Frozen Head: North Old Mac and Spicewood trails


Old, metal, standing in the middle of a mountain which makes it seem taller, all of that ready to make anyone afraid of heights even a little nervous. But it’s one of the best if not the best view Frozen Head State Park  has to offer.

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People call it the “fire tower” although its really an observation deck that replaced an old one about a decade ago.

Not much to look at but a lot to look from.

The grayish shapes of mountains all around give a sense of just how amazing the Cumberlands can be and just how much “plateau” might seem a bad name for hills that do stretch on in places but at times jump up and down like a rounded roller-coster track getting bluish and hazy into the distance on all sides, even stretching into a view of the far more famous Great Smokies. It’s one of the few places you can see all around you. I look forward to seeing it again throughout the year.
There are many ways to the fire tower.
November in the Cumberlands which is when I visited is what some people might call drab. No icicles, the colored leaves only on a few of the trees, few evergreen plants at least on these trails. But the glory is the ability to see not just at overlooks but also glimpses through the trees, both of what’s further up and also what’s below. Now in March you can still see those kind of glimpses.

My sister Jessie at an overlook before the big one. Photo courtesy of Judith Roitman.

Just to give you a good general map including the distances of what I’ll describe next, here’s one. The trails all have at least some connection to them, so if you get lost missed your route, it’s good to know the closest route to your destination may not involve backtracking.
Of course, I your intrepid guide never get lost. Except this time and plenty of other times. But I’ll get around to getting lost when it happened.
I left with Yvonne, Mom, Dad, my sister Jessie and my dog Zeke on Black Friday.
All the routes, or at least most of the obvious ones, to the firetower begin at the old mac trailhead, near a picnic area complemented by a playground (complete with plastic drums) and a small pond.
From there begins the Old Mac trail with the North Old Mac trail splitting off to the right. That was the route we took. Like any mountain hike it’s not exactly for beginners although it’s not the worst mountain on earth in terms of difficulty either. We then turned right on Lookout Tower Trail and continued on to the tower itself.

I did get separated from the others and lost on the way back, accidentally ending up on Chimney Top Trail but was able to consult my phone in an odd spot of reception and head back down in the dim light on Spicewood Trail, then a small piece of the Judge Branch Trail back to to the entrance trail and the picnic area and playground. In general, making a loop gives the route some variety anyway. The total route is about 8.3 miles.


Little Ponderosa Zoo

Jack, a kangaroo at the Little Ponderosa Zoo and Rescue.  Photo by Yvonne Rogers

I wish I had some better reason to tell you about Little Ponderosa Zoo and Rescue. But no, I was there, petting animals, taking pictures, looking at zebus and zonkeys and getting spit on by a camel because of a memorial service for animals lost in a fire. I was there at my day job reporting for The Oak Ridger. The zoo’s founder, James Cox told me and other reporters the zoo would not open until spring. But if you want a small zoo with animals you can pet and feed, the place is superb and one of Clinton, Tennessee’s more unusual attractions. Don’t expect it to be big like the Knoxville Zoo, but it is fun.



Bald River Falls in Winter

IMG_0321.JPGI could never create this. I could never make this up.

IMG_0316This is Bald Creek Falls in Cherokee National Forest transformed into glorious columns of ice with a few streams of water still left to remind us of what the falls had once been.

IMG_0318.JPGIt drew crowds, forcing us to walk up the road. After all, we’re Tennesseeans. Ice is a novelty to us.


But the frozen falls was glorious, and so was the trail nearby. Stay tuned. More wintry photos of Cherokee National Forest. are on the way.

Frost flowers aren’t litter


An ice flower in Loudon, Tennessee. This and other photo by Yvonne Rogers, the best girlfriend ever and not bad at photography either.

White clumps decorate the basses of blades of dried grass. Sometimes I passed them wondering if they were trash.
They’re not. They’re one of nature’s glorious temporary sculptures.
The weather channel calls them “rare and ellusive” in spite of just how many I’ve seen this winter near my Loudon Home. Delicate, spiraling, often with the texture of cotton candy but made of stringy ice. The water from the stems of plans leaks out, then freezes. If you’re in Tennessee or nearby right now, look for them.

North of Atlanta

When I travel, my love is for exploring. So when asked to come down to Atlanta’s northern suburbs, without a plan, but with my girlfriend Yvonne,  I figured, sure why not?

Now there’s some options more in keeping with what most of this blog will be. I’d wanted to kayak on the Chattahoochie River, but given it was raining, we did indoor stuff.

Travel can be about things that to a local may seem mundane. H-Mart a franchise of big box Asian stores, focusing on Korean and other East-Asian grocery products, about as mundane in some places as Target is for an East Tennessean, but for us, it was new and therefore, worth a trip. We don’t have it in Knoxville.

In the evening we stopped by Cafe 290, a jazz, funk and R&B club, and what for our region (Knoxville area) would be an elaborate seafood restaurant for a bar of its size. I’ll admit I can’t really judge Atlanta by its own standards.

The music varies a bit by night, but I can say the local performers the night we showed up were talented and the service and food were superb. It was set up more as a listening venue than a dancing venue, but we danced anyway, because we dance anywhere, including Starbucks. And no one stopped us.

Ramsey Cascades

Imagine the spray of Ramsey Cascades on your face, hot from hiking in the summer. Imagine the water hitting the dark rocks in the tallest waterfall Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer before falling into a pool and a creek flowing down below.

I hope you did a good job imagining that. Because I don’t have a single photograph of it from my trip August 6 this year.

A combination of wanting to shoot videos along the way, which still need editing, and my phone GPS draining itself led me to have my phone completely dead by the time I got there. Sorry. There’s probably far more professional shots of it you can look at. Like the ones on this page. But as with anything else, it’s nothing like being there anyway.

Ramsey Cascades
Okay, so this is breaking with my original joke but here’s a public domain image from the National Park Service. Still a pale imitation of being there.

The waterfall is the highest waterfall accessible by trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While it’s not the tallest in East Tennessee (Fall Creek Falls) and especially not the United States (a quick web search shows that to be disputed but probably in Hawaii), it doesn’t matter what records it sets or doesn’t set when sitting in front of it. Watching, listening, and feeling the waterfall was worth the thirsty August walk.

I bring this up because I sometimes see people from out west, especially the Pacific Northwest put down what feels to me like the grandeur of our little-old-grandmother-rounded mountains in favor of bigger ones with sometimes bigger landmarks. Someone in the comments on another website describing Ramsey Cascade posted a waterfall in Oregon, as if to say “Mine is bigger!” Such Freudian waterfall idiocy isn’t the game I’m playing here. Nor should it be your game.

This is where I am: Tennessee. I’m here to explore the wonders of my state before gathering up the time and money to go to other ones. And Ramsey Cascade is one of them. I encourage anyone else to do the same. Maybe the Great Smoky Mountains aren’t your park. Maybe they are. They are, however, themselves.

The route to Ramsey Cascades is not the hardest in the Smokies. However, to out of shape people such as me, the near constant uphill route to the falls made my feet feel tired the next day. It’s eight miles round trip, mostly uphill on the way back.

The trail follows and crosses various streams and heads through an old-growth forest with tall trees untouched by saws.

The area below the falls is more a wading spot than a swimming spot, although there appeared to be a deeper pool just below that, earlier on the trail. In general, though, I still recommend it as a summer hike because the cool heavenly-feeling mist from the falls is the best thing on a hot, sweating face. Granted, as winter rolls in, it will look spectacular frozen, as shown here.

While a decent crowd showed up the day I hiked, many of them connected to the Great Smoky Mountains Hiking and Adventure Group, Ramsey Cascades thrives because of its reputation, not its location. The location isn’t out of the way per se, but the first time I tried to head here, I thought I’d made a wrong turn.

The Greenbriar entrance is accessible from a road on Gatlinburg’s outskirts, as described in many of the links above. The entrance from Gatlinburg, however, is not obvious. It’s gravel, as is the parking area, which is unusual for main entrances to the park, resembling a driveway. The gravel road isn’t in too bad of shape though; it’s driveable with my secondhand 2009 Prius bought from my mother, so most people shouldn’t have any problem.


Eclipse near the Devil’s Step

Eclipse glasses
Yvonne Rogers, my other half, puts on her glasses to view the eclipse at Head of Sequachie.

I’m jealous of the eclipse. Why does it have to grab all the attention? Why? Did the moon spend years of its life writing a book called Wildly Strolling Along about the wonders of the Cumberland Trail State Park and the touching bonding experiences between an adult son and his amazing botanist father? Did the sun? Didn’t think so.


The sun wasn’t a blinding circle. For a moment, a black circle stood in its place, surrounded by white glowing loops, plasma in magnetic fields. For those few glasses-off minutes, the sky was a dim blue, neither day nor night. I was happy to be a rare member of the generation that saw it.

And in a few hours, I would feel jealous of that natural phenomenon, the total eclipse of the sun.

I was scheduled to speak at 3 p.m. The eclipse was at 1 p.m. While plenty of earlier events at Head of Sequachie got decent crowds, the ones afterwards? Not so much.

I remember standing there, looking at all these crowds, before the eclipse thinking: This has to be my big break. Who knows? Maybe they were here to see me. This was my chance.

Nope. It was the eclipse. Only a once in a lifetime event. Only the great dance of the Cosmos. Woop-de-do. I had a book! And a slideshow about the Cumberland Trail! Isn’t that more amazing?

Only five people came to my talk and only one person bought my book, Wildly Strolling Along. Which is an excellent work, but apparently did not grab any attention. I also had my books at the Cumberland Trails Conference table, but only one person bought one.
I don’t have any pictures of the eclipse. Why would I? So many people could do it better. But my day at Head of Sequachie was more than just those couple of minutes. The area is only open on a few days of the year.

The head of the Sequachie River.

The area is, as its name implies at the head of the Sequachie River, as it leaves the ground in a channel that at one point was connected to a now nonexistent mill according to one of the rangers present, although the present walls along the channel are not the original ones.

On such a hot day it’s cool water was refreshing. I waded among children with their state park-service provided nets. They pulled in sculpins, crawdads and even a young, harmless water snake.

As a side note, crawdad is the scientifically accurate name. They are not craw or cray fish because they are not fish. They’re crustaceans. Happy to settle that debate.

A short trail, marked by bird glyph designs, leads to what signs stated was a sacred cave to the area’s ancient and modern indigenous peoples. The area is known as Devilstep Hollow Cave a name that seems like an insult to native beliefs, but one that seems pretty widespread, so I’m using it. The cave has various ancient carvings in its walls and drawings in charcoal and mud, none of it visible to the public. And that’s for the best, because no one really needs “Bob was here” or something more obscene next to some old, sacred carvings. But when the area’s open, you can still see the entrance, deep in a sinkhole.

Devilstep Hollow Cave
Devilstep Hollow Cave.

I hiked the trail twice, once with my mom, dad (who presented with me later) and girlfriend, and then as part of an interpretive trip with a ranger. While it was supposed to be a birding trip, we only spotted a distant vulture and a small hummingbird. A dung beetle grabbed the children’s attention, however. The area also had various summer wildflowers.

Various other presenters had tents in the area as well. People shot arrows, made arrowheads, played old time music and engaged children in crafts.

Animal skins
A beaver skin at center at the TWRA demonstration tent during the eclipse event.

I’ve just scraped the surface of history both human and natural of this area which is near Crossville. But I’ll be happy to return, with or without an eclipse. And the sun and moon can know I’ll get over my jealousy.  Some time.