The sun is sinking behind Old Mac Mountain, as we find ourselves perched high on the southern slope, listening to the melody of a wood thrush as he darts from branch to branch — unseen, of course; they’re easily heard but seldom seen — and sings his song for all who are close enough to listen.
The wood thrush’s song is enchanting music. You won’t find these songbirds in city parks or side lots. You have to get deep into the woods to find them. Even there, they’re seldom found. Modern forestry practices are resulting in their decline; they have a conservation status of near-threatened.
But when they start to sing, the woods change. No wonder Henry David Thoreau wrote of the wood thrush, “Whenever a man hears it he is young, and nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”
Far down the slope below, the sound of Judge Branch can be heard as its crystal-clear and ice-cold waters crash over rocks and boulders en route to the Emory River.
As the shadows lengthen across the mountainside, those are the only sounds of the deep forest: the wood thrush and Judge Branch.
This is Frozen Head State Natural Area. At nearly 24,000 acres, Frozen Head is one of Tennessee’s oldest state parks and natural areas. Once a part of the Cherokee hunting grounds that spanned much of the Cumberlands, the area was ceded to the United States government in 1805 with the signing of the Third Treaty of Tellico. As German settlers arrived in the area and established the town of Wartburg soon thereafter, a few established homesteads high in the Cumberland Mountains. In 1894, the land was purchased by the State of Tennessee when Brushy Mountain State Prison was established, and its natural resources aided construction of the prison. Later, in 1911, the Emory River Lumber Company purchased the land and cut most of its remaining timber. Finally, in 1933, Tennessee Governor Hill McAlister designated the land as Morgan State Forest. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived the same year, taking a train to Rockwood before making their way north to the Flat Fork Valley east of Wartburg. There, they constructed roads and other facilities until 1941. When they broke camp, it was the oldest CCC camp in the State of Tennessee.
Today, the area shows few signs of the mining and timbering operations that took place here in the early 20th century. Frozen Head is one of the few places in the Cumberlands where you can find old-growth forest; much of the rest of the mountains in this chain have been strip-mined, clear-cut and drilled.
This is also the quiet side of the Cumberlands, one of the only places within these mountains where you can’t ride your ATV. As a result, a trek deep into the forests of Frozen Head will find peace and solitude; the only motor noises will be those of an occasional aircraft passing overhead.
There are a surprising number of hiking trails within Frozen Head’s 24,000 acres. There are 80 miles of trail in all, which makes Frozen Head a relatively popular destination for backpackers. There are 11 backcountry camp sites scattered through the mountains.
For hikers, Frozen Head offers a different experience from the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. BSF — a 125,000-acre national park that features hundreds of miles of hiking trail — is sometimes referred to as “Utah with trees.” Its rugged river gorges and craggy clifflines are more like features you will find “out west” than just about any other geography in the eastern United States.
By contrast, hiking at Frozen Head is much more like hiking at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While the Smokies dwarf the Cumberlands — there are 14 peaks above 3,000 ft. at Frozen Head, but none high enough in altitude to feature the mountain balds you’ll find in the Smokies, though Mart Fields may be the closest example — the mountains here are still legitimate mountains. That fact makes the hiking here no more or less spectacular than the hiking in the Big South Fork . . . just different.
That’s where we were Sunday afternoon, a spectacular summer day that featured sunny skies and cool temperatures in the wake of Tropical Storm Cindy, the remnants of which impacted the region two days earlier. With the temp barely cracking 70 degrees, it felt more like late September than late June, which made for perfect hiking weather.
Our destination was the park’s highest point — the peak from which the park draws its name. We were going to get there by way of Old Mac Mountain, a summit that runs perpendicular to the main north-south ridge of Frozen Head Mountain.
The trailhead for Old Mac is a paved parking lot in the Flat Fork Valley, the valley between Bird Mountain and Chimney Top Mountain that encompasses Frozen Head State Park. This is one of the most beautiful and most under-rated state parks in Tennessee. With picturesque picnic facilities, playgrounds for young kids, athletic fields for older kids, and the ice-cold waters of Flat Fork Creek — which would rival any mountain stream in the Smokies — inviting you to stick your toes in, Frozen Head State Park is worth a visit all its own.
But there was no time for visiting on Sunday. Church ran a little long as Capt. Barry Wilmore — a NASA astronaut who married a Scott County girl — delivered a message that included his personal experiences and photos from war and space, and no Sunday is complete without ingesting plenty of Mexican food. It was 3 p.m. by the time we arrived at Frozen Head.
While Old Mac is the easiest way to the summit, it still involves climbing the mountain, and interpretive rangers at Frozen Head advise allowing enough time to average about 1.5 miles per hour. At just about 8 miles, that would be a little more than four hours, and the trails close one hour prior to sunset unless you have a backcountry camping permit. I wasn’t worried about getting busted, but the gates at the park entrance are locked at dark, and I didn’t want to spend the night in my Jeep.
Old Mac is actually a combination of two trails — North Old Mac and South Old Mac. Together, they form a loop that encircles Old Mac Mountain. The easiest way to the summit is via North Old Mac. It is a little longer, so the elevation change is a bit more gentle. The trail follows the topographical features of the mountain slope, allowing for a steady and relatively easy climb to the top of the mountain. By contrast, South Old Mac is shorter, utilizing switchbacks to cover more elevation change with less distance.
Hiking along North Old Mac, you can hear the rushing waters of Flat Fork Creek below, along with the occasional sound of children laughing and playing as you slowly work your way up the mountainside that towers over the state park. Occasionally, breaks in the trees will provide glimpses of Bird Mountain, which you can use to gauge your progress towards the summit.
Eventually, the sounds of Flat Cork Creek and children fade altogether, leaving you in solitude with the sounds of the forest. There are occasional run-ins with other hikers. The trails here are lightly-trafficked, but are more popular than many of the trails at Big South Fork or the nearby Obed Wild & Scenic River. Still, they aren’t too crowded; hiking at Frozen Head is a bit like hiking at the Smokies without all the people.
Some hiking elitists thumb their nose at this trail, saying North Old Mac is four miles of steady incline with no change in scenery to break up the monotony. These are the same hikers who like to come back from their treks to the mountains bragging of seeing wild horses along the mountain balds and black bears in every tree top.
The opportunity to hike through an old growth forest is one that should never be taken for granted, even if there isn’t a photo opportunity lurking at every bend in the trail. Besides, the scenery does change; it’s just too subtle for those who aren’t in-tune with nature to notice. The forest type slowly changes with the elevation. Along the lower portions of the mountain slope, the forest is mesophytic — a mix of hemlock, maple, poplar, oak and hickory. Further up, it changes to an oak forest consisting primarily of white oak and tulip poplar. Near the peaks, the forest changes again, with chestnut oak and shortleaf pine becoming the dominant tree species.
The Old Mac is an all-seasons hiking trail. In addition to the treat of wintry scenes at the higher elevations that don’t exist in the valleys during the winter months, the trail is known for its abundance of wildflowers that bloom in spring, summer and early fall. But with the exception of lilies in the highest elevations, there were no flowers in bloom on this trip.
Still, the hike is worthwhile, and Cumberland Plateau hikers who are more accustomed to hiking in the BSF will be glad to know that the slopes here are more gentle than the gorge climbs at Big South Fork. They average elevation change is more forgiving, although there’s much more of it. That isn’t to say that the trails are easy; mountain trails never are. Old Mac is the easiest route to the summit, and it is rivaled by Honey Creek Loop in the Big South Fork in terms of its toughness.
It seems as though the hike up the mountain is never going to end when North Old Mac finally intersects with the Panther Branch Trail. This trail winds along the stream of the same name — which divides Little Fork Mountain from Old Mac Mountain — and eventually winds up at the Emory Gap waterfall before heading back out to the state park.
The trail intersection is a good sign that you’re nearing the ridge top. Sorta. It’s still a bit further before North Old Mac intersects with the Lookout Tower Trail, a dirt road that is open to mountain bikes for those brave enough to climb Bird Mountain to the ridge line that ultimately leads to Frozen Head’s peak.
A short distance further up the ridge is the Tub Spring Camp, a backcountry site that can accommodate up to 18 hikers. A stone’s throw away is Tub Spring itself, a natural spring that provides water.
This is the intersection of North Old Mac, South Old Mac, Lookout Tower and Chimney Top trails. Spicewood intersects Chimney Top a couple of miles further along the ridge. In a sense, most trails lead here — the ridge just below the peak at Frozen Head, where the observation tower is located.
From here, a gravel road leads on to the peak. The bad news: the steepest part of the climb is head. The good news: it’s only about three-tenths of a mile.
The observation tower at Frozen Head was built a decade ago to replace the aging fire tower that was originally constructed by the CCC circa World War II. The old tower served two purposes — to allow forest rangers to be on the lookout for fires, such as the one that completely burned this entire area in 1952, the worst wildfire season in the state’s history, and also to allow prison guards to look for escapees from Brushy Mountain Prison.
At 3,324 ft., Frozen Head doesn’t exactly tower over the surrounding peaks, even though it is the highest point in the state natural area. It is one of the highest peaks in the Cumberland Mountains, but there are several others — mostly just to the east in Anderson County — that are higher.
Still, the view from here is spectacular. If it feels like you can see all of East Tennessee, it’s because you actually can, in some ways . . . or at least the main terrain features. The three main terrain features of East Tennessee are the Smoky Mountains, the Tennessee Valley and the Cumberland Plateau. From the observation tower, you can see the Smokies, you can see the valley and you can see Walden Ridge, where the Cumberland Plateau meets the Tennessee Valley.
You can also see the smoke stacks from the TVA steam plant in Kingston, you can see Watts Bar Lake sprawling through the valley, and many other features, as well, depending on how much haze there is in the sky.
There are also plenty of mountain views from the tower. To the northeast is Fork Mountain. Beyond it is Buffalo Mountain, which is where TVA’s massive windmills stand sentry over Oliver Springs and Oak Ridge. There’s Big Fodderstack and Big Brushy, which tower over the Petros community (and the old prison is visible through the treeline at the southeastern base of Frozen Head). To the south, Indian Knob rises prominently into view. This is the southernmost subpeak of Frozen Head, and it is just beyond Indian Knob that Watts Bar — an impoundment on the Tennessee River — can be found further south. Mart Fields and Chimney Top can be seen to the south and southwest. Behind you, to the west, is Bird Mountain. If you could see just beyond that, you would see the Emory River Gap, which leads across the ridge to the headwaters of the Emory River and, just beyond that, Guinea Hill Knob — which is located near where Morgan, Scott and Anderson counties all meet and is the highest point in Scott County.
Frozen Head gets its name from its characteristic snow-capped appearance during the winter months. Unlike the highest peaks of the Smokies, Frozen Head doesn’t have its own climate, but there are notable differences here. The temperature is often several degrees cooler than it is in the valley, which leads to frozen precipitation here when there is none to be found anywhere else. Songbirds thrive here that you won’t find in the valley, as well.
Back on the trail, South Old Mac leads the way along Judge Branch to Flat Fork Valley below. You can’t actually see the stream from South Old Mac, but you can hear it. And, eventually, Judge Branch Trail leads to the stream itself, following it as it descends into the valley.
As South Old Mac reaches the valley, hikers pass the CCC’s dynamite shack, where workers stored their explosive as the facilities here were being constructed in the 1930s. Today, the old building is dilapidated and on the verge of collapse.
The last point of interest along the trail before it reemerges at the trailhead is a plaque that was placed in memory of Ralph Farmer, Wolford Hall and Frank Hatcher — three men who were killed during the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work here.We arrived back at the parking lot at 6 p.m. It was a three-hour trip, including a few brief stops for water and a bit of time to admire the view from the observation tower at Frozen Head. That’s not bad, considering that I had an 11-year-old en tow. The views would have been better in the fall or winter, but you can never hike a trail too many times.