Kentucky Scenic Drives: Wilderness Road Heritage Highway

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From panoramic views of the Appalachians in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park to a community culture centered on folk art and mountain music, Wilderness Road Heritage Highway is packed with reasons to immerse yourself in the woodland culture of the Southeast. This is the way to discover Kentucky's first frontier.

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Cultural Qualities of the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway

From music to crafts, this byway is a celebration of the early influence of pioneers. Today, traditional country music and entertainment is alive in Renfro Valley, which hosts performances throughout the year.

In addition to the preservation of traditional music, many communities along the byway promote the making and selling of crafts. Berea is considered the Crafts Capital of Kentucky.

Historical Qualities of the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway

The Wilderness Road Heritage Highway begins at perhaps one of the most historically significant sites in regard to the settlement of the United States. Cumberland Gap National Historic Park celebrates an important corridor, the Cumberland Gap. Native Americans crossed the Appalachians on what they called the Warriors Path, and they relied on this naturally occurring route to provide access to the country across the Appalachian Mountains. Kentucky was seen as a great wilderness for more than 150 years after the initial pilgrims set foot on the eastern seaboard, but soon explorers such as Daniel Boone scouted out the area.

One of the most important pioneers to come through the Cumberland Gap was Dr. Thomas Walker. The Dr. Thomas Walker State Historic Site celebrates the life of this first pioneer to discover the Cumberland Gap and then explore Kentucky. Exploration of the new Kentucky lands opened the area up for settlement, and scores of pioneers followed in Dr. Walker's footsteps.

As America grew, debate turned to war in 1861. Many of the American Civil War battles were fought in Kentucky. The Cumberland Gap was a key transportation route throughout the war. A battle of the Civil War was fought at Camp Wildcat, located along the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway. The reenactment of this battle is a popular event.

Natural Qualities of the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway

Rivers, caves, trails, and forests all combine to give Wilderness Road Heritage Highway visitors a sense of the landscape of Kentucky. Coal is a vital part of industry along the byway. The geological formations of many years have combined to create this environment.

One of these unusual formations is found at the very beginning of the byway. The Pine Mountain geological formation runs along the border of Tennessee and Virginia, and the major opening for this feature is the Cumberland Gap. The Cumberland Gap is an 800-foot naturally occurring break in the rock. The gap was carved by wind and water long ago. The overlooks and trails allow visitors to experience the expansive nature of the outdoors of Kentucky, and within the park itself there are a variety of awe-inspiring features.

Additionally, the Daniel Boone National Forest is a dominant presence along the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway. This forest has many varieties of trees, such as red oak, birch, red maple, hemlock, Virginia pine, and many others. Rocky cliffs can be seen throughout the forest as well.

Smaller, but still full of natural wonder is the Kentucky Ridge State Forest, which is mainly accessed by visiting Pine Mountain State Resort Park.

Recreational Qualities of the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway

Whether you are in the mood for hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, biking, fishing, or boating, the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway offers travelers a variety of opportunities. There are numerous rivers, and the byway is near Laurel River Lake, where visitors can boat and fish. The byway travels over some of these rivers, making it a prime spot to view wildlife, both waterfowl and other species of critters. Near the byway you can even spot some elk, which make up the largest herd in the eastern United States.

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park and Pine Mountain State Resort Park offer the majority of the byway's opportunities to find hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails. There is an extensive system of trails in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, for anything from easy nature hikes to overnight trails. In Daniel Boone National Forest, the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail covers 269 miles.

There is golfing at Pine Mountain State Resort Park and dramatic views in both Cumberland Gap and Pine Mountain. At Pine Mountain State Resort Park, a swimming pool and an amphitheater set in a natural forest cove offer relaxing entertainment and fun while you travel the byway.

Find more useful information related to Kentucky's Wilderness Road Heritage Highway:

  • Kentucky Scenic Drives: The Wilderness Road Heritage Highwayis just one of the scenic byways in Kentucky. Check out the others.
  • Berea, London, Middlesboro, Renfro Valley: Find out what there is to do in these cities along the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Kentucky? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.


Highlights of the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway

©2007 Cumberland Gap is the second-largest historical park in the nation and features numerous sites of interest.

The scenic landscape of the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway is a continuous flow of dramatic views, refreshing small towns, and historically significant features. You will notice a progression in the scenery and land as you move northward along the byway.

In the south, the dramatic Cumberland Gap gives you a chance to see a naturally occurring break in a geological formation. The Pine Mountain Range gives way to gentler, rolling hills as you travel northward on the byway. These foothills are home to picturesque small farms, grazing cattle, tobacco fields, and forested hillsides.


This itinerary gives a few of the highlights moving along the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway from north to south.

Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum: In Renfro Valley is the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, honoring all genres of music and musical artists.

Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park: Near London is the Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park. In the 20 years after 1774 more than 200,000 pioneers traveled over the Wilderness Road and Boone's Trace during the settlement of Kentucky. Today, visitors can walk in the footsteps of the early pioneers on hiking trails that include original portions of these historic paths.

Colonel Sanders Cafe and Museum: Just a bit off the scenic byway but well worth the brief detour is the town of Corbin, home of the Colonel Sanders Café and Museum. First opened in 1940, this is the location of Harland Sanders's first restaurant where he developed his famous chicken recipe.

Dr. Thomas Walker State Historic Site: Just five miles southwest of Barbourville is Dr. Thomas Walker State Historic Site. Preceding Daniel Boone into Kentucky by 17 years, Dr. Walker led the first exploration into the Cumberland Gap, and a reconstruction of the log cabin he built can be toured.

: At the far end of the Wilderness Road Heritage High-way is the town of Middlesboro. A few of the must-sees include the P-38 Lost Squadron Museum, a World War II P-38 Lightning that was recovered from a Greenland ice cap under 268 feet of ice, and the Bell County Coal Museum and Coal House.

: The climax of the trip is this park, featuring several historic and natural points of interest. Rangers guide visitors on an adventure through majestic cathedral-like Gap Cave. A shuttle transports visitors to the remote Hensley Settlement. And of course a trek to Cumberland Gap itself is a must.

The byway winds through many historic towns, including Middlesboro, that provide a variety of entertainment and sites for the visitor. Outside of these towns, small farms and rolling green hills welcome travelers in the north -- while the grand Cumberland Gap and Pine Mountain Range excite the travelers in the south. All the way through, this is a route to remember.

Find more useful information related to Kentucky's Wilderness Road Heritage Highway:

  • Kentucky Scenic Drives: The Wilderness Road Heritage Highwayis just one of the scenic byways in Kentucky. Check out the others.
  • Berea, London, Middlesboro, Renfro Valley: Find out what there is to do in these cities along the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Kentucky? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.


Coal Heritage Trail

Experience life in the coal camps on the Coal Heritage Trail in West Virginia. As you wind through the mountains and valleys of the byway, you will see many physical remnants of the coal boom that furthered the industrialization of America.

Cultural: Experience the culture of the coalfields that developed from different racial and ethnic groups working and living together. As coal became a primary resource for fuel after the Civil War, southern West Virginia and its coalfields grew quickly. Immigrants from Europe and from the southern states of the nation gathered along the Coal Heritage Trail. Although the byway is a representation of cultural harmony, distinctive ethnic communities, old-world traditions, and festivals are kept alive to enjoy today. Physical elements such as onion-domed Orthodox churches are available for enjoyment, while shops and stores exist that preserve the heritage of the past.


Historical: The story of southern West Virginia's coalfields is one of working-class culture, industrial might, and racial and ethnic diversity. The coal mines along the Coal Heritage Trail produced abundant economical fuel that transformed rural America into an industrial land, providing jobs and homes for thousands of people fleeing persecution and oppression. Immense fortunes were made by those who invested in the industry, and a society was produced with a peculiar and fascinating legacy.

What makes the Coal Heritage Trail significant are the physical remnants of the coal boom that remain scattered in the deep valleys of the region. These artifacts provide a wonderful opportunity for understanding the role of the West Virginia coalfields in the industrialization of America.

As mining jobs were lost to mechanization, the people of the coalfields left in search of employment in the cities of the industrial Midwest and beyond. The descendants of these people and other visitors interested in the many facets of heritage and culture represented on the byway are visiting the area. Visitors will see historic structures, including coal mines and railroad structures. Visitors will also experience coal camp life by seeing coal miner houses, company stores, company offices, and similar structures that defined coal camp life.

Natural: Amid the Appalachian Mountains, the Coal Heritage Trail makes its way through the Ohio Valley. Before its industrial days, the area along this byway was rugged and undeveloped. With the industrial revolution, a new natural resource was discovered in the Trans-Allegheny Frontier. Deposits of some of the world's best bituminous coal were found throughout southern West Virginia. This type of coal is low in sulfur and high in BTU volatility, and this produces "smokeless coals."

Recreational: Visitors to the Coal Heritage Trail enjoy outstanding recreational and natural features. The rugged and beautiful mountains of the coalfields are the physical signature of the region and were instrumental in the development of isolated coal camps that were connected to the outside world only by the railroad that also hauled out coal. Numerous state parks and wilderness areas provide access to recreational areas offering hiking, skiing, canoeing, mountain biking, white-water rafting, and other activities.

Scenic: The Coal Heritage Trail is an industrial byway that tells its story through the physical artifacts and cultural traditions that remain. The byway is linked together by the mines, towns, coal camps, and industrial artifacts that are hidden and then revealed by the extreme topography of the landscape.

Wind through mountains and valleys showcasing America's remarkable industrial heritage on Virginia's Coal Heritage Trail. Learn where you can step into a coal miner's home and a company store, view a railroad yard, and brave a visit deep inside a former coal mine.


Must-See Highlights

Not only rich in scenery, this area is rich in heritage, a place where coal reigned supreme. This itinerary gives you a few of the must-see highlights along the way.

Princeton-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce: Before entering the Coal Heritage Trail, a stop in Princeton at the Princeton-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce is a good way to begin your trip. Located just off U.S. 460 on Oakvale Road, the Chamber of Commerce not only has plenty of maps and information about the region, but also is home to the Wiley Cabin and Museum. The 1932 cabin has three exhibit rooms, a library, and a craft shop.


Bluefield: From Princeton take U.S. 460 to Bluefield to begin traveling along the Coal Heritage Trail. On Commerce Street is the Eastern Regional Coal Archives and Museum. The facility collects, preserves, and makes available coal-related heritage through photographs, memorabilia, and other artifacts. Also in town is the Bluefield Area Arts Center on Bland Street in the Old City Hall. It is home to an art gallery, the Summit Theatre, a restaurant, and the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Bramwell: The historic village of Bramwell was once the wealthiest town per capita in America, home to 14 millionaires who made their fortunes here. A brochure with a walking tour and map of the historic highlights of the luxurious heydays of Bramwell is available at the Bramwell Town Hall and at several of the bed-and-breakfasts that are the former homes of the wealthy coal barons.

Bank of Bramwell: The Bank of Bramwell was once so prosperous that the janitor would take heaping mounds of moneybags in a wheelbarrow to the train station each day. Bust by 1933 as a result of the Great Depression, the historic bank building, still oozing with opulence and elegance, was home to the local paper by the turn of the 20th century.

Bramwell Presbyterian Church: The Bramwell Presbyterian Church was patterned after a Welsh cathedral and contains such lavish extra touches as local bluestone tiles cut and laid by Italian masons who also came to seek their fortune.

Welch: Though a tiny village now, the town of Welch is noted for its four-story granite courthouse and the History in Our Mountains Museum. At the museum visitors can begin with a 25-minute film about the coal industry. A self-guided tour takes guests on a journey through history.

Beckley: The city of Beckley awaits visitors at the northern end of the Coal Heritage Trail. In the New River Park in Beckley are two definite must-sees for those eager to experience the coal heritage of the region.

Mountain Homestead: The Mountain Homestead is located directly behind the Youth Museum at New River Park and has re-created a typical settlement on the Appalachian frontier. Trained interpreters enhance the visit to each reconstructed historical building, including the two-story log house, weaver's shed, one-room schoolhouse, barn, blacksmith shop, and general store.

Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine: This mine gives visitors a realistic glimpse into the world of coal mining as it was in the early 1900s. Tours travel underground through nearly 1,500 feet of passageways in an authentic coal mine 500 feet below the New River Park. Guides are veteran miners and provide vivid details of life in the mines. Visitors can also browse in the coal mining museum.

The region commemorates the history and culture of the coal industry and the impact it had on the physical and social environment. This winding mountain drive brings that story to life.

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