Namesake: Frozen Head State Park in Morgan County

12:24 PM, Jun 18, 2010   |    comments
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  • Frozen Head State Park/file
  • 1934 Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Frozen Head Mountain.

If you make your way high into the Cumberland Mountains outside of Wartburg in Morgan County, you'll find the largest state park in Tennessee with a curious name that may leave you with a brain freeze.

"It is probably the most unique park name in Tennessee," said Travis Bow, park ranger at Frozen Head State Park.  "We have a display in our visitors' center to explain the name because we are constantly getting questions."

Bow said the fabricated explanations spewed by visitors are a lot more entertaining than the real answer to the question, "Why do they call it that?"

"Some people will guess that there is a rock on top of the mountain that looks like a face, but that is not the case.  Some of our younger visitors will come up with stories about frozen cavemen heads on top of the mountain.  You never know what you are going to hear," said Bow.

In reality, the answer to the question is somewhat straight-forward.

"Here at Frozen Head Mountain, this is one of the highest peaks between the Rocky Mountains and the Smokies.  We're 3,324 feet high," said Bow.  "These peaks above 3,000 feet accumulate snow and ice in the winter, which is why settlers named this Frozen Head Mountain.  The head or the top of the mountain is frozen during winter.  Frozen Head Mountain is the namesake for the park, which was formed in 1970."

The land that is now the park began as property associated with the state prison system.  At the foot of Frozen Head State Park sits the recently retired Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.  Built in 1890, the historic prison housed many famous inmates.  Among the most infamous was James Earl Ray who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.

Ray and other inmates have attempted to escape Brushy Mountain only to become shackled by the rugged terrain of what is now Frozen Head State Park. 

"James Earl Ray managed to escape.  He was captured shortly thereafter, but told people he thought he had traveled 100 miles. It turned out he had only traveled about eight miles.  The elevation changes in this park can be grueling," said Bow.

Ray's adventure inspired the Barkley Marathons in the Frozen Head State Park.  The race tests athletes by requiring them to run 100 miles through Frozen Head within 60 hours and is considered one of the most challenging races in the world.

"They have been doing the Barkleys since the mid-1980s and only around nine people have ever finished it," said Bow.

So if you venture into the Cumberland Mountains and pass the Morgan County prison, know that you will soon arrive at a mountainous oasis known as Frozen Head State Park.  While you are there, enjoy the wildflowers, the rocky streams, 80 miles of backwoods trails, and the satisfaction of knowing why they call it "Frozen Head." 

"If you're looking to get away from people, this is the place to do it," said Bow. "It is a lot less crowded than the Smokies and we've got these amazing peaks. It's a nice change of pace."

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Note: Namesake is the renamed title of the series formerly known as 'Why do they call it that?'

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