“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
Well over 100 years since John Muir’s death, that famous quote by the great American conservationist still rings true. For all who have the mountains in their blood, the mystique of these towering landforms still draws us.
The mountains have been calling me for a while, but it’s been nearly impossible to get away from work. On Wednesday, I decided, I would make time to get away. So after finishing up some chores before lunch, I jumped in my Jeep and hit the road for the mountains.
Climb to the top of the 10 highest mountain peaks in Scott County, Tenn. That’s what I want to do. I knew I couldn’t knock out all 10 in half a day; not even close. In fact, that’s a task that’s best reserved for the cold season, when there are no snakes out. I’m not especially afraid of snakes, but visiting Scott County’s tallest peaks involves wading through lots of reclaimed strip pits, where you can’t see your feet below you, and the depths of the Cumberland Mountains are home to the largest timber rattlers in Tennessee. (As an added bonus, this may be the worst year for seed ticks — those tiny satan’s spawn that emerge in early autumn — that I’ve ever seen.)
This was more of a scouting trip — an opportunity to gather general information about the best places to leave the road and start hoofing it near the base of each peak. And if I could knock a couple of them out, without getting snake-bitten or tick-eaten, all the better. Besides, there’s a little extra incentive for traveling into the mountains this time of year. While many folks will tell you that mid-to-late October is the best time to be in the mountains (and it’s certainly a good time; I’ll not argue that point), a month to six weeks earlier is pretty good, too. It’s this time of year that the mountains come alive with late-season wildflowers. And this summer — relatively cool and relatively wet — has made for an excellent early-autumn wildflower season. I could stand on some peaks on Wednesday and see swaths of color in power line rights-of-way and old surface mines near other peaks over a mile away. Most of the wildflowers were asters and ironweed, but there were also goldenrods and many others.
While most of my exploring is done in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, I’ve had a growing fascination with the Cumberland Mountains, and especially with the communities surrounding them, for the past several years. I grew up hunting and roaming along the western slopes of the Cumberlands, primarily in places like Brimstone and Indian Fork. I have vague memories of my father driving us deeper into the mountain — places like Gobey — on leaf-peeping tours when I was a kid and he worked for West Coal Corporation, which mined a lot of the Cumberland Mountains. More recently, I’ve begun to familiarize myself with places like Smokey Creek and Bull Creek, and the peaks that tower over those places. Their beauty is incomprehensible.
The Appalachian Mountains, of course, pale to the Rockies. And, within the Appalachians, the Cumberland Mountains pale to the Smokies. But in mountains large or small, there’s mystique. Perhaps it’s because there is no taming a mountain. These giants have been stripped of their timber, stripped for their coal, left scarred and battered by generations of human activity, and still they stand — tall and proud. It’s little wonder John Muir was so infatuated by mountains.
Muir, who was so in love with America’s mountain ranges that he became known as “John of the Mountains,” first laid eyes on mountains right here in the Cumberlands, during his 1867 journey to the Gulf of Mexico, which he wrote about extensively in his diary. He called these mountains the “most sublime and comprehensive picture that ever entered my eyes.”
The tallest peaks in the Cumberlands stand only a little more than 3,500 ft. in elevation. Within Scott County, there are seven peaks that are above 3,000 ft. in elevation, ranging from 3,030 ft. to 3,250 ft. All seven — and the 10 highest peaks in the county overall — are located between Brimstone and Smokey Junction. They are, in order:
• Burge Mountain (elevation 3,250 ft.)
• Walnut Knob (elevation 3,250 ft.)
• Guinea Hill Knob (elevation 3,250 ft.)
• An unnamed peak close to Smoky Mountain (elevation 3,210 ft.)
• High Point (elevation 3,190 ft.)
• An unnamed peak above Mill Creek (elevation 3,110 ft.)
• Norman Pond Knob (elevation 3,030 ft.)
• Signal Mountain (elevation 2,914 ft.)
• An unnamed peak just north of the 3,110 ft. unnamed peak (elevation 2,910 ft.)
• Gibson Knob (elevation 2,904 ft.)
Those are the peaks I want to visit. To determine the 10 tallest peaks, I used the definitions of the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA, or the International Climbing & Mountaineering Federation), which defines a mountain peak as having a prominence of at least 30 meters (90 ft.). That is to say, the peak rises at least 90 ft. above the surrounding terrain. Several of the ridgelines in this part of the Cumberlands are tall enough to fall within the 10 highest elevations in Scott County, but they don’t classify as a mountain peak. For example, there’s a point on the ridgeline overlooking Smokey Creek where the elevation is 3,010 ft., the eighth-highest elevation in Scott County. But the knoll — Bear Knob — has a prominence of only 80 ft., which hardly makes it a peak.
By contrast, nearby Burge Mountain has a prominence of 390 ft., Walnut Knob has a prominence of 360 ft. and Guinea Hill Knob has a prominence of 340 ft. The large prominence of any of the peaks in this area is Signal Mountain. At 482 ft., this peak stands as high over the surrounding ridgeline as a typical overlook in the Big South Fork NRRA stands over the river.
(Fun fact: By UIAA definitions, a summit is required to have a prominence of 300 meters, or 980 ft. By this definition, Scott County has only one summit. That will be the subject of a future post.)
To get to the mountains, I headed south on Brimstone Road before exiting the main road at Chimney Hollow, where the old Brimstone Railroad siding and coal tipple used to be, and climbing to the top of the ridge about 1,000 ft. in elevation above Brimstone Creek.
The road emerges on the ridgetop near the base of Signal Mountain, one of the 10 highest mountain peaks in Scott County (elevation 2,914 ft.). It merges with Trail #1, the old coal haul road that runs the length of the ridge from near Huntsville into Anderson County, beginning on Brimstone Recreation and continuing onto the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area.
My trip was 34 miles from the time I exited Brimstone Road until the time I arrived at U.S. Hwy. 27 north of Wartburg. I had planned to drive to the highest point in Scott County, before exiting the mountains by way of the Emory River Valley into Morgan County.
This is not a fun trip for hard-core off-road adventurers because the entire trip is on gravel — former coal haul roads that have since been maintained for hauling timber out of the mountains and also so that Atlas Energy Co. can keep check on its numerous natural gas wells in the mountains.
There are several ways to enter and exit this part of the country and many of them are gravel roads: Slick Rock, via Brimstone Road; Chimney Hollow, via Brimstone Road; Lone Mountain, via Brimstone Road; Smokey Creek; Gobey; and S.R. 116 in Anderson County. There are plenty of technical and some not-so-technical ATV trails in the mountains, but the gravel roads traverse the entire range. To be sure, these aren’t roads you would want to take your daily-driver SUV on, but they also aren’t roads that require you to engage 4WD at any point most of the year. (An exception is around the base of Round Mountain if you’re taking Trail #1 south from closer to Huntsville. As the road climbs several hundred feet, it is usually quite rutted and 4WD is needed.) There is some mud, even during this time of year. Mainly, though, there are overhanging weeds and branches that can scratch the clear-coat, and plenty of ruts and potholes that will jar your nuts off their bolts.
It would be interesting to know how the various peaks in these mountains came by their names. The first one, Signal Mountain, is obvious. Even today, there is a radio transmission tower at the peak, making it easily identifiable from miles away.
Most of the peaks that are among Scott County’s 10 highest are situated along the main ridge that runs north-to-south from just south of Huntsville all the way to Beech Grove in Anderson County, along S.R. 116. Interestingly, New River borders this ridge on either end; its headwaters are located along S.R. 116 on the south end of the ridge and the river divides the ridge from Huntsville on the north end. There are several mountains that extend off this ridge to either the east or the west. The ridge itself stands between Brimstone and Norma/Smokey Junction, and it peters out just across the river from Huntsville. At Guinea Hill Knob, where Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all meet, another ridge line heads northeast, eventually petering out at Smokey Junction. The remaining of Scott County’s 10 highest peaks are located along that ridgeline. To the south of Guinea Hill Knob, another ridge line extends through Frozen Head State Forest and deep into Morgan County before petering out near Petros and the old Brushy Mountain prison. The three ridges merge at Guinea Hill Knob, my destination for the day.
Signal Mountain is the second mountain peak along the main ridge south of Huntsville, as it starts to climb higher into the sky. The first is Round Mountain, above Bull Creek — which, with an elevation of 2,727 ft., is the 16th-highest peak in Scott County.
Trail #1, this area’s original coal haul road, goes out of its way to curve around the extensive west slopes of Signal Mountain, which extend like a finger pointing directly at Lone Mountain in the valley below. There are occasional gaps where views of the valley below — and the mountains beyond — can be seen. Among the mountaintops that can be viewed in the distance are Lowe Mountain, Griffith Mountain and Flower Mountain.
Eventually, Trail #1 passes below the next peak: Gibson Knob (elevation 2,904, the 10th highest peak in Scott County). Gibson Knob is the mountain that towers over the headwaters of Bull Creek. In fact, Bull Creek is formed by the waters flowing off Gibson Knob’s north slopes.
It is surprising that the mountain on which Gibson Knob is situated doesn’t have a name; it is one of the most prominent mountains, in terms of overall land mass, in the area.
In any event, south of Gibson Knob, Trail #1 continues along a saddle that becomes so narrow you can actually see off into the Smokey Creek Valley to the left and into the Brimstone Creek Valley to the right. It’s the narrowest the main ridge is at any point. The actual valley to the left is Little Brimstone Creek, which empties into Smokey Creek between Cave Branch and Shack’s Creek.
The next peak along the route is an unnamed peak that stands at 2,910 ft. in elevation, making it the ninth-highest peak in Scott County. Beyond that peak, the ridge again narrows between the headwaters of Shack’s Creek to the east and Second Laurel Branch to the right, which empties into Mill Creek above Lone Mountain.
For the entirety of the trip thus far, Trail #1 has stayed on the Brimstone side of the ridge. But beyond the headwaters of Shack’s Creek, Mill Creek Valley disappears to the right, as the road moves to the Smokey Creek side of the ridge to traverse the base of another unnamed peak. This one is part of a larger unnamed mountain (again, it’s somewhat surprising that it isn’t named) that stands at 3,110 ft. in elevation, making it the sixth-highest peak in Scott County.
It isn’t a name that’s ever going to appear on a topographical map, but I’m going to refer to this mountain as Beetle Mountain, named for some sort of noisy flying beetle that I encountered as I was hiking to the peak. I’ve never seen these bugs outside the mountains. They let out a scream of sorts when they take flight, and nearly scared the pants off me every time they burst out of a tree next to me. Standing near the peak of Beetle Mountain, you can see Sandy Gap Mountain to the south, Flower Mountain to the west and, beyond Flower Mountain, farmland in Morgan and Fentress counties is just visible through the late summer haze.
On the south side of Beetle Mountain, Trail #1 switches back twice as it drops in elevation and meets the old road that climbs up the mountain from the head of Mill Creek, above Lone Mountain. A short distance beyond this, the road meets the Scott-Morgan county line for the first time. It is at this location that surveyors back in 1849 — when Scott County was formed by act of the Tennessee General Assembly — for reasons unknown made a straight line northwest from the ridge on which we’re driving, across Mill Creek and across Brimstone Creek, to the southern tip of Griffith Mountain.
For the duration of this trip, the road will roughly follow the Scott County line. When surveyors drew the county line in 1849, they stayed atop the ridge lines, generally traveling along the peak of each mountain. At Guinea Hill Knob, which is the highest point in Scott County, they turned to the east and began following another ridge line that towers over Smokey Creek to the south as it heads back to New River above Smokey Junction.
Jehu Phillips (1821-1910) was part of the surveying team. He described their efforts this way: “We began at a point on the east bank of New River and about two miles from the mouth of Beech Fork then ran southwest crossing Smokey Creek in all about eight miles to the Morgan County line on the mountain between Smokey and Brimstone then Northwest about ten miles crossing Clear Fork just below the mouth of Skull Creek then on to New River at the mouth of Hone Creek, then down New River (or Big South Fork of the Cumberland River) about six miles to the mouth of Anderson’s Branch, thence northwest about nineteen miles to the Kentucky line.”
Just to the south of where the road meets the county line, Sandy Gap Mountain towers to the right. The mountain is easily recognizable by the mostly treeless east-facing slope. The elevation of the peak is 3,170 ft. It would be one of the tallest peaks in Scott County, but it is actually located in Morgan County.
At the base of Sandy Gap Mountain’s peak is where West Coal Company’s Brimstone coal washer once stood. This general area was the site of some of the most extensive strip mining in the Cumberlands — around the slopes of Sandy Gap, Smoky Mountain, and the ridgelines in between.
Beyond Sandy Gap, the road begins traveling around the headwaters of the Emory River. There was once a railroad that ran along the Emory, and cable cars were used to transport coal off the mountain near Norman Pond Knob (elevation 3,030 ft., the seventh-highest peak in Scott County), which is the next peak along the way. It is Norman Pond Knob that towers over the headwaters of Smokey Creek.
From Norman Pond Knob, the road continues along Ligias Ridge, the highest point of this ridgetop aside from the mountain peaks. At 2,970 ft. in elevation, Ligias Ridge would stand as the ninth-highest peak in Scott County if it could be defined as a mountain peak. However, the highest point of Ligias Ridge has a prominence of only 80 ft. and therefore isn’t actually a mountain peak according to UIAA standards.
Next along the route is Walnut Knob (elevation 3,250 ft.). As was the case at Norman Pond Knob and Guinea Hill Knob, the surveyors in 1849 walked to the top of the peak instead of going around the base of the peaks.
At 3,250 ft., Walnut Knob (and Burge Mountain between Smokey Creek and New River) are tied with Guinea Hill Knob for the highest point in Scott County. Burge Mountain is usually listed first because it has the largest prominence (390 ft.), followed by Walnut Knob (360 ft.) and Guinea Hill Knob (340 ft.). But Guinea Hill Knob is the most interesting of the peaks because it’s one of the few spots in the Cumberlands where you can stand in three counties at the same time. Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all come together on this peak.
Just past Walnut Knob, the elevation dips ever so slightly. This is Guinea Gap, the saddle that divides the headwaters of Asher Fork, which empties into Smokey Creek, from the headwaters of the Emory River. And, rising just beyond Guinea Gap, is Guinea Ridge Knob.
Leaving my Jeep in an old strip pit on the west side of Guinea Hill Knob, I begin the 340 ft. climb to the peak. It isn’t the first time I’ve visited Guinea Hill, nor will it be the last. There’s too much vegetation at the top to say that the view from here is stunning. But by picking and choosing your vantage points, you can see the Emory River headwaters to the southwest (and on the ridge on the opposite side of the valley is the Frozen Head State Forest), the Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm to the south, and the headwaters of Smokey Creek to the east.
From Guinea Ridge Knob, I retrace my route for a short distance until I meet the old coal haul road that climbs the mountain from the headwaters of the Emory River above Gobey. Lyme Timber, the company that originally purchased Brimstone before much of it was incorporated into the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, is cutting the last of the available timber from the Emory River tract on the mountains’ west slopes. As I made my way towards the valley below, I bumped into Lyme’s night watchman — an old friend who I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, who isn’t even from this area and, last I knew, lived in McMinn County. These mountains hold surprises in more ways than one.
The first time I can recall coming off the mountain here was in October 1988. In fact, I can tell you the exact date: October 22, 1988. The University of Tennessee football team was playing at Memphis State that day. The Vols were 0-6, almost unthinkable. Someone named Joe had climbed onto the roof of a Wartburg convenience store and was threatening to not come down until Tennessee won a game (it was a spinoff stunt that was being done elsewhere, too). Tennessee beat Memphis that day, 38-25, to start a 5-game winning streak to end the season and set the stage for the greatest decade in the history of the Vols’ football program. That day was the first time I can recall listening to John Ward and Bill Anderson, Tennessee’s legendary broadcast team, as their voices wafted into the car from WECO Radio in the valley as we traveled through the mountains.
This part of Morgan County is one of the most beautiful places in East Tennessee. In fact, the Emory River was the first mountain stream that John Muir encountered, and it inspired him to write this passage:
“Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overreaching trees, making one of nature’s coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator. Lingered in this sanctuary a long time thanking the Lord with all my heart for his goodness in allowing me to enter and enjoy it.”