Most Tennesseans have heard of Brushy Mountain Prison, the infamous maximum security penitentiary where the Volunteer State’s most hardened criminals are housed.
Nowadays you can hike past some of the prison mines amid fantastic Frozen Head State Park in the Cumberlands, near Wartburg, and climb to the highest point on the Cumberland Plateau at the same time.
Fortress-like Brushy Mountain was established in 1896. Its most famous inmate was James Earl Ray, convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain in the 1970s, but was quickly recaptured. Don’t let this deter you hiking at Frozen Head State Park, as escapes are exceedingly rare. I have camped overnight 35 or more nights in the backcountry of Frozen Head State Park and slept peacefully every hour of darkness.
The Old Prison Mines Trail takes you past an old stone wall then to a deep pit coal mine opening. You can look into the stone maw — through bars — and see the wooden beams that help stabilize the mine.
Prisoners once hand dug coal beneath Frozen Head. The mines operated until the 1960s. An old railroad tram led down the mountain to the prison. Imagine the toiling that went on here. Continue past this first mine entrance to a couple more openings, bordered by concrete with an old concrete block guard shack nearby. These were obviously the newer mines. Explore around but don’t enter the shafts -- only a fool enters abandoned mines.
Your hike to the mines starts on the Lookout Tower Trail, heading southwest from Armes Gap. You are expecting a climb but it starts out pretty easy.
A rich hardwood forest dominated by hickory, tulip, maple and oak shades the gavel and dirt path. Ahead, reach a split. Here, the Old Prison Mines Trail leads left, and is the route you should take to view the mines. The Lookout Tower Trail continues ascending and is your route to reach Frozen Head Mountain and its views. The Lookout Tower Trail’s climbing eases at Tub Spring, enclosed in stone to your left at 2.2 miles.
Other trails meet here, but you keep climbing a half-mile to reach Frozen Head. Steps lead to an open observation platform built on the infrastructure of a historic fire tower.
From the observation platform you can look west into the valley of Flat Fork and beyond. To the northeast the mountains of Catoosa Wildlife Management Area ripple to the horizon. To the southeast lies Petros, Brushy Mountain Prison and the Tennessee River valley. On a clear day the Smoky Mountains are visible and a practiced eye can easily identify the peaks of Mount LeConte. If you didn’t visit the prison mines on your way up, do it on the return trip of this 5.4 mile there and back trek.
Directions: From Knoxville, take Pellissippi Parkway toward Oak Ridge, joining TN 62 west to reach Oliver Springs. From Oliver Springs, follow TN 62 west 8.1 miles to TN 116. Look for signs to Petros. Turn right on TN 116 north and travel for 4.6 miles, passing through Petros and by Brushy Mountain Prison to Armes Gap. The hike starts on the west side of the gap.
For more information: Frozen Head State Park, 964 Flat Fork Road, Wartburg, TN 37887; 423-346-3318; www.tnstateparks.com