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White Rocks and Sand Cave (Cumberland Gap)

Posted by on October 1, 2011

On Top of the White Rocks Cliff

Near the Cumberland Gap, and located on the long Cumberland Mountain ridgeline, are two awesome formations known as White Rocks and Sand Cave.  Both of these can be visited in the same day with a strenuous, ~9 mile hike within the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park from the trailhead in the Thomas Walker Civic Park.  This is a tough hike with about 1700 feet in elevation gain, but the trails are well maintained and contain lots of switchbacks that make the climbing a little easier.

I decided to make a loop out of the hike, visiting Sand Cave first and then heading down the ridge to White Rocks.  If you use my route, review the trail directions below carefully.  The trails are in good shape and have signage at trail junctions, but they aren’t blazed, and  I found some of the sign posts uprooted, which could leave you a little unsure at times.

Small Waterfall at Sand Cave Entrance

Inside Sand Cave

Over an Acre in Size

Sand Cave is truly a beautiful and unusual site.  As you near the entrance you first drop down into a small, sand covered stream lined with bright green Hemlocks and Rhododendron, giving lots of contrast to the white sand stream.  It’s definitely not the typical mountain stream you usually see at higher elevations in the Appalachians.  Then at the lower opening of the cave there is also a small waterfall, which was not flowing very well when I was there, but still made for neat echos inside the cave itself from the falling water.

Colorful Ceilings and Walls

Neat Striations and Swirls on the Ceiling

Powdery Dry Sand

Sand Cave is not actually a limestone, water-eroded cave, but instead a huge rock overhang (made of Sandstone) that has been eroded out mostly by the wind.  There is a lot of color in this “cave” from the numerous colors of sand on the floor to the unique swirls and striations all over the ceiling.  The room itself is well over an acre in size, and one thing I noticed is that you really don’t get the full effect of its size unless you climb up inside to the back wall.  It’s a large formation.  I was also intrigued by how deep and dry the sand was inside the cave.  It made for some tough climbing and exploring.

Looking Down Into the Powell River Valley

Another View from White Rocks

The White Rocks Cliffs Taken from Highway 58

After visiting Sand Cave I climbed back up to the main ridge of the Cumberland Mountain (which happens to be the Kentucky/Virginia border), and made my way to White Rocks.  This overlook was also NOT a disappointment…  It was another beautiful and breathtaking location… overlooking the historic Powell River Valley of Virginia, and on into Tennessee and Kentucky.

A Late Purple Aster Growing on Top of White Rocks

The White Rocks cliffs once served as a landmark for early settlers who were traveling to the Cumberland Gap… one of the early gateways through the southern Appalachian Mountains.  It is estimated that around a quarter million settlers passed through the gap prior to 1810, on their way to Kentucky and the Ohio Valley.  These massive cliffs made of  (and named for) white quartzite pebbles imbedded in sandstone must have been nice site for these early travelers, meaning they were only a day’s walk away from the gap.
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Overall
Recommendation:

Advanced hikers only.  Do this one on a weekday if possible to avoid crowds.

Outstanding
Features:

Unique sandstone eroded cave, Sandstone cliffs with amazing vista, National Historic Park.

Difficulty:
Difficult.

Driving:
From the Tri-Cities,  Get on I-26 heading to Kingsport and continue on into Gate City on 58 west.  You will basically stay on US58 West the whole way.  Once you get to Duffield, you will take a left to stay on 58 West.  Continue through Sticklyville and then on to Jonesville where you will take a left in downtown Jonesville to stay on 58 West.  After that, just stay on 58 West for about 25 more miles to Ewing.  Then take a right at the traffic light onto VA724.  Proceed for another mile or so to the Thomas Walker Civic Park.  You can park in the grass lot beside the toilets if dayhiking.  If staying overnight, then park in the lot before the gate.   There are no fees or permits required unless you are camping overnight.  In that case you will need a permit from the main park visitor’s center.

Trails:
From the grass parking area, walk up to the covered pavilion and around behind it you will see a handicapped parking spot.  The trailhead is beside that parking spot, though the gate.  Continue up this trail for 0.5 miles, and you will come to a junction with a wider trail (this is Ewing trail… also a horse trail).  Register in the trail register box, and then take a left.  Continue for 2.4 miles and you will pass by the junction (with signs) to the White Rocks Trail (this is where you’ll eventually come out to complete your loop), but just keep going straight on the Ewing Trail.  In about another half mile you will reach the top of the ridge, but just continue going straight, starting to descend again (which you are now heading down into the state of Kentucky).  At the 3.6 mile mark you will reach the intersection with Ridge Trail.  There are signs here designating this.  Take a right (toward Sand Cave).  Keep descending for about 0.1 mile and you’ll reach the Sand Cave Spur Trail.  There are some horse hitching post here.  Take this trail for a couple tenths of a mile and you’ll descend to Sand Cave.  There are some steep steps here.  Enjoy Sand Cave, then retraced your steps up the spur trail until you reach the Ridge Trail again.  Take a left on the Ridge Trail and in 0.7 miles you will come to the upper end junction of the White Rocks Trail (and a sign and trail to the trail for White Rocks Campsite), but just keep going straight here to get to White Rocks.  Go for another 0.2 mile and you will come to the base of White Rocks.  There’s a sign here that says “200 feet to White Rocks”, but that is misleading because it’s longer and the final approach requires a steep climb up a crevice on the back side of White Rocks.  Once you view White Rocks, turn around climb back down the trail and retrace your steps on the Ridge Trail to the junction of the White Rocks Trail and White Rocks Campsite.  Take a left here on the White Rocks Trail, and in about a half mile you will end up back at the Ewing Trail.  Take a left on the Ewing Trail and continue back down the mountain all the way to the trailhead.   

Needed
Gear & Tips:

Regular day-hiking gear.  Again, this can be a crowded trail as it’s open to horseback riders and hikers.  So go on a weekday if possible.

Distance:
Approximately 9.0 miles round-trip.

Time
Allotment:

5-8 hours

Type:
Out & Back with loop in between.

Vista
Rating (1-5):

4.0 

Waterfall
Rating (based on a 1-50 scale):

Small waterfall at cave entrance, but was too small to rate at my visit.

Water
Crossings (one way):

A few very small streams, but you shouldn’t get wet. These streams are sometimes completely dry depending on weather conditions.

Scrambling/Climbing:
Some moderate climbing as you work your way up the crevice to White Rocks.

Hazards:
Some steep slopes.  There is a short-cut to get into Sand Cave without going down to the waterfall entrance, but it requires crossing a narrow ledge.  I wouldn’t recommend that route.  White Rock is also a pure vertical cliff.  Don’t explore too close to the edge, unless you have a parachute or hang-glider!

Maps/GPS
info:

Park Trail Map

More
Information:

21 Responses to White Rocks and Sand Cave (Cumberland Gap)

  1. Ben Trotter

    The one time I tried to go up Cumberland Gap to go hike the Cumberland Trail, it was clear skies from JC to Tazwell. When I got to Harrogate, there was a big looming cloud over the mountains. I got up to the parking lot at the top, and it then just poured.

  2. Bill Fuller

    You should try to go back, Ben. It’s a really cool area.

  3. Angie Tucker

    We are planning an over night backpacking trip to white rock campsite. We are coming from Knoxville so we were thinking we would start in Ewing. Was wondering if you had any knowledge of this trail? Thanks for your information found it very useful. Angie

  4. Bill Fuller

    No Angie, I don’t really have any knowlege of any of that trail except what I have in this post. It was my first trip to the area. When I was researching it, I bookmarked this page in case I ever came back for a backpacking trip: http://www.backpackcamp.com/CumberlandGap.html

  5. KIMBER

    MY FRIEND AND I WENT TO WHITE ROCK YESTERDAY ,WHICH WAS ON A THURSEDAY 6/6/13.
    WE DIDNT SEE A SINGLE SOUL, IT WAS PEACEFUL!! IT TOOK 2 HOURS TO HIKE UP TO THE MOST AMAZING VIEW “WHITE ROCK” AND ABOUT 1 1/2 BACK DOWN. I WOULD SAY ” NOT A HIKE FOR SOMEONE JUST STARTING THE ADVENTURE OF HIKING” IT WILL DEFINITELY LET YOU KNOW IF YOUR IN SHAPE OR NOT. LOL!! I WOULD RECOMMEND THIS HIKE!! A+ :)

  6. Judy Middlemas

    I led a hike to this area in 1983 for TEC Hiking Club, and will be again leading one tomorrow for Mid-Appalachian Highlands Club, Inc. Your trail descriptions are helpful in planning. Thank you. (11/1/13)

  7. Amanda Hensley

    This is a great hike, with magnificent views! Every step you take, to get to the top, is worth it! I’ve been a couple of times and the weather has always been great…In fact, my boyfriend and I, went this past Saturday, and it was so peaceful and beautiful! After making the hike to the top and looking out over the ledges to see the wonderful views, my boyfriend got on one knee and proposed! He couldn’t have picked a better place….God’s beauty was all around us!!

  8. Dawn Sanders

    My best friend, kids, & I made this hike last weekend (June 11, 15). I have hiked for years & I’ve seen a few amazing scenes, but this hike takes the cake! Thank you for your insight on this hike! I enjoyed your thoughts and jut had to see the beauty for myself!

  9. Brittany

    I am from the area and have taken the hike many times on horse and ince on foot. Its been years but I am wondering if the trail is still fit for horses. My cousin had said a few years back it wasnt.

  10. Terry Brown

    At one time there was a steel “short cut” trail from the White Rocks down to the Ewing Trail. I can’t remember if it was marked or not as it has been a few years. But this trail saved a lot of time on the return hike. Just wondering if you noticed it as I am planning a trip for later this month with my young son.

  11. Bonnie

    What is the footing like on this trail and about how wide is it? I’d love to go. I am used to 8-12 mile hikes (our favorite is Sugar Hill in St. Paul), but I try to keep to trails with smoother (as is not real rocky, uneven) footing because I have plantar fasciitis. I also like to hike with my dog, but prefer trails that are a bit wider during the summer months to keep her out of the brush/weeds as much as possible to cut down on the number of ticks we pick up.
    Thanks!

    • Bill Fuller

      The majority of this hike is forest road, so it’s wide and the footing is very good. There is a section near sand cave with some more technical areas, but it’s short.

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