Sand Cave | Cumberland Gap National Park

Last Saturday (December 21 – the Winter Solstice), Jim and I had some time on our hands and wanted to explore. We decided to head out to Sand Cave (a place Pat Clapsaddle had highly recommended after she and Bill hiked it a year or so ago). So, Jim and I got in the car and picked a scenic route to Sand Cave. Little did we know we were going to have an adventure that included the threat of bears, a 9 mile round-trip hike to a very beautiful, secluded place, and the pressure of returning before sunset on the shortest day of the year.

It is not like us to take the familiar route when unexplored roads await, so instead of taking 25E to Harrogate and then 58 East to Ewing (that’s how we returned), we took 345 out of Tazewell, then picked up 63 to Frog Level Rd. The name of the road should say it all. It was a one-lane country road that failed to point out the significant event of crossing the state line from TN to VA.

Jim Johnson | Sharps Chapel Living

Mary Johnson | Sharps Chapel Living

Evidence of Bear Feeding on Holly Tree

Sand Cave | Cumberland Gap National Park

Sand Cave | Cumberland Gap National Park

Sand Cave | Cumberland Gap National Park

Sand Cave | Cumberland Gap National Park

Sand Cave | Cumberland Gap National Park

Sand Cave | Cumberland Gap National Park

Jim Johnson | Sharps Chapel Living

Sand Cave | Cumberland Gap National Park

Fast forward to the trail head. The trail map said it was 4.5 miles to Sand Cave (one-way, I might emphasize). The time was 1:00 pm. Sunset was at 5:21 pm. We did some quick math in our heads and decided it was doable. We were off!

The first thing we see is a sign that says “Bears are active in the area”.  It’s December!  Shouldn’t they be hibernating?  I didn’t think too much about it.  That would change later.

The temperature was around 60 degrees F, but as we hiked higher up, we could feel it get somewhat cooler — the 30% rain helped with that as well.  Did I mention the 30% rain? —  it actually rained off and on about 30% of the time making for some frequent wardrobe changes.  Not a problem really, but the trail did get a little more soggy as we progressed.

The trail was beautiful.  With no leaves on the trees, we could see through them down into the valley below and up to the white rock cliffs that are a destination in their own right.  As we got higher, the woods changed from pristine, well-balanced forest vegetation to more dense rhododendron bushes and random holly trees.  It was about this time that I started clapping my hands loudly about every 30 seconds.  I was not going to take any chances – hibernation or not.  I did not want to come across any bears.

When we got to the ridge, we came across a holly tree near the trail.  The trail was littered with fresh holly leaves and torn branches.  Clearly, an animal had been feeding there.  There is no doubt in my mind.  It had to be a bear.  I executed a few more claps, extra loud.  We moved on.

Jim said, it’s coming up on 3 pm.  Let’s turn around at that point.  We both knew it would have given us some buffer to return on time.  But we were so close to our destination.  The signs saying “this way to Sand Cave” were more frequent.  We continued on without mentioning the passed deadline.

We got to our destination at 3:15.  The approach to Sand Cave is through a white pebble-lined creek.  At first, all we heard was the sound of a waterfall — the source of the creek’s water.  When we got to the waterfall, we turned to the right and there it was — a massive wind-blown bowl carved out of the mountain lined with white sand as soft and any seaside beach.

If you have been to Ash Cave at Hocking State Park in Ohio, then you have experienced the same thing.  There, it is only a short, easy, 15-minute walk to the destination.

Here, not so much. My thoughts were “we are so fortunate to be able to experience this because it is SO REMOTE, few people will ever see it.”  Yet, it is in our backyards – just an hour from Sharps Chapel.  Within just an hour’s drive, you can experience feelings that you can only feel actually BEING in the wilderness.  Feelings of apprehension, vulnerability, fear, triumph, control. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why it is important to stay healthy and fit.  To experience life.

Did we make it back before sunset?  Yes, by 5 minutes.  We saw one other young couple at the cave who had arrived when we were about to leave.  They were 5 minutes behind us.  We stopped to talk.  We both said that next time we would be sure to be better prepared.  A flashlight was first on our list.

Photos of Sand Cave at Cumberland Gap National Park.

Life is an Adventure.