Although not particularly tall even by the standards of the Cumberland Mountains or offering much in the way of scenic views, Tri-State Peak is rich in geographical and historical significance. As its name suggests, the borders of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia meet at the summit. Tri-State Peak is the first peak at the southern end of the Cumberland Gap, which was the route that Daniel Boone and many of the early settlers took through the mountains into Kentucky in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. It was also the site of two Union forts during the Civil War.
The Cumberland Mountain Trail starts at the summit of Tri-State Peak. When the trail is completed, it will be 313 miles long. About 173 miles were completed as of the end of 2009, including 3 miles from the summit of Tri-State Peak to the boundary of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
From Middlesboro, Kentucky, drive south on US 25E through the Cumberland Gap Tunnel into Tennessee. Turn onto US 58 and then make a left onto South Cumberland Drive. As you pass through the little town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, South Cumberland Drive becomes Brooklyn Street. Keep following Brooklyn Street and then make a left onto Pennlyn Avenue. Follow Pennlyn until you see the parking lot on the right.
As you start on the Tennessee Road Trail, you cross into Virginia. Near the trailhead, you will see the remnant of an old iron furnace that was built in 1819. After 0.3 miles, turn left onto the Wilderness Road Trail. This is the trail that Daniel Boone and about 300,000 settlers took through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. For hundreds of years before them, this route was part of a network of trails used by Native Americans. The Wilderness Road Trail was called “Mishimayagat" or "Great Trail" by northeastern Algonquin tribes and "Athawominee" or "Path where they go armed" by the Delaware and the Shawnee. Follow this trail for 0.3 miles to the saddle of Cumberland Gap.
Make a left onto the Tri-State Trail. Here you will see a monument to Daniel Boone that was set up by four states. The Tri-State Trail crosses back into Kentucky at this point. Follow the trail until reaching a sign that describes a nearby crater that was created during the Civil War. In 1862, a Confederate army invaded Kentucky and forced the Union to retreat. Union forces destroyed their ammunition; the resulting explosion was large enough to make the crater and to force the Confederates to delay their advance by 18 hours.
Ultimately, the Confederates turned back after the battle of Perryville in central Kentucky, and Union control of the state was never seriously contested again. There is also a side trail that leads to the site of a former Union fort during the war (unfortunately, not much remains) and limited views of the Pinnacle, which is on the north side of Cumberland Gap.
After following the Tri-State Peak trail for 0.6 miles, you will see a small structure at the summit. Here is where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia meet. The Cumberland Mountain Trail starts at this point. About 0.2 miles down the trail is the site of another Civil War fort.
Round trip: 2.4 miles with an elevation gain of about 700 feet.
The rangers discourage bushwhacking, which is not necessary to summit Tri-State Peak anyway. That’s about it.
Tri-State Peak can be climbed all year round. The heat, haze, and humidity are at their worst in July and August; the best time for a summer hike is early in the morning.
Camping is permitted only at designated sites in Cumberland Gap National Historical National Park, none of which are on Tri-State Peak. Park regulations also make a distinction between “front-country” and “back-country” camping; the latter requires a free permit. The nearest campground is Wilderness Road, which is a front-country site about one mile down US 58 from the intersection with US 25E.