The ups and downs of hiking to the Sand Cave and back
By Amanda S. Creasey, Outdoors Writer
We arrive at Civitan Park in Ewing, Va., at 10 a.m. on a Saturday. Including ours, five cars wait for their drivers to return from hiking to the Sand Cave in the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.
My friend Jamie, my dogs and I have been planning this trip for weeks. “Can you do this hike in those?” Jamie asks, nodding at my Uggs. “I guess we’ll find out,” I say. I forgot my hiking boots.
The trail parallels a cheerful brook hurrying its way down the mountain, leaping boulders and rolling over rocks. The music of one creek or another serenades us for almost the entire hike, and multiple water crossings leave my dogs’ bellies cold and wet. Sometimes, creek and trail are one and the same. I miss my waterproof boots.
We haven’t gone far before we encounter a waterfall coursing its way down moss-covered rocks and spilling over the trail. We stop for photographs, snacks and water before balancing on stones to cross the creek. A few miles in, I’m not exactly tired. But my legs start to feel tight and my backpack heavy. I’m eager to reach the Sand Cave.
REACHING THE SUMMIT
At the top of the trail we begin a slow descent down the other side of the peak. The vegetation changes from tall deciduous trees to dense evergreens I think must be rhododendron. At an intersection in the trail, we see wooden hitching posts for horses (though we have seen no horses). Beyond those, we duck under the rhododendron leaves into a thicket of green, watching our step as the shady trail is treacherously slick. We hear water running but see only green leaves and the wooden ladders we descend to reach the Sand Cave. We are almost there.
Suddenly, we emerge from the cool shade into a puddle of sunshine. Sunlight gleams over round, ivory stones. My eyes trace the clear water against its current until they find a waterfall, silver strands of braided water spilling over the side of a rounded, multicolored cliff just to the left of the Sand Cave. I feel like we’ve entered some tropical oasis, some secret hideaway. Paradise. We savor the spot as long as we can, but eventually begin the trek back up to the trail. One of my dogs tucked inside the front of my fleece and my backpack on my back, I slog up the hill. With each laborious step I take, my dog’s head bobs up and down under my chin. My arms complain under her weight. My legs ache with strain. Still, when we reach the descent and begin to retrace our route back to the parking lot, I’m both grateful and sad. Grateful that the hiking will be comparatively easy now; sad that each step brings us closer to the end of this adventure.
As we enjoy our less arduous hike back to the parking lot, we pass other hikers. Some of them look spent and discouraged. “It’s worth it,” we tell them. “Keep going.” And despite my struggle, I’m telling the truth. Like so much in life, overcoming the challenge — doing the hard thing — has proven worth it. The Sand Cave was a reward in and of itself. But I have gotten more out of this day than a glimpse of striking natural beauty. I have pushed my limit, exceeded it and come out stronger — all in Uggs.
Six hours and 9 miles after we left the parking lot, 15 cars have joined my little hatchback, filling the lot almost to capacity. We probably passed their drivers on the trail. Like us, they will return to their cars, tired, victorious and hungry.