail's northernmost section through Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is part of the original section built in the 1960s. Following the spine of Cumberland Mountain, the trail follows a rocky path marked by slabs of sandstone that were thrust out of the ground 250 million years ago during the Allegheny Orogeny, a period of mountain building caused by the collision of Africa and North America.

After about one mile, Fern Lake is visible on the right side of the trail. This narrow, exceptionally clean body of water is where Middlesboro, Ky., gets its water. Last year Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was able to acquire 4,500 acres around Fern lake, expanding the park to 24,531 acres.

The first two miles of the Cumberland Trail through the park are well-blazed. Beyond that, the trail gets gradually more overgrown and less defined as it continues through the park for approximately three more miles.

At about 1.5 miles from the trailhead at Tri-State Peak, look for double white blazes where the Cumberland Trail turns sharply to the right along the ridge line. About 200 yards farther, there will be an overlook on the left that fairly cries out as a place to enjoy lunch. From this rock perch you can look to the left (northeast) and see Cumberland Mountain stretching all the way into Virginia. Directly below is the town of Tiprell, Tenn., beside the railroad tracks at the foot of Cumberland Mountain, and across the way is Powell Valley, with Clinch Mountain in the background.

We turned around at the rock overlook, which gave us a four-mile hike starting and ending at Tri-State Peak. The nice thing about this portion of the Cumberland Trail is that it enables you to take advantage of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park whose recent upgrades include a state-of-the-art visitor center complete with a new museum, movie theater and gift shop featuring Appalachian crafts.

From Knoxville, take I-75 north to the LaFollette exit and take State Route 63 up Powell Valley. Turn left onto State Highway 25E at Harrogate, go through the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, and take the first exit to the park's visitor center.

Follow the Skyland Road as you'd be going to the Pinnacle Overlook, but stop at the Thomas Walker parking lot and trailhead. From the parking lot it's 0.6 miles to the saddle of Cumberland Gap, and 1.2 miles to Tri-State Peak and the northern terminus of the Cumberland Trail.

Morgan Simmons may be reached at simmonsm@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6321.

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