Frozen Head State Park: Judge Branch, South Old Mac and North Old Mac Loop

Several seasons with their treasons

Two weeks ago, when I last hiked here in Frozen Head, the temperature was in the mid-30s and it was snowing. That is the kind of weather you might expect to find in winter.

Today the temperature started this morning in the mid-60s and climbed to near 70.

DateMonday, February 13, 2017
WeatherUnseasonably balmy, with the temperature reaching near 70; rain was in the forecast but never materialized
Trail ConditionsDamp, occasionally muddy
Today's Miles7.2

How is a person who is expecting to hike in the Smokies in March supposed to get acclimated to bitter cold when the conditions are such as these? It's as if nature is laying a trap for when an arctic blast moves in.

Or rather, it's nature's trap, aided by man's foolish unwillingness to confront the realities of activities that contribute to a warming planet.

But I digress.

Today's hike was another training hike in preparation for my upcoming attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Because of a busy schedule, including other activities involved in preparing for the hike, I decided to make today's trip abbreviated.

I elected to begin by hiking the Judge Branch Trail, which starts out flat and easy. It follows Judge Branch about a mile before crossing the stream and connecting with South Old Mac Trail.

At the junction of Judge Branch and Spicewood trails are two signs, which are confusing and possibly inaccurate. By reading them, one might assume Judge Branch Trail is 1.7 miles ahead and Spicewood Trail is 2.5 miles ahead. Rather, when you reach those signs you are at the beginning of those two trails and they continue from that point for the distance indicated. This kind of mile marking is the opposite of other signs in the park, which indicate how far it is to a specific destination.

Like some other signs in the park, the Judge Branch Trail sign may or may not be accurate. According to the park's official trail map, the trail is 1.2 miles, not 1.7 miles. I am inclined to think 1.7 miles is more accurate, based on the amount of time it took to walk it.

Because of these discrepancies, I'm only guessing that my hike today was 7.2 miles. Perhaps someday I'll bring a GPS here to check the distances.

The map has is other inaccuracies, such as where the Judge Branch campsite is marked on the wrong side of the trail. Although I know of some signs that are definitely wrong,

After continuing on Judge Branch Trail I reached where the trail descends some stone steps down to the stream.

There isn't an obvious place to cross Judge Branch here, but if the water is at normal levels there are options that allow you to hop across without getting your feet wet.

After crossing the stream, the trail doubles back in the downstream direction before turning up toward South Old Mac Trail.

For hikers coming from South Old Mac down to the stream there is a point where it may be easy to miss where the trail turns to follow the stream. A set of stone steps on the left are easy to miss if you are expecting instead to cross the stream here.

After turning away from the stream the trail has one short section that is extremely steep. Other than that, the ascent to the junction with South Old Mac Trail is not difficult.

At the trail junction hikers make a switchback to continue ascending on South Old Mac.

South Old Mac is one of the most popular trails in the park, so it is well-worn. Roots and rocks are occasional hazards. In the summer, the trail adds to the fun with a bountiful offering of poison ivy.

As warm as it got today, I'm almost surprised I didn't see poison ivy sprouting up along the side of the trail.

Another sign is posted at the next trail, again with information that may be confusing to the hiker. It says the park office is 2.75 miles away, which may be accurate, but it's likely that most hikers are not interested in going to the park office. Instead, hikers are probably going to the parking lot at the picnic area, which is a shorter distance.

To continue with the loop, I headed down the Tower Lookout Trail, which is really an old service road that loops for nearly 7 miles around the park.

After a couple tenths of a mile down the Lookout Tower Trail, the junction to North Old Mac Trail is found. This sign also contains an inaccuracy. It says the fire tower is .25 miles away, but is really another .5 miles past that point. Though it's hard to see in this photo, someone has scratched into the sign the actual distance, .75 miles.

North Old Mac continues down the other side of the same mountain as South Old Mac, but at a longer and slightly less steep pace.

There were a few times during my hike down North Old Mac that the sun attempted to break through the clouds.

Although I don't believe the temperature reached above 70 here in the park, in Knoxville the temperature today was reported at 77 degrees Fahrenheit, a record for this day.

On the last leg of this hike, as I headed to the parking lot, I met a young man and his father. They said they were doing the same thing as I was today: training for an attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

They intend to start from Mount Katahdin on June 29 and head south.

I regret that I failed to ask them their names, but perhaps I can do that later this year if we should happen to cross paths.

Speeding arrow, sharp and narrow,
What a lot of fleeting matters you have spurned
Several seasons with their treasons
Wrap the babe in scarlet covers call it your own

From "St. Stephen" by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead)


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.