The heat and humidity that have held East Tennessee in a death grip since early July finally relinquished this week, and the first taste of autumn made for an excellent opportunity for an adventure. My destination? The highest point in Scott County: Guinea Hill Knob.
It takes much longer to drive to Guinea Hill Knob than it does to actually ascend to the summit. It’s a long way from anywhere. In fact, it’s located in the extreme southern tip of Scott County. When surveyors carved out Scott County from portions of Fentress, Morgan, Campbell and Anderson counties in 1849, they generally followed the ridge tops through the Cumberland Mountains. And it is here, at Guinea Hill Knob, where Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all meet.
The first thing to understand is what Guinea Hill Knob is and what it isn’t. It’s the highest point in Scott County — with a peak of 3,268 feet — but it doesn’t tower above the surrounding terrain features. This area, in the heart of the Cumberland Mountains, is all high country. The ridges are well above 2,500 feet and there are several peaks above 3,000 feet.
In fact, there are eight peaks above 3,000 feet in this general area — just on the Scott County side. There are additional 3,000-ft. peaks on the Anderson County and Morgan County sides.
All of which is to say that Guinea Hill Knob doesn’t stand out — at least not from its base. But once you’ve ascended to the summit, you realize just how remarkable this high point really is.
Photo: That’s Walnut Knob to the right, and Guinea Hill Knob to the left. See a difference? Not really.
There is actually some debate over whether Guinea Hill Knob is the highest peak in Scott County. Well, actually no one is debating it. But it could be debated. The Lists of John, a digital inventory of more than 200,000 peaks around the world, lists three peaks in Scott County of identical height: 3,250 feet. Walnut Knob, just to the south of Guinea Hill Knob, is one of them. The other is Burge Mountain, located a couple of miles to the east. And since Guinea Hill Knob has a lesser prominence than the other two — meaning how high the peak towers over the ridge line — it is usually listed third.
But Tom Dunigan — a former University of Tennessee adjunct associate professor and retired research assistant at Oak Ridge National Laboratory — maintains a landmark inventory of the Cumberlands that is a treasure trove of information about both the Cumberland Mountains and the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. He has determined Guinea Hill Knob to be 3,268 feet, compared to Burge Mountain’s 3,246 feet and Walnut Knob’s 3,240 feet.
Either way, we’re talking about a difference of less than 20 feet between them, which is really splitting hairs. The bottom line is that once you’ve ascended to the top of Guinea Hill Knob, you feel like you’re on top of the world. And in this corner of the world, you truly are on top.
The easiest way to get to Guinea Hill Knob — as long as you remember that “easiest” is a relative term — is by way of the Emory River valley, taking Gobey Road from U.S. Hwy. 27 just north of Wartburg in Morgan County. The drive to the Emory River headwaters is a spectacular one along a two-lane country road. At the head of the creek, the road turns to gravel and climbs to the top of the mountain.
But there are several different ways to get here. S.R. 116 between Lake City (Rocky Top) and Petros is little more than a hop, skip and a jump away, and you can also get there from the head of Brimstone (by way of Lone Mountain) or from the headwaters of Smokey Creek.
I chose a little more adventurous way. I was in my Jeep, the top was off, the sun was shining and I had time to kill. So I peeled off of Brimstone Road at Slick Rock, and climbed to the top of the ridge and the old Brimstone coal haul road that runs the length of the ridge top from Huntsville to the top of the mountains near Devonia.
Back when coal was king in these mountains — in the ’70s and early ’80s — these roads were fine routes, suitable for almost any vehicle. Over the years after the coal trucks quit hauling, they fell into various states of disrepair. In the 2000s, an boom of natural gas exploration led to many of the old roads being repaired and some new ones being built. So many of the old roads through the Cumberland Mountains are now gravel once more.
My journey, which leads along the ridge top above the Brimstone Creek valley, was mostly along those gravel roads. A few years of erosion have taken their toll on the roads, and there are puddles aplenty, but for the most part four-wheel-drive was not needed. The lone exception was a stretch of roadway around the base of Round Mountain. For whatever reason, this stretch of roadway — which is between Signal Mountain and the road that connected the old coal haul road to the coal tipple at the railroad below on Brimstone Road — has always been neglected. It was repaired several years ago when a natural gas main was laid through the mountains but was never graveled and brought to the same standard as the rest of the roads. As a result, it has deteriorated. Still, someone had been through on a dozer a few days ago, smoothing some of the ruts and draining some of the mud holes. The 4×4 use was mostly a precautionary measure on my part.
From Signal Mountain, the old haul road continues to parallel the Brimstone valley — which is far below and out of sight during this time of year, when the foliage is still on — until it eventually turns up Mill Creek and away from Brimstone Creek.
Far above the head of Mill Creek — across the valley from Flower Mountain and near where the Brimstone high country coal washer once set until it was dismantled a decade ago — the road begins following the Scott-Morgan county line. For the next several miles, it follows the county line past Sandy Gap Mountain, Norman Pond Knob and along Ligias Ridge. All of these peaks are around 3,000 feet. The climb into the mountains is nearly complete, and — mile for mile — there are more reclaimed strip mines here than anywhere else in these Cumberland Mountains. This was the heart of coal country 30 years ago. It has since been logged of most of its mature timber and is now exporting a not-insignificant amount of natural gas.
From Ligias Ridge, the road rounds the base of Walnut Knob and passes through Guinea Gap. By this point, the Frozen Head State Environmental Area is not far away. The road itself is on what is now the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, and most of the territory to the west is owned by Emory River LLC.
The coal haul road rounds the base of Guinea Hill Knob on its east side, continuing on to S.R. 116. But a 4×4-accessible gas well access road on the north side of the peak leads to within 1,000 linear feet of the summit.
That’s close to being at the highest point in Scott County. But not close enough. “Back in the day,” when coal mining was a major activity in these mountains, an old road led all the way to the summit, where a radio tower was located. Getting there by vehicle is no longer possible, however. To reach the summit, you have to park and do it like God intended it to be done — on foot.
And that’s easier said than done. It may be only 1,000 feet, as the crow flies, but men have to rely on their two legs instead of wings. The vegetation is dense and the climb is steep. I use wild game trails to climb to an old road bed, climb that to an old clear cut that ascends most of the way up the east side of the slope, then use another series of wild game trails to get through a gap in the bluffs that ring the top of the mountain. Then, I’m there.
Photo: This is what the highest peak in Scott County looks like.
Photo: I have no idea what this is, but it looked neat.
Photo: I’m not the first critter to venture here. Pig crap!
Turns out, the wild game trails I’m following are being used mostly by wild boar. That isn’t too surprising. We’re too high for most whitetail deer to venture, and elk typically stick to the low country this time of year. I had already passed a herd of wild boar on the way in.
Someone stacked a pile of rocks near the summit. Who and when is left to the imagination. I like to imagine that this pile of rocks was stacked by the surveyors back in 1849 to mark the spot where Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties meet. In reality, though, these rocks look to have been stacked more recently than that.
The Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation’s easement for Frozen Head runs almost to the summit, encompassing territories to the south and west of the mountain.
This is also the boundary line of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, and I nearly tripped over a survey stake. The state purchased this territory a decade ago to add to what was at the time known as the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area. Royal Blue and Sundqvist WMAs were merged with the new property to form the North Cumberland WMA. The new addition is known as the Emory River Unit of the WMA.
In places, pieces of coal litter the ground. A lot of coal has been mined in these mountains over the years.
From the summit, High Point Mountain is visible to the southwest.
Since timber cutters cleared most of the mature timber on the mountain’s east slope, it’s possible to position one’s self for a perfect view down the Smokey Creek valley.
And, if you look to the southeast, you’ll find TVA’s wind farm atop Windrock Mountain, where the massive windmills turn in the breeze.
It’s hard to see; you’ll have to click the above picture for a full-scale view. But this panoramic shot from the summit shows the Smokey Creek Valley (left) and the wind farm (right) from the same vantage point. You don’t find views like this just anywhere!
This radio tower once stood atop Guinea Hill Knob, harkening back to the days when coal was king in these mountains. It was still standing 15 years ago but has since toppled and is all but invisible in the undergrowth.
Standing atop Guinea Hill Knob, it’s easy to imagine that you have the whole world to yourself. And you do have this little corner of it to yourself. This high up, there are no man-made sounds, except for an occasional aircraft overhead. On weekends, ATVs rumble through these mountains, but on week days, it’s just you and nature — one on one. It’s easy to sit and stare forever, the same way John Muir must have done it when he trekked across the United States generations ago. These mountains are scarred by the coal-mining, the timber-cutting, and the gas-drilling that has gone on here, but there’s still something majestic about them…especially when you’re this high up, where you can truly feel like you’re on top of the world.