Birdwatching in the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia
The historic and beautiful Cumberland Gap region is home to four excellent birding destinations
Published: April 23, 2004
|Searching for a way through the Appalachian Range, early American pioneers blazed the primitive track known as the Wilderness Road. Ambling along it today, in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park deep in the woods of eastern Kentucky and western Virginia, I've enjoyed some of the best mountain birding in the eastern United States. And no wonder: The thick deciduous forests and brushy streamside thickets provide ample food and cover for both springtime migrants and resident summer breeders. Exploring the trails and wooded field edges, you'll find nearly 20 warbler species, several of which are at the southern edge of their breeding ranges, such as Blackburnian, Canada, and Cerulean Warblers. |
The hotspot is located within roughly a 60-mile radius of where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia meet. It is home to four excellent birding sites: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Wilderness Road State Park, Pine Mountain State Resort Park, and Lilley Cornett Woods, a refuge managed by Eastern Kentucky University. The best time to visit is during spring migration, from mid-May through June, when many birds are singing on breeding territories.
Stretching over a 200,000-square-mile area, the Appalachian Mountains formed a natural barrier to early European exploration and settlement. Migrating buffalo and the Native American hunters who followed them utilized a breach in the impenetrable mountain chain. But soon after Thomas Walker found the Cumberland Gap in 1750, Daniel Boone blazed a trail through the natural opening, leading to the rich hunting lands known as "Kaintucke."
|History and songbirds|
Boone's Trace eventually became the Wilderness Road, and its role in post-revolutionary America was critical. Not only did hundreds of thousands of people travel the road to settle in previously inaccessible Kentucky, but Union and Confederate troops fought repeatedly for control of the road during the Civil War, when it was an important supply route. Remnants of the Wilderness Road can still be seen in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park today.
The park's 20,000 acres lie in three states, but the best birding spots are easily accessible along highways and byways in Kentucky and southwest Virginia. The park stretches for 20 miles along Cumberland Mountain and ranges from one to four miles in width. More than 70 miles of hiking trails wind through the park's steep mountain ravines and hardwood and conifer forests.
One of the best birding trails leads from the park's Visitor Center, about a mile east of Middlesboro, Kentucky. (At the Visitor Center, you'll find an informative exhibit and excellent book selection as well as a handy map of the park's vehicular routes and hiking trails.) From the parking lot, follow the two-mile-loop trail uphill where it twists through a pine and oak forest and gradually descends to Yellow Creek. Before joining the creek, you'll find a small tree-lined wet meadow that is an excellent site for sparrows, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, Carolina Wren, and other species that prefer open brushy fields. The trail follows Yellow Creek for about half a mile. Along it you'll likely find a good variety of songbirds, such as Yellow Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, American Redstart, Warbling Vireo, and Ovenbird. The mountain laurel thickets along the trail are good spots to find foraging birds on early mornings. The trail meanders in a counter-clockwise direction back to the Visitor Center and is an excellent introduction to the area's hardwood forests and bottomlands.
Several miles east of the Visitor Center along U.S. Route 58, Wilderness Road Campground in Virginia is another great birding site within the park. At the campground, take Gibson Gap Trail to an active stretch along Station Creek. Follow the pathway a quarter-mile downhill through the forest and open meadow to reach the stream, and along the way look for Prairie and Pine Warblers. Among the hillside thickets and lower tree branches, listen and watch for Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green Warblers, Veery, and Wood Thrush.
After half a mile, Gibson Gap Trail turns sharply uphill to join Ridge Trail several miles away at Gibson Gap Campground. Rather than follow the trail to the ridge, continue along the streamside. Deadfall may slow your progress, but you'll find more birds. Look for Hooded Warbler among the denser thickets and brush as well as Blue-headed Vireo and Yellow-throated Warbler singing overhead. And keep an eye out for elk. A few years ago a small number were re-introduced to eastern Kentucky, and the animals are seen sporadically along Gibson Gap Trail.
Another productive birding spot that I highly recommend is Cumberland Gap itself. To reach the Gap from the Visitor Center, take a winding road up the mountain toward Pinnacle Overlook, leave your car in the Thomas Walker parking lot, and take Object Lesson Road Trail a gentle half-mile uphill. Due to deforestation and erosion, the Gap looks nothing like it did in Daniel Boone's time. But through a restoration project, park staffers have planted 20,000 trees in recent years.
Amid a growing forest on either side of the windswept Gap, watch for high-altitude species, such as juncos and White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, crossing between forest patches. Follow the signs for Wilderness Road Trail to search for Kentucky, Canada, Worm-eating, and Cerulean Warblers in the forest. You may even see Swainson's, Blackburnian, and Chestnut-sided Warblers along with Black-and-White, Yellow-throated, and Black-throated Green Warblers. You'll surely find Wood and Hermit Thrushes, as well as vireos, kinglets, and chickadees.
If you want to discover vestiges of the Wilderness Road, you'll need to look closely for the old wagon ruts, since the present-day trail follows and crisscrosses the ancient track several times. The old passageway is easiest to see in winter, when it is not cloaked in heavy green vegetation. It doesn't take much imagination to envision the pioneer wagons hugging the mountainside and bumping over the rocky track headed downhill toward the Middlesboro Basin below. If you visit during winter months, you're sure to find a good selection of woodpeckers, many Golden-crowned Kinglets, Eastern Bluebird, and several sparrow species.
Winter and spring aren't the only times to bird Cumberland Gap, however. Each September and October thousands of migrating raptors, including eagles, falcons, and hawks, move south along the mountain ridges. Pinnacle Overlook, already famous for its spectacular views of mountain scenery, draws many hawkwatchers for close-ups of soaring raptors on fall weekends.
Several miles east of the Cumberland Gap Visitor Center on U.S. Route 58 is Virginia's Wilderness Road State Park, a spot I've found to be electrifying on early spring mornings. Although the park is relatively small, its rich habitat draws birds like a magnet. For good forest birding, take Indian Ridge Trail, a one-mile loop that winds through a diverse hardwood stand of large cedar and beech trees. The trail skirts an open field with a host of skulkers and flycatchers and leads to a bluff overlooking Indian Creek. On a spring or summer morning the air here is filled with the songs of foraging birds.
Best, though, is an old roadbed of the L & N Railroad that has been turned into an 11-mile linear trail. The trailhead is beside the park office, a Victorian-style mansion that was built along the Wilderness Road. Highway 58 and the railbed have long obliterated any traces of the famed Wilderness Road, but walking east along the rails-to-trails pathway will give you a sense of a busy commercial route during the late 1700s. You'll soon encounter a group camping area alongside Indian Creek. Between the campground parking lot and the gravel railbed, a hedgerow of cedars, hackberry, and blackberry vines draws a multitude of birds. The combination of thick vegetation, slow-flowing water, and open pastureland nearby will give you a full morning of excitement in a very compact area.
Wilderness Road State Park and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park's Wilderness Road Campground are the westernmost hotspots on the new Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. The state park and campground are two of more than 300 sites on the trail's Mountain Phase, which opened last September. (For a free 200-page guide to the trail, contact the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at 866-VABIRDS.) Other sites along the extreme Southwest Virginia section are located near the small town of Duffield, roughly 20 miles east on U.S. 58.
The third must-see birding spot in the Cumberland Gap region, Pine Mountain State Resort Park, is less than 10 miles north of Middlesboro on State Route 25E and is the oldest park in Kentucky. Among the many resort amenities, including a convention center and upscale golf course, are 10 miles of trails to explore. The most interesting for birders is Hemlock Garden Trail, which you can access from the lodge parking lot.
Only a few remnants of old-growth forest remain in the Cumberland Gap region. Hemlock Garden Trail meanders through a stand of 200-year-old trees that surrounded Daniel Boone and the early pioneers. The ornamental American hemlock trees, the signature species in the park, grow 100 feet high, have trunks three feet in diameter, and have lacelike dark green leaves.
The Hemlock Garden Trail descends into a rocky ravine carved by the Bear Wallow Creek and crisscrosses the stream several times. The combination of falling water and towering American hemlock and beech trees will give you a sense of serenity. Best, though, the rhododendron thickets and brushy undergrowth provide excellent habitat for both breeding songbirds and migrants. You're likely to encounter Northern Parula, Hooded, Canada, Black-and-White, and Blackburnian Warblers, as well as Hermit and Wood Thrushes. Ovenbird and several vireo species, such as White-eyed, Blue-headed, and Yellow-throated, are often found along the streamside path. You're also likely to see Carolina Wren, Brown Thrasher, and Eastern Towhee near Inspiration Point, where a spring gushes from beneath several huge boulders. Hemlock Garden Trail can be lively in springtime, and even on hot late-summer days, the natural beauty of the tree-lined ravine instills wonder.
Although most of Kentucky was logged at least once since the Second World War, the state is mostly forested now. The landscape is very different from the old-growth forests of pioneer times, however. Pines have often replaced hardwoods, creating a patchwork of second- and third-growth stands. But pockets of old trees remain, and one, a premier Appalachian birding site known as Lilley Cornett Woods, still exists near Cumberland Gap.
Located about 60 miles northeast of Middlesboro near the town of Roxana, Lilley Cornett Woods is a tall, protected island in a sea of dwarfed saplings. Nearly half of its 554 acres is old-growth forest. Best of all, dense patches of mountain laurel and rhododendron sprinkled beneath towering hemlock and beech trees provide a prime habitat for many passerine species.
How was a large stand of pristine forest spared the saw? Lilley Cornett purchased the property after World War I, then fought off developers for 50 years. After his death, Cornett's heirs sold the land to the state with the provision that the land remain untouched.
Today the preserve is an Appalachian Ecological Research Station of Eastern Kentucky University, and while its birdlife hasn't been thoroughly censused in decades, its bird diversity is impressive. Birds seen in the preserve include Wood Duck, Broad-winged and Red-shouldered Hawks, Barred Owl, Ruffed Grouse, egrets, warblers, tanagers, and bobwhite, among others.
While the birds of Lilley Cornett Woods are sure to grab your attention, don't neglect the size and wonder of the old-growth forest itself. If any place in Kentucky today looks as it did when Daniel Boone lived, this is it.
Visits to the Woods must be arranged beforehand since public access is by guided tours on designated trails. See "When to Go" on the previous page for details on scheduling your tour.
The dense forests and sunny meadows of the Cumberland Gap region in southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia offer abundant opportunities to explore our nation's history and to take in beautiful mountain vistas. But it's the birds that provide the real thrills: colorful migrating songbirds and mountaintop breeders, all within a rather small geographical area where our nation's western exploration began.
Jerry Uhlman writes a nature column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is the author of two Virginia bird-finding books.
|When to visit the Cumberland Gap|
The best time to visit the Cumberland Gap is from spring to early summer, when birds are nesting.
Open year-round: You can visit Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (606-248-2817), Wilderness Road State Park (276-445-3065), and Pine Mountain State Resort Park (606-337-3066) throughout the year.
Open May-August: You can visit Lilley Cornett Woods (606-633-5828) daily during daylight hours May 15-August 15, and on weekends in April, May, September, and October. Local guides lead two-hour walks and more strenuous four-hour hikes from the preserve's creek bottom to the top of a ridge. Call ahead to schedule a tour, and be sure to ask for a map.
Autumn hawkwatch: Raptors fly past Pinnacle Overlook in September and October, peaking during the first week of October. Park rangers will present interpretive talks on busy hawkwatch weekends.
|Hotspots in the Cumberland Gap Area|
Middlesboro, Kentucky, makes an ideal home base for birders visiting the Cumberland Gap region. Four excellent birding hotspots -- Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Wilderness Road State Park, Pine Mountain State Resort Park, and Lilley Cornett Woods -- are within easy driving distance.
To reach Middlesboro from Interstate 75 in Kentucky, exit on Highway 25E at Corbin. Drive 50 miles south on 25E to Middlesboro.
If you're driving on Interstate 81 in Tennessee, exit on 25E at Morristown. Middlesboro is 50 miles northwest of Morristown.
If you're in Virginia, drive west on Highway 58 until it intersects with 25E in Tennessee, then go northwest to Middlesboro.
The entrance to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is on the south side of the town.
To reach Pine Mountain State Resort Park from Middlesboro, take 25E north 10 miles. The park is one mile south of Pineville.
Wilderness Road State Park in Virginia is six miles east of Cumberland Gap NHP. Drive east on Highway 58 until you reach the intersection with route 923.
Lilley Cornett Woods is located about 60 northeast of Middlesboro near the town of Roxana. Call 606-633-5828 for a map and detailed directions from Highway 119.
© Birder's World Magazine, June 2004