Backpackers in the southern Appalachians usually have one of two locales in mind when they head out the door: summits or stream bottoms. One features views, refreshing breezes, and the satisfaction of a worthy mountain climbed. The other offers swimming holes, lush plant life, and the meditative sound of water flowing across stone. It's usually an either/or proposition, unless you're heading for Tennessee's Big Frog Wilderness.
A recent visit found us camped beside a small spring near the summit of Big Frog Mountain, our sweaty approach-hike a distant memory as we relaxed in the cool evening air. The next morning, we descended to Rough Creek through blooms of rue anemones, hepatica, trillium, galax, trailing arbutus, and other woodland flowers. At water's edge we soaked our tired feet, shaded from the sun by the rhododendrons. Like we said, Big Frog offers the best of both worlds.
Solitude-a quality you expect but too rarely find in the East's wilderness areas-is the other defining characteristic of Big Frog. Visit adjacent Cohutta Wilderness, just across the Georgia line, on a summer weekend, and you'll see what we mean. Together, the Big Frog and Cohutta form the largest unbroken wilderness in the southern Appalachians.
Trails in Big Frog are rugged, unsigned, and minimally maintained. The Forest Service rates all but one as "low use," the exception being the long-distance Benton MacKaye. Hitch a ride on the Benton MacKaye and swing back on the Big Frog Trail to create a 13-mile loop that showcases the Big Frog Wilderness at its best: knife-edge ridges, shady pine forests, rhododendron tunnels, and the prospect of encounters with bears, boars, and wild turkeys.
The native Cherokee had another animal in mind when they named Big Frog Mountain. To the tribe, the frog symbolized spring renewal. As you divide time between water and summits, you'll grow to appreciate the amphibious metaphor.
QUICK TAKE: Big Frog Wilderness, TN
DRIVE TIME: The Big Frog and Cohutta Wildernesses straddle the Tennessee/Georgia line, only 136 miles (21/2 hours) north of Atlanta and 185 miles (31/2 hours) south of Nashville.
THE WAY: From US 64 west of Ducktown, Tennessee, turn south at Ocoee No. 3 Powerhouse onto gravel FS 45. Climb steeply for 2.9 miles before turning west onto FS 221 for the last .6 mile to the Big Frog trailhead.
TRAILS: The wilderness contains 25 trails covering more than 130 miles, including the Benton MacKaye Trail bound from Georgia's Springer Mountain to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
ELEVATION: The Big Frog trailhead is the low point at 2,160 feet, while Big Frog Mountain is the high point at 4,224 feet.
CAN'T MISS: The dramatic traverse of precipitous Peavine Ridge on the Big Frog Trail.
CROWD CONTROL: Try the more secluded campsites near Double Spring Gap, Big Frog Mountain, or along Rough Creek. Midweek and off-season visits yield plenty of alone time.
MAPS AND GUIDES: Don't go anywhere without the Cohutta and Big Frog Wilderness Map from the Cohutta Ranger District (see the address below). Read Wilderness Trails of Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest (University of Chicago Press; 800-621-2736; $17.95) for detailed trail descriptions and the history of the Big Frog.
PIT STOP: Try the Ocoee Inn west of the wilderness on US 64 for your post-hike feast.
WALK SOFTLY: Both wildernesses have healthy and hungry black bear populations, so hang your food high.
MORE INFORMATION: Ocoee Ranger District, Rte. 1, Box 348D, Benton, TN 37307; (423) 338-5201. Cohutta Ranger District, 401 GI Maddox Pkwy., Chatsworth, GA 30705; (706) 695-6736.