Let me start off by saying I am an Elder Goth/Swamp Witch type that avoids direct sunlight whenever possible. I love wandering the shaded woods and mountains and tending my gardens at dawn and twilight, but am not well-versed in battling most of nature’s beasts.
Somehow in my unspecified number of years alive, I can not seem to figure out the right clothes or shoes or gear for actual hiking or sports, still, I am always up for various types of hootin’ and hollerin’.
Morgan County is located across more than 520 acres in East Tennessee and is best known for being home to the Obed Wild & Scenic River, Frozen Head State Park, Windrock Park, Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, the Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, Lone Mountain State Forest, plus various wilderness areas and trails.
The cities of Harriman, Sunbright, and Wartburg, plus the town of Oakdale, parts of Oliver Springs, and part of Rugby make up Morgan County.
It also includes the residential communities of Coalfield, Petros, Joyner, Lancing, and others.
I have already written about Harriman, Oliver Springs, and Rugby, so this blog will primarily be about Wartburg and Morgan County’s main attractions.
From Oliver Springs, follow Knoxville Highway into Wartburg. You will drive through the Coalfield community along the way, and two spots you might enjoy are the Coalfield Diner and Middle Fork Falls.
Knoxville Hwy merges with US 27 and becomes Morgan County Hwy, then you can take a left on Main Street which is the main avenue through downtown Wartburg.
Calling it a downtown is sort of a stretch, but there are several stops worth making.
Tanners Historic Café and Sundries market fills the role of town restaurant and grocery.
MoCo Brewing Project is the liveliest and friendliest place in Wartburg. Even at 11:30 am they were shouting hello and waving for us to come in and join them.
We were looking for mud but, by god, I will soon.
The 1904 Morgan County Courthouse is an impressive figure with a 900-pound bell in its tower. Its clock has four faces, and the minute hands on each clock are four feet long.
There is only one other clock just like it, and it is located in the Smithsonian Institute.
The American Legion Post #149, on the corners of Spring Street and Kingston Street, has a mini replica of the Statue of Liberty on its lawn.
Some of the lord’s blessing need no explanation.
The Stonecipher-Kelly House is a curious historical site. This is not one of those stops worth making tbh.
It is closed to the public, looks like it is going to come crashing down any second now, and was so overgrown with weeds and junk that we did not bother trying to get a photo.
Aside from that there are some gas stations, convenience stores, and beer/booze/tobacco shops along the highway.
Not to fear though, you go to Morgan County to do stuff outdoors.
OBED WILD & SCENIC RIVER
Obed is a designated International Dark-Sky Association park managed and is maintained by the US National Parks Service.
Visitors from all over the world come to hike, rock climb, fish, camp, and especially go whitewater rafting.
The Obed River flows freely without man-made barriers along the Cumberland Plateau region.
Stop by the Obed Wild & Scenic River Visitors Center to get your passport stamped, buy souvenirs and books, visit natural history exhibits, view local art, get maps and brochures, and talk to rangers about tips and planning assistance.
My friend and I joined a local Jeep Club and went on a group excursion across Morgan County with them one Saturday morning.
That day was the first time I went anywhere off the main highway through Wartburg, and we had a blast.
I had always wondered what these massive groups of people were doing, where they came from, where they were going, and how so many of them coordinate their time together.
Now I know.
Our first stop was at the Nemo Tunnel, a Jeep lover’s daredevil spot. Mainly it is dark and the water can get super high, and you never know if someone might be coming in through the other side.
Some people even say it is haunted.
I am not certain why, but a reflection from somewhere shines out over the outer stone basin, giving everything a magickal rainbow glow.
We made our way through various trails in Wartburg and Frozen Head State Park while sliding around on ice, teasing people when they flipped or got stuck, heckling each other with CB and GMRS units, yelling and laughing when the bumps rattled our bodies, and embracing the general chaos.
In all seriousness though, the amount of planning and care that goes into these excursions is unbelievable.
Members include actual medical doctors, search and rescue medics, paramedics, nurses, pilots, members of the military, auto mechanics, Jeep specialists, and professional climbers.
It is a self-sufficient group and everyone looks out for each other at all times.
We eventually made our way into the Catoosa WMA and its 90+ acres of wilderness.
I love old bridges and I probably would never have seen any of these lovely spots without the Jeep Club.
Most importantly, we went looking for mud that day, and we found it.
FROZEN HEAD STATE PARK & NATURAL AREA
I have revisited Frozen Head State Park twice since then. It is located in the Crab Orchard Mountains and home to the highest peaks in Tennessee, as well as some of the highest west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Frozen Head peak is its namesake and the top reaches nearly 3,400 feet above sea level.
You can drive through part of it, but will have to park and walk to the trails.
Mountain biking is allowed on the Lookout Tower Trail, but the most popular trails are the 2.3 mile Panther Branch Trail or the 0.5 mile Emory Gap Trail which both lead to Debord Falls. Here is a park map.
Multiple picnic tables, green spaces, and scenic bridges across the creek can be found throughout the park.
There is a playground not far from the campgrounds.
There are twenty campground spaces that can be reserved by the shallow part of the creek bed, but they are small and not very far apart.
I have never been camping in back country but there are other locations available.
Frozen Head State Park has an amphitheater and a few surprise waterfalls, depending on how much it has rained before you visit.
OTHER OUTDOOR PLACES
Lone Mountain State Forest and Potter’s Fall on the Crooked Fork River are two additional outdoor spots to see.
Drive through the beautiful Lone Mountain State Forest then pull over for a picnic at Potter’s Falls.
There is no website for Potter’s Falls, it is basically a longtime swimming hole for locals.
From downtown Wartburg, follow Kingston Street until it turns into Potters Falls Road. You will pass White Pine Estates and then you will come to Potters Falls right before you cross over Crooked Fork.
Always follow your own GPS though, as routes change.
We parked on the gravel pull-off spot and walked toward the water under the overpass.
It gets rather slick on the way down and I have seen various blurbs online about an increasing amount of pollution in the water.
Maybe something happened, or maybe it is to keep tourists away.
BRUSHY MOUNTAIN STATE PENITENTIARY
In the nearby community of Petros, we visited the historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
This site was Tennessee’s first maximum security prison and was designed to lock down the most violent and horrifying of criminals.
Most of the convicts who entered would never even be eligible for release within their lifetimes.
Read more about Brushy Mountain’s fascinating and scary history here, including the years that James Earl Ray lived within its walls.
You can schedule tours in advance, though your odds of walk-in tours are pretty high unless they have a special event going on. Just check first.
Tour options can vary from general admission to solo explore, an actual guided tour, group tours, and paranormal tours.
Hundreds of people gather for outdoor concert series on the large lawn behind the prison, and the entire grounds are popular spots for guided ghost tours.
I can only imagine the type of damned spirits that are bound to a place like that.
“The Pen” has a museum of artifacts related to the prison and its history, its detainees, weapons they made, news articles, and more.
Part of the grounds are overgrown with lush greenery, beautiful and artful in its own way.
Brushy Mountain has its own Distillery with a tasting room and retail store onsite.
You will have to walk into it to purchase your tour tickets before you can walk up the hill and enter the prison’s main building.
The Warden’s Table is an onsite restaurant that is open to the public, with or without a tour ticket, and the food was actually really good.
MONSTER TRUCK JAM
My little brother, who is famous for talking me into driving long distances and getting me to do things I do not really care for, got us to take him to a monster truck jam at the Wartburg Speedway one night.
He had the time of his life hanging out at the pit party, meeting all the drivers, taking photos of all the trucks, and we even went for a wild ride in one of them.
The driver let him sit up front while we screamed and cackled and were jostled around lawlessly in the back. It was all the fumes and sound and fury that you could ever dream of.
We have determined that the concentration of hootin’ and hollerin’ in Morgan County far surpasses that of any of its surrounding counties.
In the area for a while? Follow me to Oliver Springs or Oak Ridge.
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