Hike To Sand Cave And White Rocks Via Ewing Trail
This trail delivers a double payoff, but you earn them.
As I mentioned in my review of the Wilderness Road Campground, I took one heck of a hike during my escape to the Cumberland Gap National Park. The Sand Cave and White Rocks trail ain’t a joke, and it was everything this old man had to get it done. If you go, and I encourage you to go, pack a lunch and plenty of water.
You’ll find the trailhead for this 9-mile trail within the Thomas Walker Civic Park Area about 12 miles from the Wilderness Road Campground. Exit the campground road and head east on Highway 58, make a left on State Road 724, known locally as Sand Cave Road. You’ll find the park down on your left. When I arrived at about 10 a.m. on Saturday, there were only three other vehicles in the parking lot. It’s a small park with a picnic pavilion and a set of chemical vault toilets. Very basic.
There wasn’t much signage for the trail, but you’ll find the trailhead by following the paved path that runs along the left side of the picnic pavilion. Hard to miss it. This spur trail will end after half a mile. Turn left and continue the hike. From there the trail gets a bit wider, and you are now in for a steady uphill hike.
I generally don’t hike with trekking poles, but after seeing the reviews where they talk about the steady elevation gain with rocky terrain, I decided to give them a try. Boy am I happy I did. I found many parts of the trail as described with lots of rocks and roots. Though motorized vehicle traffic is prohibited, the trail is wide enough for an ATV. I didn’t think the trail was open to travel by horses, but it was obvious that horses had been on the trail either that morning or the previous evening.
It was Oct. 24 when I hit this trail. I had hoped to catch the leaves at just the right time for lots of colors. The pictures online from the overlook at the White Rocks was exactly the view I had been trying to find for the last few weeks in north Georgia. It felt like I was making this hike at the perfect time of year. The leaves delivered shades of orange and yellow and red, and most had yet to fall. There was a fairly heavy fog, or maybe it was low-hanging clouds. I’m not sure which, but on this day when I would catch a glimpse through the trees back into the valley it was mostly gray.
If you have followed my blog, you know I have been working at building my fitness so I would be able to tackle longer, more difficult hikes. At about 1.5 miles in I was real happy that this one wasn’t one of the first few hikes I took on. The reviews are correct. While there weren’t many steep inclines up to this point, I was sure enough taking on a steady elevation change with every step. At this point I was finally feeling comfortable using the trekking poles and I started to find a rhythm. When I felt winded I would stop, check my heart rate and get a sip of water. Two miles in and heart rate of 120 bpm. Not bad.
At the 2.7-mile mark you’ll come to the junction for the White Rocks trail on the right. This 0.2 mile spur leads you uphill toward the Ridge Trail and the White Rocks camp site. This is where the loop starts for this lollipop trail. I thought I remembered reading that making the loop counter-clockwise was a bit easier on the legs with elevation gain, so I continued ahead, which would make that 0.2 spur a downhill trek for me later in the day.
Signs said Sand Cave was 3.9 miles in. I was more than halfway to my first stop. Onward.
Beyond the spur for White Rocks the trail just continues monotonously upward. More elevation gain, patches of rocks and roots, switchbacks. It felt like it was getting more steep, or it might have been that I was losing some steam, but finally at about 3.4 miles or so my surroundings began to change. The trail leveled off, there were rhododendrons showing up as well as some evergreen trees. Thus far there had been a steep drop off the side of the trail but that had changed.
The trail was now shedding some elevation. I came upon a sign post as the trail crossed into the National Park boundary and into Kentucky. Within minutes I was on the Ridge Trail and closing in on Sand Cave. I could tell the geology of the ground had changed a good bit. It was more sandy with small pebbles versus boulders that I encountered earlier. I was intrigued by this and wished I had a geologist as a hiking partner.
I continued downhill for two-tenths of a mile when I finally came upon the sign with an arrow — Sand Cave 0.2 miles. This is also the first time that I had encountered any other hikers. From the Ridge Trail you’ll be turning left to take the spur down into the Sand Cave. The trail is much more narrow here with a significant increase in roots. There are some stones and logs and even a short wooden bridge that have been placed to help navigate the elevation change as you make your way down toward the cave. This was the most challenging portion of the hike up to this point. Be mindful of foot placement here and especially if it is wet like it was the day of my hike.
I wasn’t expecting to hear water, but the distinct sound of falling water hit me. Maybe because of the rain the night before but at this point all the elevation change is behind me and I am now stepping from root to rock to dry ground trying not to walk out with wet socks. Then there it is. The Sand Cave. I was shocked at the enormity of this cavern. Certainly not what I expected. Immediately I thought about how this place would have been an incredible shelter or refuge from weather to humans hundreds of years ago. Heck people could have lived in this place for months or even years. I’m seeing scenes from the movie Last of The Mohicans in my mind. Don’t judge me, I had expended lots of air trying to get here! Oh and I love that movie.
The pictures I took with my iPhone didn’t do this cave a bit of justice. I had no other person to send off in the distance for a picture that would give any type of perspective. The floor of the cave was covered by sand. Again I wanted a geologist hiking buddy. It wasn’t as fine as beach sand but it was deep and felt like when you walk in the sand dunes on the beach. It felt massive. I’ve hiked to lots and lots of waterfalls in my time. They are really cool. This beat any payoff I had ever earned for a hike. Hands down.
After spending a little time imagining what history unfolded here over the last 1,000 years, it was time to get moving toward White Rocks. I wiggled my way back to the trail, keeping my socks dry, and climbed back to the Ridge Trail intersection. White Rocks 1.1 miles. Even though I was tired it would be a piece of cake using the adrenaline I had from finding that cave.
There wasn’t much elevation change nor scenery over that 1.1 mile stretch to White Rocks. Trail was littered with acorns some of those pebbles and the occasional group of rocks. I came to the section where the spur trail from White Rocks that I passed a couple of hours ago dead ended into the Ridge Trail. That’s where I saw my second set of hikers. A couple for Nashville who had been there before. I shared my amazement of the Sand Cave which they had hiked to a month earlier. We all agreed it would be overwhelmed with people if it didn’t take lots of effort to experience it.
The overlook at White Rocks is a 0.3 mile spur from this intersection where I met my new friends from Nashville. This spur is the most narrow portion of the trail I’d encountered the entire day. Flat land on both sides but if you had hikers walking towards each other someone would have to step off the trail to let the other pass by. Then just before reaching the overlook rocks you have to do some pretty good scrambling up a rock and boulder outcropping. On this day is was very wet from the heavy rains the night before, so it made it a bit of a challenge. With the correct foot placement and the rule of always having at least three points of contact, I made it up pretty quickly.
After the rock outcropping it’s maybe 30 yards to the section of rocks that I’d been looking forward to seeing. The pictures online were so cool. How could they not be when you’re standing on the top of cliffs that drop off 500 feet to down the the forest floor? How could they not be when off in the distance you can see Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky? Well I’ll tell you how. Remember that fog or clouds I told you I was walking in earlier in the day. Yup. Definitely a cloud. Except now instead of walking in it I was sitting in it, not enjoying the views I had longed to catch.
So I found a spot on the rocks and took off my pack. Out came my ham and cheese sandwich, oatmeal creme pie and bottle of lemonade. During lunch I made small talk with the couple from Nashville as they ate, too.
“It wasn’t like this when we were here the last time. You could see forever,” she offered.
Not today I thought. Can’t see 50 feet.
My friends had begun their venture back toward the park, as I gave it another 10 minutes, just knowing the clouds would clear. I mean I was literally watching them blow by as I ate lunch. Finally I gave up and decided it wasn’t meant to be this day. So off I went. Scramble down the rocks, hit the intersection and go left. Down the 0.2 spur trail and left back onto the main trail.
The trek back required much less effort than the the trek in. With about 1.5 miles left to the park I looked through the trees to find clear blue skies for as far as the eye could see. Seriously? Oh well, it just wasn’t supposed to be my day at the overlook. Gives me a reason to go back I reckon.
The final totals: My iPhone health app had recorded 9.4 miles and a climb of 145 floors for the hike. The AllTrails app shows 8.3 miles and 2,296 feet of elevation gain. My legs believed my iPhone for miles and my lungs believed AllTrails for elevation gain. Though I’ve posted a couple of pictures of my day, they aren’t great and don’t provide the scenery the justness it deserves. Check out this link for some pictures from other hikers.
I highly recommend this adventure if your legs are up to it. Break out the tent and find you a spot at the Wilderness Road Campground. Start early and pack a lunch for your hike. Take your time and stop as often as needed to catch that breath. It took me just under 6 hours to complete the trip—4 hours and 4 minutes of that time I was moving. The other times I was either in awe of a cave, mad at a cloud or resting my heart and lungs. Maybe check the skies before you go, too. Sitting in the clouds at the White Rocks overlook is pretty cool, but you can get that same view sitting in your garage with some dry ice and a cooler full of water.
Final note, I did some research on Sand Cave after I returned. The opening is 250 feet across and the surface area of the sand covered floor is 1.25 acres. Go see for yourself.
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