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Frozen Head State Park

Location: Wartburg, Tenn.

Acreage: 24,000 acres.

Activities: Hiking, camping, birdwatching, exploring.


Frozen Head State Park may be one of the least-known state parks in the State of Tennessee. It might also be the most beautiful state park in the State of Tennessee, which makes it severely underrated. But it’s not underrated among seasoned backpackers, who consider it a top-of-the-list destination. The state park and the surrounding state forest encompass the very best scenery of the Cumberland Mountains.


At one point, the Cumberland Plateau was made up of densely-forested, unspoiled mountain vistas. Beginning in the late 19th century, the mining companies and logging companies laid waste to many of these scenic areas, often changing them forever.

But within the confines of Frozen Head State Forest exists more than 24,000 acres of mountain splendor that looks as though logging and mining crews never stepped foot there. They did, of course, but Frozen Head was largely shielded from the most impactful practices of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Cherokee ceded control of Frozen Head to the United States government in 1805, when the Third Treaty of Tellico was signed. The first white settlers arrived soon after, settling in the fertile bottomlands along the Emory River to the north, and eventually expanding into Wartburg to the west.

In 1894, the state purchased the Frozen Head area for the construction of Brushy Mountain State Prison. The plan was to use convict labor to mine the coal and harvest the timber from the surrounding mountains. That didn’t pan out. While the prison was built, and some inmate mining took place, the Emory River Lumber Company purchased much of the land and began serious logging operations in 1925.

In 1933, Gov. Hill McAlister established the Morgan State Forest. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed roads and facilities for maintaining the forest, and a CCC camp was established in 1938.

Much of the forest burned in a forest fire in 1952. In 1970, the land was transferred from the Dept. of Forestry to the state’s parks divisions for the establishment of a state park. In 1988, all but about 330 acres of the 24,000 acres were classified as a state natural area. 

It is along those 330 acres, located in the bottomland where Flat Fork and Judge Branch meet, that development took place. That development included a 20-site campground, a group campsite, an amphitheater, picnic areas, playgrounds and sport fields, and other facilities.

Surrounding the state park are more than 50 miles of hiking trails and 10 established backcountry campsites. Along these trails several abandoned prison mines can be found, along with a CCC dynamite shack along South Old Mac Mountain Trail. There are other CCC facilities as well, including a spring near the summit of Frozen Head.

Frozen Head is named for the fact that it’s often capped in snow during the winter months. It is one of 14 peaks above 3,000 ft. within the natural area. Together, they represent Tennessee’s highest mountain peaks west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

In 2006, the original CCC fire tower at the summit of Frozen Head was replaced with an observation deck.

Mountain splendor

The mountain from which this state park draws its namesake is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the region. Frozen Head stands at an impressive 3,324 ft. and the weather at the top is often different from the weather in the valley below. 

These mountains are magnificent, which is why backpacking is such a prominent activity. There are several trailheads, many of them located within the state park, although there’s also the Armes Gap trailhead off S.R. 62 to the south, near the old Brushy Mountain prison.

Most of the trails lead to Frozen Head. From the observation platform at the summit, you can see the Great Smoky Mountains, Walden’s Ridge (where the Cumberland Plateau meets the Great Tennessee Valley), the TVA’s Buffalo Mountain wind farm, the smoke stacks at TVA’s Kingston steam plant, and much more. You can also see many of the surrounding mountain peaks, like Chimney Top Mountain, Bird Mountain, Old Mac Mountain and Mart Fields.

The hiking trails also lead to a couple of waterfalls: Emory Gap Falls and DeBord Falls.

Frozen Head is also home to the Cumberland Trail. A section of the trail traverses the south slope of Bird Mountain and will eventually stretch 20 miles, connecting the Smoky Mountain segment of the trail to the Obed River segment.

Frozen Head is also home to the Barkley Marathons, an ultramarathon event that has been held annually since 1984. Through the years, only 15 competitors have ever finished the race, which requires running 100 miles in under 60 hours.

Ben Garrett
Ben Garretthttp://gocumberlands.com
Ben Garrett is publisher of Go Cumberlands. He lives in Oneida, Tennessee with his wife, three kids and dog, Boone.

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