Distance: 4.95 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,230 ft.
Trailhead: Armes Gap
Features: Viewing tower, wildflowers
The final week of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge takes us to the very top of Frozen Head, and the observation tower that awaits at the summit.
The hiking challenge last visited Frozen Head — the peak, not the state park — in 2017, by way of Old Mac Mountain. This year, we’re foregoing the climb from the valley to the top of the mountain to make things less difficult. Instead, we’ll go in from S.R. 116 near Petros, by way of the Lookout Tower Trail East.
The hike to the top of Frozen Head from S.R. 116 is a 4.95-mile, out-and-back hike that features 1,230 feet of elevation gain. That’s the most elevation gain of any hike that has been a part of this hiking challenge; for perspective, the most elevation gain until now was Honey Creek Loop, which featured 1,023 feet of elevation gain.
But it’s not as difficult as it sounds, so don’t let the amount of elevation gain deter you from making this final hike. The views that await at the top are well worth the effort that you’ll put in to reach them.
Unlike the Old Mac trail — which is the other route to the summit, and is a traditional hiking trail up the mountainside — Lookout Tower Trail East is hiked entirely on a gravel-surface forest service road. That’s not a bad thing, though. The nature of the road — and the fact that it’s gated, meaning you aren’t going to encounter any motor vehicles — makes this seem much like a traditional trail through the forest.
To reach the starting point, take S.R. 116 north through the tiny community of Petros and past Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Just past Brushy Mountain, the road becomes windy and steep. That’s not a bad thing, either, because every foot of elevation that you gain in a vehicle is one less foot that you’ll have to gain as part of the hike.
At Armes Gap, which is at the top of the mountain on S.R. 116, there’s a small gravel parking lot that serves as a trailhead. The trailhead isn’t signed, but if you begin to drop over the mountain on S.R. 116, you’ve gone too far.
Hiking Frozen Head is different from hiking Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area or the Obed Wild & Scenic River — just as hiking the BSF or the Obed is different from hiking the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a different kind of hike. Hiking the BSF or Obed isn’t really the same as hiking the canyons out west, but it’s somewhat closer to that than it is to hiking the mountains, like the Smokies. It’s a different type of terrain, with different types of vegetation.
It’s not really fair to compare hiking in the Smokies to hiking in the BSF, because they’re so different. You can’t truly say that hiking in the Smokies is better than hiking in the BSF, or that hiking in the BSF is better than hiking in the Smokies. There’s too much variance between the two, and it becomes a matter of personal preference. But while the Cumberland Mountains pale in comparison to the Smokies in terms of their size, hiking at Frozen Head is much more similar to hiking in the Smokies than hiking in the BSF or Obed. That especially becomes true as you get higher into the mountains.
The Lookout Tower East trail is an outstanding hike, even in the summer months. It would be even more spectacular in the fall, when the autumn colors are at their peak. For birdwatchers, this trail would be exceptional, especially when hiked early in the morning.
From the trailhead, the hike to Frozen Head begins easy enough. In fact, as a first-time hiker on this particular trail, I was thinking, “This is easy!” The service road gently climbs the side of the mountain, with occasional views of S.R. 116 below.
After the first quarter of a mile, though, the route becomes somewhat steeper. It’s a gradual uphill climb the remainder of the way to the summit, with some sections of the trail steeper than others. Almost all of the 1,230 feet of elevation gain are accomplished on the way in. That makes it sound more difficult than it really is. For perspective, a trail in the Big South Fork that climbs the gorge from the river to the top of the plateau generally covers about 500 feet of elevation gain. But the section of trail that covers the climb from the gorge is typically about half a mile, so you’re climbing 500 feet in half a mile. On the route to Frozen Head, the 1,200 feet of elevation gain are spread out over almost two miles. At no point along the route is Lookout Tower Trail East as steep as some sections of Honey Creek Loop, or the climb along John Muir Trail to Devils Den above O&W Bridge, or the climb from Leatherwood to Angel Falls Overlook.
As a result, this hike is not the most difficult of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge. In fact, it generally earns a “moderate” rating on the difficulty scale. We’ve had several “strenuous” hikes on this challenge, including the hikes to Needle’s Eye, Maude’s Crack and Honey Creek.
What makes this hike a little more difficult than it would otherwise be is the fact that we’re completing it in late summer, when the heat and humidity are at their highest. This will be especially true if you’re completing the hike in the heat of the day — as I was. But if a fat, out-of-shape man (that’s me!) can do it, pretty much anyone can do it. If you aren’t wearing a bandana, pack a hand towel to keep the sweat from dripping into your eyes; you’ll appreciate it on the trail. Take plenty of water, and plan on taking several breaks along the way, and this trail isn’t bad at all.
With that said, I was watching the terrain differentials on my onX app and treating them like milestones as I made the climb. Through the oppressive humidity, my goal became to make it to the 2,800 foot elevation line, then the 2,900 foot line. The trailhead is located at about 2,100 feet; Frozen Head is located at nearly 3,300 feet.
I hadn’t traveled far when I began hearing thunder rumbling off to the west and knew I was in trouble. That was my own fault; the forecast was for an 80% chance of rain. It wasn’t a matter of if it would rain, but when and how much! I hoped the storm would dissipate as it hit the mountains and, sure enough, it did, reforming to the south. That’s not an uncommon occurrence in these mountains, but I knew I had a limited amount of time before the instability that was in place under the afternoon heat created another thunderstorm.
On one hand, I looked forward to a thunderstorm. Getting wet isn’t an unwelcome option when you’re already drenched with sweat. On the other hand, I wasn’t looking forward to being on top of a mountain with cloud-to-ground lightning and the potential for gusty winds and torrential downpours. Besides, we all know what garden-variety summer thunderstorms do in the south. Unless they’re accompanied by a frontal boundary that’s ushering in cooler air, they only serve to create a broiler when the sun pops back out afterwards. Anyone who has spent much time in Tennessee, or Georgia or Alabama or etc., knows that you can boil a lobster in the aftermath of a typical summer thunderstorm.
Sure enough, the skies grew progressively darker as I climbed, and a sudden lightning bolt near the top of the mountain caused the skies to turn loose. When those rain clouds are hovering with a load of moisture, it often takes only that quick burst of energy to serve as the catalyst for rain to begin to fall.
Soon, the rainfall had become a deluge. But I knew it wouldn’t last long.
At least, I thought it wouldn’t last long.
At least, I hoped it wouldn’t last long.
As the rain fell from my brow faster than I could wipe it away, I kept hearing the thunder roll back to the west. The storm was back-building, which wasn’t a good thing. Soon the trail had become a stream of rushing, muddy water that was making haste for New River far below.
At that point, I knew from the lay of the land that I was nearing the intersection with Old Mac, which also meant I was nearing the summit. I also knew from past experience that the final half-mile of the hike was the hardest part. The ascent to the summit at Frozen Head isn’t much steeper than the rest of the trail, but just enough to make it a little harder.
Thunderstorms hit differently in the mountains than in the valleys. When you’re driving down S.R. 62 in Wartburg and look up at Frozen Head, it’s usually enshrouded in mist and fog when there’s inclement weather occurring. When you’re standing on Frozen Head, you aren’t looking up at the fog; you’re standing in it. I’ve been in the forest in a lot of different types of weather, but the steep slopes of the summit at Frozen Head became as dark as any mid-afternoon forest I’ve ever been in. The mist danced about, driven by the thunderstorm winds, and seeme d to touch everything in sight. It was a little magical, a little mystical and even a little spooky.
It would’ve been easy to turn back, given the rate at which the rain was falling. After all, the whole point of hiking to the summit is to enjoy the views at the top, and there were going to be no views in the middle of this storm. But I was driven by stubbornness, and continued on to the top. I knew, though, that I wouldn’t be climbing the tower. Anyone who has graduated high school knows that lightning looks for the easiest conduit to the ground. Climbing a steel tower that rises more than 100 feet over a mountaintop? No thank you!
As I reached the top of the mountain, though, I knew I couldn’t stop without climbing to the platform. Visibility was less than a mile (on a clear day, you can see Watts Bar Lake, the towers at the TVA’s steam plant at Kingston, and parts of the cities of Harriman and Rockwood; it’s a spectacular view even on a hazy summer afternoon, and even better on a crisp, clear day in fall or winter), but I wanted to climb to the top nonetheless. Just as I was reaching the platform, a streak of lightning split the sky a ways down the mountain. That may have been the fastest I’ve ever descended a set of steps!
The good news about hiking to Frozen Head is that after all that climbing on the way in, it’s all downhill on the way out. In fact, the hike from the observation tower back to the trailhead is a cakewalk. And the strength of this summer thunderstorm meant that there would be no pressure-cooker feel to the atmosphere once it had cleared. The storm had matured quickly, reaching far enough into the skies and pulling down enough cold air to the surface that the atmosphere wouldn’t quickly recover, no matter how quickly the sun returned. The temperature had cooled into the 70s, partially because of the elevation height of Frozen Head, and partially because of the storm.
And as I headed back down from the peak, the rain stopped, the sun popped out — and I was happy to be soaked to the bone.
Getting There: From Oneida, take U.S. Hwy. 27 south to S.R. 62 in Wartburg. Continue south on S.R. 62, towards Oliver Springs/Oak Ridge, to S.R. 116. Turn left to take S.R. 116 north through the Petros community and past Brushy Mountain State Penitentary. At the top of the mountain, there is an unmarked trailhead on the left (west) side of the highway. The GPS coordinates of the parking area are 36.11641, -84.43929. If you start over the opposite side of the mountain, you’ve gone too far.
Fun Fact: The original “observation deck” at Frozen Head was a fire tower constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The entirety of Frozen Head State Forest burned in 1952, in what was said to be the worst wildfire season in Tennessee’s history.
Be Careful For: The steps leading up to the observation platform are very steep and can be slippery when wet.
Look For: Near the base of Frozen Head, you’ll find an old rock spring house marked “Tub Springs.” The spring house, and a nearby firepit, were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps nearly 80 years ago. The nearby Tub Springs Campsite — located on the Old Mac Trail — is one of five major backcountry campsites within Frozen Head State Forest. Also look for worn wild game trails on either side of the forest service road up and down the mountain. These are pig trails. Wild boar are common in these mountains, though you’re highly unlikely to see one.
Make it Better: Take a side path to Old Prison Mine. The mine is located four-tenths of a mile from the main trail. It is fenced off to visitors, but is the ruins of the Brushy Mountain State Prison coal mines that were mined by inmates. To make it even better, once you’re back to your vehicle, take S.R. 116 north instead of heading back south to S.R. 62 at Petros. You’ll wind down the mountain and through the old Devonia mining town. When you reach the New River Bridge at Ligias Fork, turn left onto New River Road and continue north to the Stoney Fork community. Then turn left again on Norma Road and drive back to S.R. 63 east of Huntsville by way of the Smokey Junction and Norma communities. It is an excellent sight-seeing trip that follows New River most of the way.
Share the Adventure: Tag your photos on Facebook and Instagram, #20WeekHikingChallenge, for an opportunity to win prizes (please be sure your post privacy is set to public in order to be eligible for a drawing.
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!