Frozen Head, the Obed, and Big South Fork: Tackling the East Tennessee Trinity

Frozen Head State Park is full of prime trails.
Frozen Head State Park is full of prime trails. Michael Hodge
Made Possible by
Curated by

The truth is, each of these northeastern Tennessee treasures—Frozen Head State Park, the Obed Wild & Scenic River, and Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area—could easily keep you occupied for days, even weeks (some dirtbags hang out at the Obed for months at a time!). But for adventurers who want a taste of what these three great spots each have to offer, hitting the highlights in one weekend is within reach, with a some advance planning, a little luck, and a lot of determination.

From hiking and fishing to rock climbing and trail running, there's an endless bounty of adventure options in this trio of adventure playgrounds. And ambitious as this excursion is, visiting all of them in one weekend can serve as a serious dose of inspiration for your next trip and help you narrow down what you want to tackle first. However much you can fit in, rest assured that you'll head home ready to dedicate an entire weekend (or longer) to each of these outdoor destinations. Here, a suggested itinerary to hitting the good stuff.

Friday Night: Frozen Head State Park

Wet your feet in the pools below Debord Falls.
Wet your feet in the pools below Debord Falls. Logan Mahan

Frozen Head is an often-forgotten destination near the Cumberlands. But the waterfalls and mountain streams along its 50 miles of trails rival any in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And because its natural attractions are only accessible by foot, you won't find any of the crowds that swarm to the auto-friendly Smokies.

Frozen Head is about an hour's drive from Knoxville, so in late spring or summer, you should have enough time to check in at the Visitors Center, pick up a map, unload your stuff, and enjoy a few choice sights before the sun goes down. Set out down the Panther Branch Trail (at the very end of the park's main road) to see beautiful Debord Falls. After a heavy rain, these falls are especially stunning, but they're enjoyable at lower flow rates too, when there's room to play in the pools below the falls. If you have a TWRA Trout Stamp, you can try fishing for your dinner on the well-stocked Flat Fork Creek anywhere below Debord Falls. Or simply string up a hammock on a few strategically spaced trees nearby and watch the sun sink behind the hills.

There are an abundance of options for your night under the stars here. For backcountry sleeping, head to the camping spot just beyond Debord Falls, after the trail curves right past the trailhead for Emory Gap (Emory Gap Falls are also worthy of a stop). You'll need a backcountry permit, but unlike the Smokies, permits here are free.

If you'd prefer to be closer to the road for an earlier start Saturday morning, you can stay in the park's campground for about $15 a night. Spots are very spacious (especially on the outer loop; campsites 1-5 are recommended) and can be reserved ahead of time. They also offer both reserved and first-come-first-serve sites for larger groups. Early risers can take advantage of a brisk eye-opening hike on Panther Branch before everyone else wakes up.

Saturday: The Obed Wild & Scenic River

Though famous as a rock climbing destination, the Obed offers something for outdoorsmen and women of all stripes
Though famous as a rock climbing destination, the Obed offers something for outdoorsmen and women of all stripes Kevin Humphrey

Strike up a conversation about climbing in the Southeast, and you won't get very far in without mention of the Obed. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy's infamous poolside self-promotion: It's kind of a big deal. But no matter what you hear, the Obed isn't just for seasoned climbers: The area also boasts a nice variety of trials for running and hiking, stunning overlooks, and highly technical whitewater.

After an early wake-up at Frozen Head, pack up camp make the drive 30 minutes west to the Lilly Bluff parking area (Wartburg or Lansing are good spots to grab some breakfast on the way). If you wake up early enough, you can run the Point Trail from the Lilly Bluff parking area for about two miles and catch a beautiful sunrise from the bluffs (pictured above).

From here, you have a few options. If you're geared up and ready to climb, you might want to spend the entire day on the rocks. If you're new to climbing and happen to be visiting on the first weekend of the month, you can spend some time exploring the nearby trails and then head over to Lilly Bridge at 10am for the Obed's award-winning "Coffee and Climb with a Ranger" program. Grab a free cup of joe with a ranger and ask all your burning climbing questions. Then, you'll harness up and start climbing, with gear and an expert belay all provided at no cost.

Dogs are welcome at Frozen Head, the Obed, and Big South Fork.
Dogs are welcome at Frozen Head, the Obed, and Big South Fork. Logan Mahan

Non-climbers can explore the numerous hiking trails in the area, including the 14.2-mile section of Cumberland Trail between Rock Creek Campground and Devil's Breakfast Table. There's also great paddling in the area, and you can watch kayakers maneuver through the whitewater from many of the Obed's riverside trails. Unless you're a seasoned paddler, though, stick to spectating, as these waters don't mess around.

When you're ready to call it a day, you won't find a more unique and friendly campground than the Lilly Pad, where owners Del and Marte keep campers entertained around the fire with their impressive Obed knowledge. Don't stay up too late, though: You'll need plenty of energy for tomorrow's hike.

Sunday: Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area

Overlook on the Honey Creek Loop
Overlook on the Honey Creek Loop Michael Hicks

As perhaps Tennesse's most wild and remote wilderness area,  Big South Fork 's 125,000 acres are more rugged, treacherous, and pristine than any you may have experienced. There's easily a week's worth of adventure at BSF, but since you only have one day here, you'll jump right in the middle of the action on the Honey Creek Loop.

From the Lilly Pad Campground, you'll drive for about an hour to reach the Honey Creek trailhead. But don't dally too much if you want the trail all to yourself, as this is one of the most popular in the park. Across its 5.5 miles, the Honey Creek Loop brings hikers to a bevy of fascinating landmarks, from rugged cliff faces, to hidden waterfalls, to overlooks you'll want to come back and experience over and over. With so much to look at, even speedy, seasoned hikers shouldn't expect to complete the loop in under four hours.

Appealing as it is, keep in mind that this is a challenging hike not recommended for beginners. If you're not used to navigating a trail with technical aspects and less-than-generous trail markings, start on something a little more manageable, like the Angel Falls Overlook Trail.


Last Updated:

Next Up


Flatwater Paddling in Charlotte: Pro Tips for Getting on the Water This Spring


Fat Biking Around Boulder: The Perfect Way to Ride Out Winter