Frozen Head State Park: North Bird Mountain Trail

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

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 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 to 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 degrees 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 couple tenths of mile walking through the campground and up Lookout Tower Trail, which is a jeep road through the park.

At Bird Mountain Trail we began our first climb of the day. The trail has numerous switchbacks, but still gains elevation quickly. For a brief time we entered a layer of clouds, but as the day wore on it quickly burned off.

Bird Mountain Trail crests 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, and was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.

In the 1970s park rangers stopped maintaining the trail 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.

The trail quickly begins a long descent, zig-zagging as it goes. Maps provided by the park do not show elevation markings, and Ralph's GPS was providing wildly inaccurate information, so we don't know how far the trail drops, but eventually it bottoms out at Phillips Creek. We stopped here for lunch.

The climb back up to the ridge line is longer, but no less steep, mainly because the trail drops back down in a few places, so we have to make up for lost elevation.

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

One thing I noticed this time that I had not noticed the previous two times I hiked this trail was a rock house, located several feet below the 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.

After the trail takes one of its dips back down in elevation and makes a couple small stream crossings there is a rock that had gotten my attention on the previous two times I've hiked this path. I was hoping I wouldn't miss it this time, knowing Ralph's background as a geologist. As soon as he looked at it he immediately knew what it was.

The rock has a noticeable waffle pattern, and looks like it could be the skin of a large reptile.

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

Fossils like this are often found near coal seams, which are plentiful here. The lepidodendron trees grew in marshes and swamps, which were ideal conditions for the trees to become peat, and over the course of hundreds of millions of years when under pressure, become coal.

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

Continuing up the trail, we passed a sign identifying that location as Jury Ridge. That might seem like an odd name for a location such as this, unless you know what's only a few miles on the other side of the park. It's the former Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, a notorious prison that housed inmates for 113 years. Its most famous resident was James Earl Ray, the man accused of assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

This area was heavily logged starting around 1911 and continuing until the state bought the land in the early 1930s. Though there is no other marker to explain, my presumption is this tree was one of the few trees that was left standing during that time.

At any rate, it hardly seems appropriate to nail a sign to an old tree. That's not the worst injustice we found on this trail, though.

Continuing past the tree and up around yet another switchback we found a large, wooden sign. It wasn't a sign providing directions or identifying the location. It was simply a sign extolling a quote from Henry David Thoreau.

I'm quite sure 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 providing a bit of inspiration or reflection. Yet inspiration and reflection are hardly lacking for most hikers passing along this way. The sign is 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 find this 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.

From "Walking" by Henry David Thoreau, published June 1862 by The Atlantic


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