Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bird Mountain, Frozen Head State Park

The weather turned so warm and sunny yesterday, and the rain held off, that I decided to go hiking. At first I'd intended to hike River Bluff, a 2.7 mile loop that's pretty close to where I live. But I decided to go somewhere I hadn't been before, and a quick online search turned up Frozen Head State Park. I hadn't been there since I was a kid. I decided on the Bird Mountain loop, except that it's not actually a loop. Here's a good page about Frozen Head--it's for birders, but it's got better directions to the park than other sites. If you do visit, though, keep in mind that Flat Fork Road is NOT marked. There's a sign for the park but it's easy to miss. If you're me. You'll know you're on the right road when you pass a huge prison complex.

It took me about an hour to reach the park (okay, an hour and a half but that's because I missed the turn and drove on and on to Sunbright, where I finally turned around with a heavy sigh and went back). I reached the park office around 1:30pm and stopped to pick up a map. There weren't any outside, but the office was open so I went in. Unfortunately they didn't have any trail maps, although it's possible I just didn't see them. I picked up a brochure with a very simple map, mostly of the camping/picnic areas. There are bathrooms in the office--real ones that you can flush!
above: a nice trail seat, polished smooth from hundreds of tired bottoms

The directions I'd found online said to park at the office and walk up to the trailhead, but I went on to a trailhead parking lot about a quarter mile along the road. There are a bunch of trails that start from there, and more bathrooms, but I walked up the road and into the camping area, then up to the gate that leads to a fire tower. Turns out there's a tiny parking lot next to the gate just for hikers--only three spaces, but they were empty when I got there and still empty when I left. I wish I'd known.

Anyway, it was a glorious day, over 70 degrees, and this was the first weekend the park was open for camping. It was packed, with little kids running around and adults grilling out, and groups of hikers returning from various directions. I passed several bunches of hikers before I actually reached the trailhead and figured Bird Mountain Trail would be busy. But I only saw one group on the trail, about half a dozen guys who were returning from the summit when I was just starting up. I noticed they gave me "oh man, you poor thing" looks but it wasn't until I was well up the trail that I understood why.
left: Big Cove Branch creek, just before you reach the trailhead

The internet tells me there are 14 switchbacks going up Bird Mountain. I started out trying to count but lost track, so I'll just have to trust that 14 is correct even though it felt more like 30. The day before, I'd taken a short hike up Ridgecrest Trail in the Norris Watershed, which is the steepest trail I habitually hike. Well, Bird Mountain is like 14 Ridgecrest Trails one after the other. (Actually I hiked Ridgecrest again today and I do think it's steeper, but the steep part is only about a third of a mile long and Bird Mountain is about two miles to the top.)

I didn't hurry myself. It's not like I'm in training for anything; my goal in hiking is just to have fun, get some exercise and fresh air, and appreciate nature. I kept having to rest more and more often. That was good in a way, though, since that gave me plenty of time to look around. There was also a near-constant breeze, sometimes very strong, that kept me from getting too warm, and I could listen to the wind in the treetops and the screek of tree branches rubbing together. I heard birdsong in the mountain laurels but didn't actually see any birds or animals.

There's a lot of trail that comprises Bird Mountain. I only took one small section of it, the two-mile climb up to Castle Rock. I could have continued another half mile to a camp site but I didn't see the point. It meets the Cumberland Trail at the top of the ridge, so I can tell people I've hiked part of the Cumberland Trail even though "part of" in this case means about 20 yards.

I had to stop after a mile and a half or so and put moleskin on my right heel. I hadn't tied my right boot tightly enough and it had rubbed blisters on my heel in two spots. The reason I hadn't tied it very tightly was a failed attempt to avoid reopening a different blister that same boot had given me on my ankle. It always gives me a blister on that ankle. When I got back to my car I discovered that I'd also gotten a blister on my big toe knuckle, whatever it's called. So I definitely need new boots sooner rather than later, unfortunately.

But despite my blisters, I enjoyed the hike. There wasn't a whole lot to see until I reached the top, though: no points of interest like creeks or sinkholes, abandoned buildings, things like that. Just 42 switchbacks going up and up and up. I took three pictures of a huge fallen tree that looked like it had caught fire too--the branches were all blackened--because really there wasn't a whole lot else to hold my attention.

Of course, castle rock was worth the climb. It's magnificent. I climbed around on it for a few minutes, taking pictures and enjoying the view of the ridgetops all around, then sat down and ate a peanut granola bar (which was so sweet I might as well have packed a Snickers) and drank a lot of water. It felt good just to sit and let the wind dry the sweat on my face. I thought I'd at least see someone at the top of the ridge, but not a soul. Not even a bird.

While I rested, I took out my phone to check the time. It was 3:20, so it took me almost two hours to climb two miles. But the trip down was a lot easier. In fact, it went so fast that I was kind of disappointed. For one thing, I hate to backtrack. For another, the trail is steep enough that most of my attention was on my feet so I wouldn't take a misstep and tumble down all 63 switchbacks.

left: there were a lot of squeezes among the rocks of castle rock. I mostly didn't squeeze through any of them because I have a morbid dislike of bugs falling down the back of my shirt or getting in my hair.

I reached my car around 4:40 and stripped off my boots and socks first thing. Clouds were moving in but the temperature had climbed to almost 80 degrees, so I was definitely glad to get my wool socks and heavy leather boots off.

I will definitely be back to Frozen Head, but I don't think I'll hike Bird Mountain again. There are plenty of other trails to explore, though.

Below: view from my perch on castle rock, where I rested and snacked


  1. The switchbacks look nice (from the picture). I am holding off hike until spring is here. I don't like cold weather hikes much.

  2. I don't either. I hope our warm weather lasts, although it's late enough here that we're probably okay from now on with just a few chilly days. I hope your weather warms up soon!

  3. I am so ridiculously jealous. It is in the mid 20s here today, windy and snowing. :(

    I vaguely remember a trip to the frozenheads back when we were very young: the brightest memory I have was of a rocky outcropping, where you were brave enough to crawl to the edge and look while I didn't even want to think about it. Long, long ago...

  4. I remember the frozenheads too! I was hoping this was the trail we hiked then, but it was much too steep to bring little kids along.

    I hope it warms up for you. It's supposed to get down to 30 tonight and flurry tomorrow. Ugh!

  5. I remember this place fondly. I used to cut class and sneak up here during my Pellissippi State days. Thanks for the read.