Last weekend as January was winding down, John, Katie and I headed to Frozen Head State Park to ease back into hiking.
Frozen Head is located in Morgan County between the towns of Petros and Wartburg. The land was purchased by the State of Tennessee in 1894 with the purpose of building a maximum security prison. You may be aware that Brushy Mountain Prison is most famous for the incarceration point of James Earl Ray, convicted assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The park was designated as a natural area by the state in 1988. It has 14 peaks over 3000′, 20 backcountry campsites, 50 miles of trails open only to hikers!!! Runners may also be aware that Frozen Head is the location of the Barkley Ultra Marathon. This is an ultra race that has been held since 1984. The challenge is to run 100 miles in under 60 hours. The course is unmarked and traverses rugged and brushy terrain. It is an “up the side of the mountain run”, not a trail run. As of 2017, only 15 competitors have ever finished the race. In 2019, 40 racers began the course, 0 finished. How is that for a challenge!?!
For John, Katie and me, our challenge was much less intense. We were hiking out and back on North Old Mac trail. North (and South) Old Mac begin “just down the road” from the ranger station in a parking lot with pleasant, HEATED restrooms that also have a shower for post hike/run use. The hike is 3.6 miles each direction, with a 1600′ climb out that dead ends at Panther Gap.
Aside from the beech trees that tend to hang onto their leaves till spring, we had an unobstructed view and what a view it was. The uphill climb started out steep but as it became more gradual, I has able to take in the my surroundings. The loudest sounds I could hear were my own breathing and the shuffle of my feet amongst the leaves.
Not unlike other areas of the country, we had a lot of rain in January, too much really. Water was running off the mountain creating beautiful little waterfalls that could be heard well in advance of seeing them. None of the falls flowing across the trail caused a problem. Katie thought they were great fun.
Hiking was going well until we came upon this recently downed tree blocking the trail. It was too low to go under and even my 6’1″ husband’s feet could not touch the trail going over.
I walked down below the point that the trunk split into smaller branches. Slightly easier to cross but still challenging with two branch crossings on squishy ground. John watched me struggle through the mess and decided that over the main trunk worked better for him.
As we eased closer to the top, we became more aware of the chill. Traces of snow appeared around the base of trees and ice formations covered rock formations. Brrrrrr!
The trail ended at Panther Gap along a gravel forest service road. A turn to the right and quarter mile hike leads to South Old Mac Trail and a turn to the left leads to Lookout Tower Trail. John stopped for a snack while I walked down to the Panther Gap Rock House.
The hike back to the parking lot was downhill. This view provided a chance to see just how many trees were down in the area. Most of these are not recent and the park rangers do a great job of keeping the trail clear.
We stopped at the North Old Mac backcountry campsite to look at the view and check out the campsite. The site is small, maybe 2 tents and is not level at the tent areas. The view makes up for it.
We arrived back at the car and quickly turned on the heat and car seat heaters. We have gotten a little chilled on the way down. This 8.0 round trip hike (including Rock House detour and connector trail) with 1600′ elevation gain was a pleasant way to kick off our 2020 hiking season.