Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park

October 1, 2008
Filed under Destinations

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1769509_granite_georgia_2.jpgDefining Stone Mountain Park isn’t easy. Is it a nature park? An amusement park? Or a showcase of Southern history? What isn’t debatable is that the park’s 3,200 acres offer something for just about everyone.

The smooth gray dome of Stone Mountain, the largest granite outcropping in the world, rises 825 feet above the surrounding plateau like a rock whale from a green, forested sea. Located approximately 15 miles east of Atlanta, Stone Mountain catches the attention of visitors traveling along some of the city’s eastern highways.

  While the outcropping attracts the eye, it is the Confederate Memorial that has attracted the most visitors since its 1972 completion. The carving represents the world’s largest high-relief sculpture and depicts three Confederate heroes of the Civil War — Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

Although the mountain and sculpture attract the interest of adults, children will be drawn to the park’s amusements. The Crossroads area offers ideal activities for the kids (and adventurous adults) to burn off some energy. One major attraction is the Great Barn, a towering four-story “barn” full of interactive games, slides, play areas and air cannons that shoot foam fruit. Nearby, kids will discover Camp Highland, a family activity area with climbing walls and rope courses, and Sky Hike, the nation’s largest family adventure course for older kids and adults.

After playtime, kids and adults alike can dive into some Southern fun at the adjacent “town” of Crossroads, a re-creation of an 1870s Georgia town. There, you can interact with crafters who expertly demonstrate their gifts in blacksmithing, glassblowing and candy making. You’ll find costumed townsfolk sauntering through the streets telling stories and performing in live shows. For modern entertainment, the cotton warehouse hosts the Tall Tales of the South 4-D Theater, featuring a 3-D film with fourth-dimension special effects that engages all of your senses.

Once you have enjoyed your fill of Crossroads, you can begin exploring 19th-century history by hopping aboard the Stone Mountain Railway at the park’s antebellum depot. The railway’s full-size locomotive pulls 1940s-era open-air cars on a loop around the mountain. The narrated trip includes details about Stone Mountain rail history from the mid-1800s.

After departing the station, the train passes across the vast manicured lawn beneath the memorial. Although from the ground the sculpture seems modest in size, the carved area actually covers more than 3 acres and is recessed 42 feet into the mountain.

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum started the memorial in 1923, but a dispute soon arose between Borglum and the managing association that then cancelled Borglum’s contract. But don’t weep for Borglum; he went on to carve a certain monument on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The Stone Mountain project continued for a few years with another sculptor but was abandoned from 1928 until work resumed in 1964.

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After the train whistles by the north face of the mountain, it passes an old quarry and then journeys along the south side’s wooded and rocky terrain and stops at Confederate Hall — a museum that features a film on Georgia’s Civil War history and interactive exhibits about the mountain’s natural history. Another museum at Memorial Hall (near the sculpture) showcases uniforms and battle relics from the Civil War.

  After disembarking at the depot, you can walk to the Antebellum Plantation area where you step back in time and almost expect Scarlett O’Hara to stroll around the next corner. The plantation and farmyard offer 19 relocated and restored buildings, ranging from clapboard slave cabins to the 1790s Thornton House. You can explore the buildings, as well as the formal gardens, working cookhouse and farmyard. Children can pet the goats and pigs and learn about their role in plantation life.

Speaking of Miss Scarlett, after the plantation you can head to the marina and embark on a cruise aboard the paddle wheel riverboat, the Scarlett O’Hara. The side-wheeler reproduction churns along the 363-acre Stone Mountain Lake, providing views of the mountain rising above the lake’s wooded banks.

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After the cruise, you can return to Crossroads and load up on Southern cooking at Miss Katie’s Sideboard Restaurant. The boarding-house-style restaurant serves entrees such as chicken and dumplings or fried catfish with sides such as black-eyed peas or fried okra. For dessert, you can indulge in some of Governor Stephens Favorite Bourbon Pecan Pie.

Although Stone Mountain has numerous amusements and historical displays, more than two-thirds of the park is designated as the Natural District. One of the best ways to enjoy this district is to hike the 6-mile Cherokee Trail — picking it up near the memorial and heading clockwise around the dome.

The trail passes by the picturesque setting of an 1800s gristmill and covered bridge east of the mountain and then parallels the south side, exploring the lakeshore and the forest. The trail then turns inward to the gentle western slopes of Stone Mountain, but before approaching the mountain, hikers have the option of two detours. The first is the Songbird Habitat, which sits on the recovered site of the 1996 Olympic Archery and Cycling venue. The habitat’s Woodland and Meadow trails each offer a 1-mile tour through the trees, shrubs and grasses that provide homes for native birds. The second detour brings hikers to the Nature Garden Trail, which meanders among dogwoods, magnolias and native plants.

As hikers cross the northwest slope, they follow the Cherokee Trail, which wanders over the granite floor, passing large rocks and exfoliated sheets and eventually intersecting with the Walk-Up Trail. There, hikers can turn right and head to the top.

The Walk-Up Trail follows a painted yellow line on the rocks to guide hikers over the granite surface. Along the way, you’ll find the occasional scenic view, as well as interesting century-old carved graffiti from bygone hikers. Wearing good footwear is important as the path is steep and can be slippery, especially when wet.

At the top, you’ll discover a surreal landscape and a stunning 360-degree view. On clear days, a broad view of Atlanta reveals itself, as do the north Georgia mountains. Even during the hottest days, a nice breeze usually blows over the dome, and you can enjoy a picnic in the shade of the occasional stunted loblolly pine.

Although granite is the most common igneous rock, a rare combination of quartz, feldspar and mica comprises Stone Mountain. But that’s not all that is unusual. Scan the rock, and you’ll spot shallow depressions. These vernal pools fill with water in the spring and support mountaintop life, including the fairy and clam shrimps, which appear in those pools during the rainy spring season. The mountain also hosts a varied plant life. In addition to the lonely trees and shrubs that take hold, you’ll find mosses, lichens and rock plants, including the rare Confederate yellow daisy, which turns the slopes bright yellow in the fall.

After a good day of hiking, you can take the Summit Skyride, a Swiss-built cable car, to the memorial at the bottom. For visitors who don’t want to hike up, the Skyride is also a great way to reach the top with little effort or time. The car departs from the Skyride Plaza, adjacent to Memorial Hall, and skirts by the carving on its way up.

During the summer, or on a Saturday from April to October, you should cap a day at the park with an evening at the Lasershow. An Atlanta tradition, and the most popular event at Stone Mountain, the world’s largest Lasershow Spectacular uses the 1 million-square-foot mountain face as a projection screen. A celebration of patriotism, Southern tradition and New South emergence, the show choreographs lasers, flame cannons and other special effects to an eclectic mix of songs, including “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Georgia on My Mind.”

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On Saturday nights after the Lasershow, you can ride the water taxi across the lake to your site at the Stone Mountain Park Campground. The campground offers 441 sites, including a motorhome section with full or partial hookups. For guests only, the campground sells two-days-for-the-price-of-one attraction passes. You can access some of the attractions, such as the nature trails, Lasershow and Crossroads for the vehicle entrance fee. However, other attractions, such as the riverboat, railroad, Great Barn and Skyride require either an à la carte or all-day fee. The campground also offers special packages for the park’s two championship golf courses.

  Park roads are motorhome friendly with large parking lots near the main attractions area. By using the campground’s water taxi service and the park’s tram services, however, it’s easy to leave the coach and dinghy behind and explore without a vehicle.

With amusements, history and nature, Stone Mountain Park offers an ideal location for families to enjoy some Southern-styled time together. Offering activities for almost everyone, it’s a destination that should make everyone happy.

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