Frozen Head State Park: North Bird Mountain Trail

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness

On Bird Mountain Trail

Today was an opportunity to once again hike the most remote and challenging trail in Frozen Head State Park, but to do it one better.

Actually, it was a couple of times better. For one, it was an opportunity to hike with a good hiking friend, Ralph. As an added benefit, Ralph is a trained geologist, and he was able to share his expertise on some things I've wondered about while on my two previous hikes on North Bird Mountain Trail.

DateMonday, February 20, 2017
WeatherWarm, starting at about 50° F and quickly going to near 70.
Trail ConditionsLong, steep climbs and descents
Today's Miles10.5

We arrived at the park just before 9 a.m. and parked near the campground, which is closed this time of year. Our hike started with a walk of a couple tenths of a mile through the campground and then up Lookout Tower Trail, a jeep road through the park.

Bird Mountain Trail

Our first climb of the day began on the Bird Mountain Trail. This trail had numerous switchbacks but still gained elevation quickly. Briefly, we entered a layer of clouds, but it quickly lifted as we made our climb.

Bird Mountain Trail crested the ridgeline near a rock feature called Castle Rock, and that's where we picked up North Bird Mountain Trail.

This trail was originally called North Boundary Trail. It was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.

Park rangers stopped maintaining the trail in the 1970s, and it became overgrown.

With support from the park and the state in the early 2000s, volunteers began work to reopen the trail. It was then renamed the North Bird Mountain Trail.

Phillips Creek

The trail quickly began a long descent, zig-zagging all the way down. Maps provided by the park do not show elevation markings, and Ralph's GPS was providing wildly inaccurate information, so we didn't know how far the trail dropped.

It eventually bottomed out at Phillips Creek and we stopped there for lunch.

Distant view

The climb back up to the ridge line was farther than the descent but no less steep. This was mainly because the trail dropped in a few places, and we had to make up for lost elevation.

The sun began to come out as we made the climb. From a distance, we could see scars on other mountains from logging and mining.

Rock house

One thing noticeable to me on this hike was a rock house, located several feet below the trail. I didn't see the previous two times I hiked this trail.

Rock houses are common in this part of Tennessee, and several can be found north of here at Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

Also known as rock shelters, these geologic features are shallow, cave-like openings at the steep side of a mountain or bluff.

Ralph looks at fossil

After the trail took one of its dips down in elevation and made a couple of small stream crossings, we stopped to look at a rock. I remembered seeing in the previous two times I'd hiked here. I hoped we wouldn't miss it this time because of Ralph's background as a geologist.

As soon as he looked at it he immediately knew what it was.

lepidodendron fossil

The rock had a noticeable waffle pattern and had the appearance of the skin of a large reptile.

Ralph explained the rock was a fossilized imprint of a lepidodendron tree. It grew in great abundance in this area during the Carboniferous geologic period.

Fossils like this are often found near coal seams, which are plentiful in this part of Tennessee. Lepidodendron trees grew in marshes and swamps, which became ideal conditions for them to become pea. Over the course of hundreds of millions of years, geologic conditions put the peat under pressure, turning it into coal.

The scaly pattern of the lepidodendron trunk was mistaken by amateur geologists in the 19th century. They thought it was the fossils of giant lizards or snakes.

Continuing up the trail, we passed a sign identifying the location as Jury Ridge. The name might seem odd for this location unless you know what stands only a few miles from here. The former Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, which was closed in 2009, was just beyond the boundary of the state park. It was a notorious prison that housed inmates for 113 years.

The most famous resident of Brushy Mountain was James Earl Ray, the man accused of assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr.

Legacy tree

Farther up the trail, a large tree had a small, metal sign nailed to it.

Ralph looks at legacy tree

This area was heavily logged starting around 1911. Trees were removed without concern for the environmental impact until the state bought the land in the early 1930s. By then, these hills were nearly barren.

There was no explanation for why the tree was labeled as a legacy tree. I'm guessing it was one of the few trees that was left standing before logging operations ended.

At any rate, it seemed sad and inappropriate to nail a sign to an old tree like that. Still, it wasn't the worst injustice we found on the trail.

Thoreau sign

Ralph and I continued our climb past the legacy tree and around yet another switchback. Then we found a large, wooden sign. It wasn't a sign providing directions or identifying the location. It was simply a sign quoting Henry David Thoreau.

I'm certain Thoreau would be horrified to see this sign.

First, why is this sign here, in the most remote part of the park? It serves no use, other than perhaps to provide a bit of inspiration or reflection. Yet inspiration and reflection are hardly lacking for most hikers passing along this way.

I found the sign to be an intrusion into nature, not an enhancement.

Worst of all, though, the quotation isn't even accurate. Thoreau wrote these words in an essay printed a month after his death in 1862, except he said "wildness", not "wilderness".

I found the whole thing disturbing.

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.


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