Review: Wilderness Road Campground – Ewing, Virginia

This National Park campground was an ideal home base for day trekking.

Mike Rhodes | November 3, 2020

Twice during the month of October, I ventured up to north Georgia in hopes of catching the leaves showing off their fall colors. Hiked up Blood Mountain on Monday, Oct. 5, reached the top to find the beautiful green leaves of the north Georgia forest. Yep. Too early for color changes. Waited 13 days, then hiked the Ramrock Mountain out and back on the AT where I just knew I’d catch ’em perfect. Uh. Nope. Slight hint of yellow with a couple of red spots in the distance, but mostly green. I needed my fix of fall foliage, so come the morning of Oct. 23, I headed to the Cumberland Gap, found at the meeting points of the Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky borders.

Having done some online research I knew that I wanted to give the Wilderness Road Campground a try. The area is operated by the National Park Service, and it is one of those first-arrive, first-get places. It is always a roll of the dice getting a site at these places, but I planned to arrive before noon and there are 160 sites in total. So without a backup camping plan and feeling lucky, I pulled out of the driveway for my 5-hour ride.

Pulling into the park I found the registration office/park store closed. Not surprising as the COVID protocols have changed the way many campgrounds are operating right now. I grabbed a campground map and began my slow drive in search of the perfect site. The setup had six loops: A, B, C, D, E and F. Loops B and C have 20, 30 and 50 amp electric at the sites for RVs, while the others only have the usual lantern post, picnic table and fire ring. There were no “tent pads” here, which I thought was unusual. You just put your tent where you can.

As I drove through C then D then E and F, I didn’t see many level areas for tents. There was some gravel for backing in your vehicle to park in each site, and beyond that most of the sites were tight and in close proximity to other sites. I settled on one that I figured would do and parked. It was on the edge of the campground nearest Highway 58 allowing the sound of passing trucks to infiltrate my site, but hey, there was a level place for my tent and surely the traffic after dark would be minimal. Site E2 it was.

After getting set up I walked the loops to get a closer look at the campground. There is an amphitheater, two dumpsters with bear-proof lids and a group camping area beyond loop F, which I missed earlier. There are two bath houses, as well. I did like how the bath houses were set up. Many campgrounds will have a combo bathroom with showers within a single building. These had the usual separate restrooms for men and women, but unlike many other places the showers were not in the restrooms. Instead the showers were right outside the restrooms and available for use by men or women. If you’re camping with young children, this setup would be handy for the parents. The shower rooms are large with plenty of hooks and a bench. You can place your clean clothes far enough away from the shower where they actually stay dry. The bath house/restroom units between C and D had two large shower rooms, and the one on loop F had four shower rooms, which were slightly smaller but still larger than most campgrounds. The staff did a fantastic job keeping these places clean. Cleanest I’ve seen in years.

The view looking Northeast from the Pinnacle Overlook.

My favorite part of this campground would have to be proximity to trails and mountain views. It’s less than a 5-minute drive to the National Park visitor’s center where you can pick up brochures for activities and trails throughout the park. You’ll go through the Cumberland Gap Tunnel to get there, which is pretty cool. Be sure to drive up Skyland Road to the Pinnacle Overlook when you leave the Visitor’s Center. It’s a 4-mile winding road, so be prepared, but when you hit the top it’s a short walk to a couple of fantastic views into the valley. This part is ADA Accessible, too.

There are more than 80 miles of trails in the park which vary in length from less than half a mile to more than 20 miles. The trails are well marked with signage providing mileage of trails. The campground has several trails and trailheads within it, as well. You can even hike the Boone Trail from the campground to the Pinnacle Overlook if you have the time. It’s just under 4 miles each way.

I hit the Skylight Cave trail the first day I arrived. It’s a 1.5 out-and-back trail to a 200-foot limestone cavern. Sadly there were signs up showing it was closed due to “White-Nose Syndrome” effects on bat populations. You’ll find the trailhead in the picnic area of just outside the campground main entrance, and the hike is still worth your time even though you can’t enter the cave.

Skylight Cave is a 200-foot limestone cave in the Cumberland Gap National Park

While the campground is in Ewing, Virginia, you’re only a 5 miles from Middlesboro, Kentucky, where you’ll find grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants. Fun fact,  Middlesboro is also the hometown of Steve Majors, or better know to people of my age as The Six Million Dollar Man. It’s also only a few miles up Highway 58 to the Wilderness Road State Park. You’ll find picnic facilities, hiking trails and a reconstructed outdoor living history museum depicting life as it was there in the 1770s.

What I learned on my trip to the Cumberland Gap Wilderness Road Campground.

First and foremost, I finally hit it just right in my search for fall colors. Beyond that the campground is large with 160 sites, but the sites are fairly close to one another and finding level spots for you tent can be a challenge. Non-electric sites are $14 a night and electric sites are $20. The bathrooms are clean, the water is hot, they are fairly new, and they are set up better than many others I’ve visited. There are plenty of activities available within the campground and within a few miles to keep you busy, and if you enjoy history you’ll find lots right here. The Cumberland Gap Tunnel is an engineering marvel as well as the gateway to visit the hometown of the Six Million Dollar Man!

Check back soon to read about my adventure hiking the Sand Cave and White Rocks trail just 12 miles from the campground.

The fall colors were just right as the sun was coming up in the Wilderness Road Campground on Sunday morning.

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