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.


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.

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.

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.