From a perch high on the southern slope of Old Mac Mountain, the song of a wood thrush echoes through the tree tops as the small bird stays keenly out of sight while bringing the forest to life with his calls. As the sun sinks behind the mountain’s peak and the dim light of evening overtakes the woods, the only other sound is that of Judge Branch crashing over the rocks and boulders in its path just out of sight below as it makes its way towards the Emory River.
The wood thrush’s song is enchanting music. No wonder Henry David Thoreau was moved by it to write, “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.”
This is Frozen Head State Natural Area, just across the Scott-Morgan county line, east of Wartburg. Here, nearly 24,000 acres of mountain forest are protected by the State of Tennessee, forming a scenic vista that encompasses some of the highest peaks of the Cumberland Mountains.
in the Flat Fork Valley behind Old Mac Mountain and Bird Mountain to its north is Frozen Head State Park, a 300-acre day-use area and campground that was constructed by the Civilian Corps of Engineers as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, as the Cumberlands and America recovered from the Great Recession. But it is in the 23,000-plus acres surrounding the valley that hikers go to play.
There are a surprising number of hiking trails within this relatively small area; more than 80 miles in all. The interconnected network of trails and the well-established backcountry campsites that date back more than 70 years make this a favored destination among backpackers who turn the trails into multi-day forays into the mountains.
But the nice thing about the trail network is that most of the trails can be hiked individually by day-trippers. And most of them climb well into the mountains to offer hikers an experience they won’t find anywhere else west of the Great Smoky Mountains.
This is the quiet side of the Cumberlands. These 24,000 acres and the mountain peaks they encompass are just about the only part of the mountain range that is off-limits to ATVs. In fact, once you’ve climbed high enough to leave Flat Fork Valley behind, the only engine noise you’re likely to hear is that of the occasional aircraft that passes overhead. Around here, there’s only one way to travel: by foot.
Because of the nature of the terrain here, the hiking is quite different from the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. With its craggy cliff lines and river gorges, the BSF is sometimes called “Utah with trees.” The features there are more like those you’d find “out west” than just about anything else in the eastern United States. But just a hop, skip and a jump away from the BSF’s sister park, the Obed Wild & Scenic River, Frozen Head captures the aura of the mountain features that define the age-old Appalachians.
The hiking trails at Frozen Head are not necessarily any more or less spectacular than those at Big South Fork. They’re just different. While the Smoky Mountains dwarf the Cumberlands, the hiking here is not unlike what you would find in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, you might say that hiking Frozen Head is a bit like hiking the Smokies — without all the people.
Distance: 7.9 miles
Elevation gain: 1,877 ft.
Trailhead: Frozen Head
Frozen Head State Natural Area consists of 14 peaks that tower above 3,000 ft., none of them taller than the summit that serves as the natural area’s landscape. At 3,324 ft., Frozen Head draws its name from its characteristic snow-capped peak during the winter months. While the microclimate here isn’t as uniquely different from the surrounding valleys as what you’ll find in the higher elevations of the Smokies, such as Mt. LeConte, the high elevation means that temperatures are several degrees cooler than in the valleys below. You’ll often find snow falling here when there is no snow to be found in Wartburg or Huntsville, the two nearest towns, as the crow flies.
There are several ways to the summit at Frozen Head, the easiest of which is the Old Mac Trail that begins and ends near the Frozen Head State Park headquarters in the Flat Fork Valley.
“Easy” can be a relative term, of course. At 7.9 miles in length, the hike to Frozen Head and back to the trailhead at the base of Old Mac Mountain includes almost 1,900 ft. of elevation gain. That earns the trail a difficulty rating of strenuous.
Not only is Old Mac Trail the longest of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge trails to date, surpassing last week’s 7.1-mile hike to Parch Corn Creek in the Big South Fork, the 1,877 ft. of elevation gain easily surpass the 1,477 ft. of elevation gain along the Honey Creek Loop, making it the most climbing of any of the challenge’s trails.
But don’t let the climb scare you away. The ascent is a gentle one, spread across some four miles. That means you’re climbing an average of 470 ft. per mile during the first half of the hike. Contrast that with the average gorge climb in the Big South Fork, which typically covers between 400 and 500 ft. in about a half-mile.
In other words, the climb to Frozen Head isn’t as steep as the climbs in the Big South Fork, and hikers who are familiar with the BSF will quickly realize that. The climbs to Angel Falls Overlook or Devils Den, or the ascents along the Blue Heron or Leatherwood Loop trails are all steeper than the climb to Frozen Head. Hikers won’t find themselves gasping for breath or with their hearts beating wildly, as is often the case at the top of one of the BSF’s gorge climbs.
Still, the overall climb is a long one. And while the Old Mac might not be quite as strenuous as Honey Creek Loop in the BSF, it will require a little extra time to complete. Interpretive rangers at Frozen Head State Park recommend allowing an hour for every 1.5 miles, which means about four hours to complete the entire hike. We completed it in three hours on a Sunday afternoon.
Old Mac Trail is actually two separate trails — the North Old Mac and the South Old Mac. Together, they form a 6.9-mile loop hike around the peak at Old Mac Mountain, with an additional hike along a spur trail to the top of Frozen Head.
From the trailhead just beyond the Frozen Head Visitor Center, the loop is best hiked in a clockwise direction. That means hanging a left at the first trail fork just beyond the trailhead and taking North Old Mac to the summit and South Old Mac back to the trailhead. North Old Mac is the longer of the two trails, meaning the elevation change is gentler. The trail follows the topographical features of the mountain slope for a steady climb to the top of Old Mac, whereas South Old Mac uses a series of switchback to cover more elevation change in a shorter distance, reminiscent of many of the trails that traverse the sides of the gorge in the BSF.
Some hiking elitists thumb their noses at Old Mac, saying the trail’s lack of scenery change makes it an uneventful hike. But the peace and quiet of this relatively old growth forest makes it an enjoyable adventure, even if it weren’t for the view from the top — and the view from the top certainly makes the effort worthwhile. Those who look closely will realize that the scenery does change, though. The forest changes are subtle, but noticeable, going from a mixed mesophytic forest closer to the valley to a white oak forest higher up the slopes, to eventually becoming a chestnut oak and shortleaf pine forest near the summit.
The climb is a slow but steady one, until the trail finally intersects with Panther Branch Trail not too far from the top of Old Mac Mountain. A short distance beyond that, the narrow foot trail intersects with a dirt road, which becomes the way for North Old Mac Trail to continue towards the top of the mountain.
Where North Old Mac and South Old Mac meet between the peaks of Old Mac and Frozen Head, a backcountry campsite and a natural spring make an overnight stopping point for backpackers. At that point, hikers can simply turn onto South Old Mac and begin the journey back to the trailhead in the valley below. But doing so would eliminate the side trip to the observation platform atop Frozen Head, which is easily the highlight of the trip.
A gravel road, which is closed to vehicular traffic, leads the rest of the way to the summit. The spur trail offers a good-news, bad-news scenario. The bad news is that the climb becomes steeper at this point. The good news is that the peak is only a short distance away, making the climb a relatively short one.
The observation platform was constructed a decade ago, replacing the old lookout tower that was built by the CCC circa World War II. The original tower here served two purposes: to alert rangers to forest fires, such as the one that burned the entirety of the Frozen Head State Natural Area — then called the Morgan County State Forest — in 1952, and to aid prison guards in spotting escapees from the old Brushy Mountain Prison, which is visible from the northeast side of Frozen Head near its peak.
The vantage point atop the observation platform offers a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. If it seems like you can see all of East Tennessee from the platform, you aren’t necessarily far wrong. On clear days, you can see the three main topographical features of East Tennessee: the Smoky Mountains to the southeast, the Tennessee Valley, and Walden’s Ridge, where the Cumberland Plateau meets the valley.
You can also see the wind mills at Windrock above Oliver Springs, the smoke stacks from the TVA’s steam plant at Kingston, Watts Bar Lake and much of the rest of the surrounding valley area around Rockwood, Kingston and points south. To the north, you can see the surrounding mountains, such as Old Mac and Bird mountains. The imaginary line along the ridge top is called the Tennessee Valley Divide and just out of sight is Guinea Hill Knob, which is the highest point in Scott County.
Back on the trail, the gravel road leads from the peak back to the main ridgeline, where South Old Mac heads back towards Flat Fork Valley below.
The trail is a little steeper on the south side of the mountain, following Judge Branch for much of the way. While Judge Branch is out of sight for much of the hike, its waters can always be heard. There are several wet-weather feeder streams that cross the trail, and the CCC’s 70-year-old work can be found along many of those stream crossings, where stacked stone prevents erosion.
At the base of the mountain, a right turn leads hikers back to the trailhead. Along the way they’ll pass the CCC’s old dynamite shack, which is now falling in, and a monument that was built for three CCC workers who died on site in 1941.
Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 south to Wartburg and merge onto S.R. 62 towards Oak Ridge. Just outside of town, turn left onto Flat Fork Road and continue past the Morgan County Correctional Complex into Frozen Head State Park. The trailhead is located on the right just past the park’s visitor center.
Look For: How many natural and manmade features can you pick out from the observation platform atop Frozen Head? While the views there are best on the haze-free days of late fall, winter and early spring, even summer-time views can be spectacular.
Be Careful For: There are muddy spots along the trail and some fallen trees that require climbing over. The biggest hazard, though, is the steep inclines along the trail. Stepping off the side of the trail can result in a tumble.
Make It Better: Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy Frozen Head State Park’s day use facilities before or after your hike. The picnic area along the ice-cold and crystal-clear mountain stream is picturesque, and there are activity areas for kids of all ages, from playgrounds to athletic fields.
Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with the names of all members of your hiking party, in order to log your miles.
Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you pack it in, pack it out!