Thursday, February 9, 2012

Daytrip: A Triumvirate of Monadnocks

About 300 million years ago, Africa slammed into North America at the incredible rate of 1 inch per year, crumpling the Earth's surface and pushing mountains high into the air. Where mountains did not form, the extreme pressure melted rock, some of which exploded out of the surface as volcanoes. Some balls of liquid rock floated up toward the surface like massive underground bubbles, but cooled into rock instead. Millions of years later, rain washed away the softer crust, exposing the granite mounds.

The Gum Pole
It was one of those mounds of granite that I was stretching on next to an electrical pole covered in chewing gum that had been driven into its surface. My brother and I had resolved to climb Stone Mountain that morning, a particularly prominent rock outcropping known as a monadnock. Generally speaking, a monadnock is different than a traditional mountain in that it's basically the cooled contents of a volcano that never exploded, while a mountain consists of layers of rock pushed upward by tectonic forces. This is why mountains generally slope or are jagged while a monadnock looks like the exposed upper half of a ball (which is effectively what it is).

There are many monadnocks in the piedmont region of Georgia (everything above several hundred feet in altitude), and most of them are near Atlanta. This is because the city is the halfway point between the Appalachian mountains and the coastal plain. Stone Mountain is world-famous, but very little is known about its two monadnock neighbors, Arabia and Panola Mountains.

Because they are so close together and open to the public for hiking, we decided to conquer all three in one day. Each are easy-to-moderate hikes of less than a 3 mile round-trip, so there wouldn't be any question about whether it would be possible.

Stone Mountain

We began at Stone Mountain, the most famous of all southeastern U.S. granite domes. Arriving in the parking lot of the walk-up trail on a Sunday at 9:30 AM, I expected the place to be packed, but the 32 degree weather probably prevented that. We hiked upward, past the gum pole, past countless chunks of dislodged granite that made it feel like we were climbing a one-mile-long staircase. A covered gazebo 75% of the way up provided picnic tables for a quick break before completing the most difficult—and steep—portion of the trail. Metal railings driven into the granite ensured stability in this section.

Before we knew it, we were at the top—a large, mostly flat peak almost entirely devoid of plant life. The peak is surrounded by a chain link fence that prevents you from falling to your doom, and a nice, clean building at the top contains bathrooms and water fountains. It's all very unique and scenic, but there's nothing like the view.

In all directions, especially on a day with unlimited visibility like the one we were experiencing, one can view all of north Georgia. Looking east, the relatively impressive skyline of Atlanta, Buckhead, and Sandy Springs; further north, Kennesaw and Sweat Mountains are visible, followed by an extremely long line of the Blue Ridge Mountains that stretch into North Carolina. (Click here for a full resolution version of this panorama.)

The Blue Ridge Mountains

From here, I tried to locate Arabia Mountain by sight, but it was blocked by a slightly higher neighborhood in front of it. At nearly 1700 feet, I expected to be able to see anything, but I couldn't see through the hillside that was taller than the next mountain we were headed to.

We walked to the north face of our monadnock to look down at the artificial-snow-covered field 800 feet below. Children mounted inflatable tubes and were pushed downhill by employees underneath the looming shadow of the world's largest bas relief sculpture: A 3-D rendering of three Civil War generals on horseback more than several hundred feet in height. We stood beneath the first skylift transit of the day, my brother eagerly anticipating the screams of terrified passengers, but it was empty. On the far side of the mountain, opposite the walk-up trail, no one was present; just us, a waist-high chain-link fence, and signs that said "DO NOT CROSS". My brother begged me to take a photo of him standing on the other side, which I did, immediately calling the police because he was breaking the law. Criminal!

A 15 minute stroll back down the mountain lead us to a now very full parking lot, where we consulted the map to determine the best way to get to Arabia Mountain.


  • Take I-285 to the east side of Atlanta
  • Take Highway 78 east to Stone Mountain
  • Veer right onto the Memorial Drive exit
  • Veer right onto the E. Ponce DeLeon Ave. exit
  • Turn left onto E. Ponce DeLeon Ave. and head into downtown Stone Mountain
  • Turn left onto James B. Rivers Memorial Dr.
  • Pay $10 to enter the park, then turn right
  • Turn immediately left into the parking lot of the walk-up trail

Arabia Mountain

Our next destination was the place that had sparked my interest in monadnocks to begin with. Sure, I took Stone Mountain for granted like everyone else, mostly because it had been turned into a major tourist attraction (and for good reason), but Arabia Mountain was something new. Something relatively untouched. A place where movement wouldn't be restricted to the confines of a chain link fence. Somewhere I could fall to my doom if I chose to. And it was free.

We drove south out of downtown Stone Mountain after stopping at a German bakery for a massive pretzel, passing through the highly industrial towns of Redan and Lithonia. Arabia was a well-kept secret because most Atlantans steer clear of this part of town. It's not dangerous, but it didn't seem like there would be a unique, high-quality hiking trail anywhere nearby. We didn't expect one either, until we arrived.

We parked on the west side of Klondike Rd. at a free parking lot with a welcome center for the park and made a quarter mile hike on a well-paved wide path to a boardwalk on the other side of the street. The mountain immediately loomed over us like a mini-Stone-Mountain. I didn't see a single person anywhere nearby, except those in their cars zooming past us. Unfortunately, we were stuck on the boardwalk, hovering ten or so feet over the granite.

"I'm pretty sure we can just jump this railing and walk up there," I said, motioning to the peak. We decided to keep walking the boardwalk and see where it took us, which turned out to be a pretty good idea.

At the end of the half mile walk, we ended up in the parking lot for the Arabia Mountain walk-up trail. Turns out we could have just parked there to begin with. A small and seemingly unoccupied nature preserve was located adjacent to this lot.

Stonecrop at the peak
The walk-up trail, dotted by piles of cemented rocks to mark the way, cut a sometimes narrow, sometimes impossibly wide path through the forest on its way to the peak, passing by an uncountable number of solution pools filled with tiny red plant called stonecrop (Diamorpha smallii). An old, abandoned, and hardly worked quarry was located close to the entrance, and judging by the massive piles of broken glass in the area, serves as a popular place for underage drinking. I imagined that later that night a group of high school kids would be sitting there in almost total darkness, sucking down watery beers and watching out for the flashlights of law enforcement. They probably had 100 escape routes planned.

Pushing on, we came to a clearing where nothing taller than my toes would grow: the peak. It was an easy climb, and we passed several other hikers with tiny dogs. I thought about my pathetic tiny dog and how much trouble he'd had hiking Amicalola Falls, considering this a much more suitable hike for him. I wished I had brought him.

Panola in the distance
At the peak, we looked to the southwest to see a very clear view of Panola Mountain, our next destination; to the west, the tops of downtown Atlanta skyscrapers peeked out over the trees; to the northwest, a very faint glimpse of an antenna sticking up over the tree line which we deduced to be the broadcast tower atop Stone Mountain.

Though we had a 360 degree view, it baffled me that I could not see Stone Mountain. As it turns out, though Arabia Mountain has a 180 foot prominence over the surrounding area, its 940 foot peak is actually lower than the average Atlanta altitude by about 60 feet. With nearby hills and trees reaching well over this height, our view of Stone Mountain was entirely blocked. That explained why I couldn't see it from the top of that other enormous monadnock.

To get back to the car, we decided to cut west and climb up onto the boardwalk. We clambered down precarious drops where stone had broken away thousands of years ago and appreciated that no one was telling us where we could or could not fall to our doom. Coming close to the boardwalk, the ground leveled off into the largest repository of broken glass I had ever seen in my life. If the quarry was a renowned drinking spot, this flat granite outcropping near the Arabia Mountain parking lot was an alcohol mecca. For hundreds of feet in all directions, chunks of broken glass smaller than two inches in diameter blanketed the ground.

And just as we were prepared to climb the railing up onto the boardwalk, we realized that we were at the entrance. We just had to cut to the right of it to make a quarter mile hike back to the car.

  • Leave the park via James B. Memorial Dr.
  • Turn left onto Main St.
  • Miles later, cross the train tracks and turn left onto S. Stone Mountain Lithonia Rd.
  • In downtown Lithonia, veer right onto Max Cleland Blvd.
  • Turn right onto Main St.
  • Turn left onto Klondike Rd.
  • Go straight through the roundabout at Rockland Rd.
  • Turn right into the parking lot

Panola Mountain

The last monadnock in our journey was the most mysterious one. It was the only one of the three located outside of Dekalb County; it seemed significantly smaller than the other two, but taller than Arabia; it was mostly covered in trees, but from my view of it from Arabia, there would clearly be photo opportunities and skyline to be seen.

We turned right out of the Arabia Mountain parking lot and several miles later ended up in the parking lot for the Arabia Mountain Trail. Parking cost us $5 in an envelope in a big green box, so we were glad to have some cash on us. I walked up to a bathroom to see a sign that said, in no unclear terms, that the walk-up trail was not to be attempted without a guide. The guide would cost $7 per person, and was only available on Saturdays at 3 PM. We sat down and waited for 146 hours.

In reality, we decided to see if we could discreetly hike it anyway. A big, picturesque lake marked the entrance to the path, which was a continuation of that wide paved path we'd walked on at Arabia. We passed by a decaying barn, which urged us not to step off the path. Later, we passed a chimney in the woods, where signs yelled at us to not step off the path. A short while later, we passed by TWO chimneys in the woods, where a sign threatened us within an inch of our lives if we stepped off the path. Before reaching the fabled double chimney, we had seen a side path cut off to the south with a sign warning us that would be mercilessly beaten for stepping off the main path. We kept that in mind as we looked for somewhere we could clip off into the woods, but the very strict code of conduct in Rockbridge County was starting to get a bit unnerving.

The Forbidden Trail
Eventually we came to a large footbridge with a maximum weight limit of 999 pounds. Since the river underneath it was the border between Rockbridge and Dekalb counties, we realized we'd gone too far. The only side path we'd seen must have been the one leading up to the mountain's peak, but we were being threatened with execution for attempting it. After breaching the fence at Stone Mountain and uncovering two hotbeds of illegal activity at Arabia Mountain, we decided not to push our luck and walked back to the car.

The strict rules at Panola were disconcerting after the unbridled freedom we'd enjoyed at Arabia. Though Panola is apparently taller, Arabia wins for its openness.

  • Turn right out of the Arabia parking lot onto Klondike Rd.
  • Go straight ahead at the stop sign
  • Turn right into the parking lot approximately 20 inches later
So there you have it: The monadnocks of East Atlanta. It's easy to hike all three in one day, even if you're not terribly in shape. But if you want to reach the peak of each, make sure you're at Panola at 3 PM on a Saturday. Had I known this ahead of time I would have spent $12 on Skee-Ball at a local bowling alley.

The monadnocks are a bit of an oddity. They're giant bubbles of cooled lava that attempted to float upward and explode out of the earth. Whether walking on them, having a picnic on them, or chugging fermented barley on them, you should never forget that you are standing on a frozen moment in volcanic activity. It's as if someone hit the pause button and then let the ground wash away around it so you could enjoy its upper portion.

When you're sick of hiking in the woods, there's always the alien landscape of the monadnocks.


  1. Great information, thanks! I plan to explore the other two mountains.

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