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

Several seasons with their treasons

Stream feeding into Judge Branch

When I hiked in Frozen Head State Park two weeks ago, the temperature was in the mid-30s and it was snowing. That is the kind of weather you might expect to find in winter.

When I hiked there again 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

Moderate weather like that won't help me get acclimated to bitterly cold conditions in the Smokies during my thru-hike. I hope nature isn't laying a trap for me.

I wanted to get in another training hike before my upcoming thru-hike attempt. But because of a busy schedule, including other activities in preparation for the hike, I decided to make it an abbreviated trip.

Judge Branch Trail

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 branch and connecting with South Old Mac Trail.

Confusing signs

At the junction of Judge Branch and Spicewood trails are two signs, which are confusing and possibly inaccurate. You might assume the one that says "Judge Branch Trail, 1.7 miles" means you will reach that trail in 1.7 miles. Similarly, the other implies the Spicewood Trail is 2.5 miles ahead.

That's not how these signs work. They mark the beginning of those two trails, which split at this point. From here, the Judge Branch Trail continues for another 1.7 miles, and the Spicewood Trail is 2.5 miles long.

This kind of mile-marking is the opposite of how most signs are marked, including others in this park.

Additionally, that mileage may or may not be accurate. The park's official trail map says Judge Branch Trail is 1.2 miles long, 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. I didn't try to measure it with a GPS.

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 park's map had other inaccuracies, such as where the Judge Branch campsite was marked.

Stream crossing

The Judge Branch Trail followed the stream until it made a bend and descended some stone steps down to the stream.

Judge Branch

There wasn't an obvious place to cross Judge Branch here, however. The water was at a normal level, though, and there were options for hopping across without getting my feet wet.

Trail doubles back

After crossing the stream, the trail doubled back to follow it downstream a short distance, then turned to climb toward South Old Mac Trail.

Steps near stream

For hikers coming from South Old Mac down to the stream, it may be possible to miss where the trail turns to follow the stream. A set of stone steps on the left would be easy to not see the turn if you are expecting instead to cross the stream there. There are no signs pointing the correct direction.

I've been on this trail before and have seen hikers get confused by that.

Steep climb

After turning away from the stream, the trail made an extremely steep but short climb. Other than that, the ascent to the junction with South Old Mac Trail was not difficult.

Trail junction

At the trail junction of South Old Mac Trail, I could have turned left and headed back down to the parking lot. Instead, I turned right to continue the climb.


South Old Mac is one of the most popular trails in the park, so it is well-worn. Roots and rocks were occasional hazards for me in this section.

In the summer, the trail adds to the fun with a bountiful offering of poison ivy. As the weather warmed today, I was almost surprised to not see poison ivy sprouting along the side of the trail.

Trail sign

At the junction with the Tower Lookout Trail, there was another sign with information that may be confusing. It said the park office is 2.75 miles away. That may be accurate, but it's likely that most hikers are not interested in going to the park office. Instead, they are probably wanting to return to the parking lot at the picnic area, which is a shorter distance.

Lookout Tower Trail

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

Sign at North Old Mac Trail

After a couple tenths of a mile down the Lookout Tower Trail, I reached the junction with North Old Mac Trail. A sign there also contained an inaccuracy. It said the fire tower was .25 miles away but is really a half-mile more than that.

Though it's hard to see in my photo, someone scratched into the sign the actual distance, .75 miles.

Sun filtered through the trees

North Old Mac continued down the other side of the same mountain that South Old Mac went up. The footpath was longer and slightly less steep.

There were a few times during my hike down North Old Mac when 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 77º F. That was a record for the day.

On the last leg of this hike while heading to the parking lot, I met a young man and his father. They told me they were also 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


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