DeBord Falls is the first of two waterfalls along the Panther Branch Trail to Emory Gap at Frozen Head State Park | Photo: Nichole Newport

Trail: Emory Gap
Trailhead: Panther Branch (Frozen Head State Park)
Distance: 2.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 465 ft.
Difficulty: Easy/Moderate

Perhaps the only thing more beautiful than the drive up Flat Fork Road to Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg is the scenery along the hiking trails once you set out from your vehicle to explore the park on foot.

Coupled with the state forest that surrounds it, Frozen Head encompasses 24,000 acres of sheer beauty in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains (see Page B8 for more). 

Frozen Head itself is a peak that stands at more than 3,324 in elevation — high above Flat Fork Creek itself. The thickly forested slopes below it, and the streams that flow along their base, are best explored by a series of hiking trails — more than 50 miles in all, ranging from easy strolls along the streams to strenuous climbs to the top of the mountain.

Week 5 of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge will stick to the areas along the streams in the bottom with a hike to Emory Gap. There are several waterfalls that define Frozen Head, and two of the best can be experienced with this hike. 

At 2.8 miles in total length, this ties Bronco Overlook as the longest trail of the hiking challenge to date. And at 465 feet of elevation gain, it also features the most elevation change of the hiking challenge to date. But the hike is a relatively easy one, great for hikers of all ages and their pets, as it follows an old roadbed for most of its distance.

The fact that the trail is rated “easy” can be a bit deceiving. Especially along the final prong of the trail, on the approach to Emory Gap Falls, the elevation gain becomes a bit more daunting. But it’s just enough of a workout to get hikers’ hearts going good, and what goes up must come down — uphill on the way in means a nice, downhill stroll on the way out.

From the Panther Branch Trailhead at the upper end of Frozen Head State Park, it is a six-tenths of a mile hike to DeBord Falls. The hike is mostly level and easy. The waterfall itself can be accessed via a set of wooden stairs that provide an unobstructed view of the two-tiered waterfall.

Back on the main trail, it’s another seven-tenths of a mile to the intersection of Panther Branch Trail and the Emory Gap Trail. Go straight (do not cross the wooden bridge to the right) and Emory Gap Falls is located a half-mile ahead. The closer you get to the falls, the rockier and steeper the trail becomes, but it’s not a terribly difficult trail at any point. 

Emory Gap is best hiked after a rainfall, as both waterfalls slow to a trickle during dry weather. Wet weather does leave the trail quite muddy, but the photo opportunities at the waterfalls more than make up for a little mud on the boots. As an added bonus, spring wildflowers are starting to bloom, and the Emory Gap Trail features plenty of them.

Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 south to Wartburg. Continue straight at the traffic light onto S.R. 62. In 2.0 miles, turn left onto Flat Fork Road (towards the state penitentiary). Continue 5.2 miles to the end of the road at the upper end of Frozen Head State Park. 

Make It Better: Feeling adventurous? Once you return to the main Panther Branch Trail from the Emory Gap spur, continue on up the mountain to the North Old Mac Trail, then take North Old Mac to the Lookout Tower at Frozen Head. The tower offers stunning views of the Cumberland Plateau and the Tennessee Valley, with unobstructed views for miles in just about any direction. You can return to your vehicle by hiking South Old Mac back to the valley and then returning to the trailhead by walking the road, or you can return the way you came in — via Panther Branch and North Old Mac. The hike would require most of the day to complete and would be a strenuous journey. If you aren’t feeling quite that adventurous, pack a picnic lunch and stop at one of the picnic areas along Flat Fork Creek inside the park after your hike.

Be Careful For: The terrain along the trail to Emory Gap is quite rocky. Sturdy footwear is advisable. The rocks around Emory Gap Falls can be a little slippery. 

Look For: Salamanders! There are all sorts of salamanders in the cold mountain streams that flow through Frozen Head State Forest, including the Cumberland Dusky salamander, spring salamanders, the southern two-lined salamander, seal salamanders, spotted dusky salamanders and black mountain salamanders. If you’re lucky, you’ll see one — or more.

Remember To: Use the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag in your photos on social media, or email photos to, 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, please pack it out!