Chasing waterfalls at Frozen Head State Park

Falling water calls to us, but why? Or rather why does it call to me, specifically?

A cascade after rain, crossing paths with Panther Branch Trail.

Yvonne stood there, commenting on the cascade. On the layers of rock. On how it reminded her of an artificial one that stood in an art museum.


“It’s great hiking with an art critic,” I responded. At least she had the words to describe it.

I stood there recording her, unclear on what I could say. Waterfalls are wordless. Streams are wordless. Trees are wordless. The insides of flowers are wordless. Mountains are wordless.

And here I go prattling on about wordlessness using words. I go out into nature to escape the things I blather on about. And then come back, trying to put words to it, failing.

After rain and in cool enough weather, our route at Frozen Head State Park was a celebration of water as it crashed over rocks, fell from heights and muddied our shoes as we crossed streams in our way. People like waterfalls for their momentum, sound, movement, even small ones. The reason we find them objects of beauty varies, I suppose, but for me, it’s all about the constant movement. Stillness isn’t the goal for me in nature, even if it is for some others. Movement, sound, change, all these are. Wild yet steady. Explosive yet constant. Does it symbolize anything? Does it really need to?

So after all that stream of consciousness about streams, here’s some of the basics of where we were and what we did.

Our goal was seeing Emory Gap Falls and DeBoard Falls. The recent rain meant they would not be just trickles but places worth visiting, even if they aren’t among the area’s largest. Wanderlust gets the better of us and after many days of fussing around with unloading boxes at our new Oak Ridge apartment, we figured we needed an escape.

Deboard Falls


Here is a map of Frozen Head State Park, so you can see all of its many routes.

Rather than take the short way, we took the long way, starting out at the Old Mac Trailhead and hiking up the North Old Mac Trail through a forest of leafless gray and brown bark, but with glimpses of the hills beyond us. The green of mountain laurels and the red of acorns splitting open stood out more. It was just the start of spring. Small white flowers had started to open and we saw more as we went along. Yes “small white flowers.” My “kickass botanist” father would be ashamed of me for writing that, but it’s better than getting them wrong, since he wasn’t with me.

Dad later helped me by identifying this one as a blood root. That was my original guess anyway.

In general, the North Old Mac route has many bridge-less stream crossings after rain, crossing water that cascades down the hill. After passing a campsite, we headed down Panther Branch Trail which has even more of that, some of it a bit eroded as far as the trail went, so be careful, but enjoy. One of these cascades is the one above. It wasn’t even what people call a conventionally impressive waterfall. It was just water rolling over rocks for a great length. As a note, this cascade may not be as impressive on most days as it is after rain. It might not even be there at all in dry periods.

We then headed on the .5 mile Emory Gap Trail, toward Emory Gap Falls, which free falls from a rock ledge before continuing to fall in a stream over rocks. The area is a rocky neighborhood of boulders, outcrops and overhangs.

Emory Gap Falls

After hiking back that .5 miles and hiking an additional .75 miles the trail reaches Deboard Falls, another waterfall which crashes down white from an overhanging ledge, this one appearing to have more water and even falling to a shallow pool. Stairs lead down to the bottom of this one.

Deboard Falls., from another angle.

“You made it sound like this was barely more than a greenway! That there wasn’t much to see!” Yvonne said in mock-anger. True, I had said these falls were not as big as Bald River Falls in terms of sheer volume. But Bald River Falls in Cherokee, being right by a parking lot, can be pretty crowded. It doesn’t have the romance of being alone, kissing and holding the one you love while hearing the water crash down.

Please note: I do not guarantee hikers will be alone here. It may have just been the late time we were there. Don’t sue me if it’s crowded, please!

A much smaller waterfall, nameless and not on the park map greeted us before we finally made it back to the trail head. After crossing a bridge, we walked back along the road, taking the park road back to our car, passing tents, picnic areas and playgrounds and chatting about plans for future camping trips. The park, especially these playgrounds has a great nostalgia factor for me, even if the current playgrounds replaced older ones in their places. As a child we came here often. And I look forward to many more trips here.


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.

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.

Cades Cove

Meadow in Cade’s Cove

With its fields surrounded by mountains, its trails, both very long and very short, its campground, its old buildings, including cemeteries, its bike shop and its sometimes wildlife, Cade’s Cove has lots going for it. It’s one of the few places with the kind of open scenery people crave, apart from the mountain tops.

What it doesn’t have is solitude.

Visitors to Cade’s Cove should expect crowds and traffic, even if my pictures don’t show it. Moving slow through a field amid mountains isn’t the worst thing on Earth though. Far from it. It’s actually amazing.  But people who want to get away from traffic jams and crowds? You’ve got the wrong place. Cade’s Cove isn’t an escape from other people, at least not in summer. It’s kind of like rush hour in Los Angeles, if Los Angeles was a field surrounded by lovely rounded mountains.

But that’s just it. Being stuck in beautiful scenery is glorious, at least to me. I may have just lost my Great Smoky Mountains hipster cred for loving a place that’s so well-traveled, but I still love it. There’s a part of me with restless legs that gets tired of being stuck in a car. But given how great my last trip there was in terms of scenery wildlife and just general beauty, I’m happy I went.

The area’s roads connect to many trails, some longer, some just short paths near cabins. As I was traveling with less long-walk inclined folks, my last trip there stuck entirely to the former.

Here are a few highlights of my last trip earlier this year. It’s not everything to see there, but I can always go back.

I will warn you the wildlife photos from the trip may not be the best. I’m the sort of person who will give wildlife a proper respectful distance. Unless it’s frogs. So just imagine what bear and turkeys look like. You probably know what bears and turkeys are.

These distant birds are turkeys. Take my word for it. We saw them in May, and I’ve seen them on other trips in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberlands.
John Oliver Cabin

Above is the John Oliver cabin, no relation to the HBO comedian. John Oliver fought in the war of 1812, arrived in 1818 with the present cabin finished in 1820. The 1.4 mile fairly-level trail to this point is just the start of a far more foot-busting 8.5 mile hike, the 8.5 mile Rich Mountain Loop.


As a short little stroll, the John Oliver Cabin route has much to recommend it, with an alternate route in the shade, shown below, and a route through a field, offering views of the surrounding mountains as in the first image on this blog.

Shaded route
The shaded route to the John Oliver cabin.

The meadow was, in May, also a good place to spot butterflies.

Back in the car, we drove to Cade’s Cove Primitive Baptist Church, where John Oliver is buried. It’s on a bit of a side road.  We happened on good luck there, however, in that a bear was nearby.

Black bears often stop traffic in the Smokies in what are called “bear jams,” and this one was no exception. They’re the kind of cute, furry creatures that attract the kind of idiots who think they’re harmless and want to take selfies really close to them. Fortunately for me, I’m not one of those people. I prefer not to be torn to bloody bits. Unfortunately for you, that means you’ll have to make do with this mysterious shadow bear rather than something brighter. If you don’t know what a black bear looks like there’s always Google.

Black bear
This is a bear. Take my word for it.

Cade’s Cove is not a zoo. Animals don’t just show up to entertain you. So I suggest relaxing. You may see a bear. You may not. You may get a good picture. You may not. Enjoy what you see. Don’t expect it, and it may come.

Primitive Baptist Church

I do not mean “Primitive” here as an insult. There are many kinds of Baptists and Primitive just means they consider themselves the original ones in their denomination as opposed to Missionary Baptists.
I appreciate Oliver’s grave’s honesty about John Oliver’s role and not ignoring the people who were in the area before him. It lists him as the “First permanent, white settler in the area, italics mine. Cemeteries like the one here make it clear how early people died back in those days too.
Here are some other cabins, barns and structures we saw while in Cade’s Cove.

Big Ridge State Park


Big Ridge State Park

They hopped on the forest floor as I climbed to the Loysdon Overlook. Small shapes like crickets or beetles, just as easily ignorable.

And yet something inspired m e to pick it up. And then I saw it: A frog!

Heart, brain, organs bones, all in such a tiny fingernail sized package. Why do we need to sprawl into big bodies anyway? Certainly not ones my absurdly gross size. All the forms of backboned animals: endless variations on a theme. Eyes, feet, heart yet each twisted in a shape suiting a particular purpose.

Fragility. I could crush the little fellow. I videoed him stammering around, trying to say something worthwhile. I couldn’t even guess the species. The frogs I know are larger. Did that matter to it? Does its little mind even know it is a species?

I wished I knew how to sex frogs. That came out wrong. I wish I knew how to judge a frog’s sex. “It” always feels like an insult to a living being. If only “they” could catch on.

Golden light flooded through trees like something that floods through trees as I climbed. A sign told me Norris Lake had covered the Town of Loysdon, reducing it to the Loysdon Sea as some nickname it. Green leaves everywhere blocked the view, preventing it from being a panorama rather than just a view through leaves. Also it prevented the hike from being worth recommending at this time of the year. But I still enjoyed coming.

There was something satisfying about Big Ridge State Park, beyond just coming eye to eye with the tiny frog. Even though it should not have been satisfying. The boat rental with all its pedaled and paddled crafts sat closed.

I did not take even a moment to swim at the inviting area with a raft that still was open or even to eat at any of the picnic spots. The trail, strewn with logs led to nothing but an overlook crowded by leaves. I did not pitch a tent at any campsite nor did I stay at any of the cabins I walked past.

So what was it that satisfied me? Simply this: newness. I had not seen these woods or this lake since a very small age when Dad remembered me failing to be impressed at an osprey grabbing a fish.

I get restless. I want to go somewhere if only for two hours. I want to drive through the countryside, past where gas stations no longer have card scanners and their numbers flip manually, not digitally, then find a place like Big Ridge State Park. It really strikes me after being stuck in the same office all day, how amazing being in a new place is.

It was near the summer solstice. That really made the difference.

Things to do at Big Ridge

Loysdon Point is 0.9 miles from a trailhead near a playground. The area has many other trails, some of which are

Even if you don’t want to rent a boat at Big Ridge, you can launch your private one from a boat ramp near the park’s entrance.

I later returned to go swimming there, the first time my girlfriend and I got to go swimming.

The park has a variety of depths for swimming and even a raft. Out of all the lake swimming areas, in East Tennessee, it’s one of the best with plenty of room for families to mess about. The one thing it’s lacking is a long dry sandy beach, like at some of the areas on Melton Hill Lake.

When we were there a wedding was in progress and rangers were announcing water balloons ready for the children to throw.

Barred Owl and Bike at Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness

Here is my recent article “Urban Wilderness draws hikers, runners, cyclists” about my the Knoxville Urban Wilderness, particularly the Ross Quarry area. While the article does contain some great pictures by me, here are a few more. All photos here are by me.

The owl that I mentioned in the News Sentinel piece linked above was a barred owl.

Barred owl seen at Ijams Nature Center.
Barred owl seen at Ijams on Imerys Trail.

When barred owls are young they can climb trees using their talons and beak. They don’t migrate and in general, stay in the same place. For more about them, check out Cornell’s page on them.
Also, here’s a video of a cyclist Alex riding the Flow Trail.