If you're looking for the perfect autumn getaway, where the trees outnumber the people, come to the Cumberland Mountains.

Gateway to Fall
Credit: Gary Clark

A Note to Our Readers: "Gateway to Fall" is from the October 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.

I had a dilemma. I love the mountains, but I'm afraid of heights. Though I enjoy fall color, I hate crowds. When I whined about this problem to a well-traveled co-worker, she had one suggestion. "Go to Cumberland Gap in southeastern Kentucky," she said. "There are no crowds, the leaves are gorgeous, and you'll get over the height problem when you see Hensley Settlement."

Well, I didn't know what this Hensley place was, but the rest sounded perfect. So I set out to find Cumberland Gap.

Rangers on High
About a three-hour drive south of Lexington, Kentucky, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park welcomed me with minimal traffic and brilliant foliage. I first checked in at the Visitor Center, where I learned something of the history of the area from a terrific movie, Daniel Boone and the Westward Movement. It related how the barrier of the Cumberland Mountains stymied expansion in the 1700s. First animals, then American Indians and explorers such as Dr. Thomas Walker (a physician and surveyor) discovered a passage--or gap--in the mountains. Once through this gap, pioneers and other travelers were free to move to western lands unhindered.

The park itself covers a little more than 20,000 acres in Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. The helpful rangers told me that it can be seen from many angles--from underground as well as from on high.

I yearned to browse among the beautiful crafts for sale at the Visitor Center--part of the Southern Highland Craft Guild--but the scenery was calling me. I discovered that rangers lead treks to different spots in the park. There are also 55 miles of hiking trails, which range from easy jaunts to more strenuous overnight hikes.

One of the favorite destinations is Pinnacle Overlook. I hopped onboard a park van and began the ascent that would take us to 2,440 feet above sea level. (You can also drive your own car.) On the way up, park ranger Matthew Graham stopped to show us the new Wilderness Road Trail, which was restored within the past year. "Until 1996 this was part of U.S. 25E," Matthew explained. "It was a three-lane highway going south--steep, curving, and dangerous. They closed the road, and that traffic now goes through the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, which travels through the mountain for almost a mile. That once-dangerous road has now reverted to its historic trail state." Matthew also explained that a surveyor used an 1830s map to reshape the trail as it was in Daniel Boone's day.

We arrived at the Pinnacle and walked 200 yards to a stunning overlook. "You can see three states from here," said Matthew. "Below us is the town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. To the west is Middlesboro, Kentucky. And you're standing in Virginia." He went on to say that 300,000 people came through the Gap on foot and on horseback between 1775 and 1810.

"They looked for the White Rocks," Matthew continued, "which is a 3,500-foot-high rock face and a landmark for pioneers. When they saw the rocks, travelers knew they were only a day's journey away from the Gap."

I remembered my co-worker's mention of Hensley Settlement and asked the ranger about a tour there. "It's on top of Brush Mountain," he said, "and you'll need to make reservations at the Visitor Center." And so I did, still nervous about the altitude.

But I had a few miles yet to go. Fourteen miles to the north lay another breathtaking spot for enjoying mountains swathed in jewel-toned leaves--Pine Mountain State Resort Park.

Well-Seasoned Beauty
It is the oldest Kentucky state park, developed in 1926, and it is one of the most glorious in fall. I stayed in the lodge, where the dining room offered a wonderful meal and a panoramic view of trees ablaze with color.

Dean M. Henson, park naturalist, gave me the lowdown on the most popular of the approximately 11 miles of hiking trails. "The Laurel Cove Trail is our longest," he said. "It's about 2 miles in length and goes from the base of the mountain at about 1,100 feet and crests at 2,180 feet." Some trails, such as Hemlock Garden Trail, have trees that are 300 to 400 years old and were here well before Daniel Boone.

He also insisted I go to Chained Rock, where an enormous boulder on a cliff above the town of Pineville appears to be held in place by a huge chain. Town fathers and mules actually pulled the links up the mountain in 1933. Red maple, sourwood, sassafras, sweet gum, hickory, and sugar maples dotted the mountainsides with bursts of dazzling color. I slept well, although my dreams were filled with a place in the clouds called Hensley Settlement.

Moving On Up
The tour would take about 3 1/2 hours, the kindly rangers told me the next morning. It would take an hour to get to Hensley, 1 to 1 1/2 hours for a guided tour of the area, then another hour to get down. Wilderness Road Tours takes visitors up--the only way to access the remote settlement, unless you're a bear or a masochistic über hiker. On the slow, winding drive, I was relieved that trees along the edge kept me from seeing how high we were. Also, an eerie fog added a sense of ethereal beauty. It really did feel as though I was ascending into the clouds.

"It's 5 to 10 degrees cooler up here," said our guide, ranger Tommie Sue Watkins. Indeed, on this crisp October day, I resembled the Michelin man, layered in three shirts, two jackets, and double socks. The fog swirled.

"Imagine," Tommie Sue continued. "The first couple who moved up here, Sherman and Nicey Ann Hensley, were only 21 and 17 years old when they came here in 1903. They and several other families survived by making sorghum, lye soap, growing crops, and brewing moonshine."

They needed something to keep them warm up on this remote mountaintop. But the blazing beauty here was staggering. The buildings, preserved and maintained by the National Park Service, have withstood a century of blizzards and storms. Sherman Hensley was not only the first inhabitant, but also the last, and he finally left the mountain in 1951. At one time, 125 people lived, labored, and even went to school here. But World War II and the lure of better paying jobs off the mountain put an end to the community.

Tommie Sue took us into the one-room schoolhouse and invited us to write on the chalkboard. "I made it to God's country," I wrote. On the way back to the van, still amid a swirling fog, I spied two deer standing like statues and a wild turkey ambling by. During the drive down the long road to the Visitor Center, we saw a rarity--a baby black bear clinging to a tree. Before we could get out our cameras, it had clambered down and skittered away in the leaves.

It's another world on that mountaintop, another time--more Daniel Boone's than mine. The colors of the season never seemed more brilliant than in that unearthly mist. And my co-worker was right. I even forgot my fear of heights on that special day.

Settled back in Pine Mountain State Resort Park that night, I marveled at this gateway to the West, where Boone and other settlers once walked. And I was grateful that present-day travelers can bask in the glories of an Appalachian autumn just as those pioneers did so long ago.

When You Go
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park: U.S. 25E, P.O. Box 1848, Middlesboro, KY 40965-1848; (606) 248-2817, ext. 1075, or www.nps.gov/cuga. Visitor Center hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Wilderness Road Tours to Hensley Settlement: (606) 248-2817, ext. 1075. Cost: $12 adults, $6 ages 12 and under. First tour leaves the Visitor Center at 9:30 a.m. Last tour of the day leaves at 1 p.m. Tours of Hensley are only available through October 31. Pine Mountain State Resort Park: 1050 State Park Road, Pineville, KY 40977; (606) 337-3066 or www.pinemountainpark.com. Room rates: $43 off-season to $75 in-season. For more on accommodations and dining in the Cumberland Gap area, contact Bell County Tourism Commission, 2215 Cumberland Avenue, Middlesboro, KY 40965; (606) 248-2482, 1-800-988-1075, or www.mountaingateway.com.