Monday, August 15, 2011

Stone Mountain, Georgia: The Mount Rushmore of the South

Stone Mountain State Park (August 2011)
History, Nature, and Family Fun

View of Stone Mountain and the Confederate Memorial Carving from terrace of Visitor Center
Fifteen miles east of downtown Atlanta, a monolithic granite dome rises out of the Georgia landscape.  Surrounded by woods, streams, and a large, man-made lake, Stone Mountain and the Confederate Memorial Carving on its surface are the center of a popular state park featuring hiking trails; boat, train, and cable-car rides; a ropes course for kids and adventurous adults; miniature and regular golf; two hotels, a campground, and more.  We recently returned from a family reunion in Stone Mountain State Park.  With family members ranging in from ages three to ninety, there was something in the park for everyone.

A Giant Carving

Confederate Memorial Carving on Stone Mountain (L to R: Davis, Lee, Jackson)
The most famous feature of Stone Mountain is the giant carving on the side of the rock depicting three heroes of the Civil War Confederacy: General Robert E. Lee, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (so-named because he was said to stand as firm as a stone wall in battle), and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States.  The entire carved surface, the size of three football fields, makes it the largest bas-relief carving in the world.  The three men are shown astride their favorite horses, Blackjack (Davis), Traveller (Lee), and Little Sorrel (Jackson).  The horses are so big that during the construction of the monument, workers could take shelter from rainstorms in the horses’ open mouths.

A Long History

Reproduction of the head of Blackjack, one of the horses on the monument
The idea for a monument to Southern heroes of the Civil War was launched in 1916 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who bought the side of the mountain and hired sculptor Gutzon Borglum to do the carving.  However, after eight years, he abandoned the project and left to carve Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Meanwhile, the Great Depression and World War II halted further work.  It was not until 1958, after the state of Georgia bought Stone Mountain and the surrounding land and turned it into a state park, that the project was resumed and completed by two other sculptors, Walter Hancock and Roy Faulkner.  (The work previously done by Borglum’s team was blasted off the mountain and the new carvers started over!)  The monument was finished and dedicated in 1970 by Vice President Spiro Agnew.

Fireworks on the Mountain

Lasershow Spectacular at Stone Mountain
Directly in front of the mountain, the terrace of the visitor center provides the best view of the carving.  Inside the visitor center, we watched a video about the history of making the memorial, got an overview of the impact of the Civil War on the communities around Stone Mountain, and found out about various aspects of the mountain’s human, natural and geologic history. A large lawn slopes down from the visitor center to the base of the rock.  Terraces on either side are dedicated to the states that were members of the confederacy.  In summer, and on weekend evenings, a laser show with fireworks draws thousands of picnickers to the lawn.  While one can rent chairs on the terraces for the evening, we sat on blankets on the grass to watch the performance.

Sky Hike and Other Activities

Traversing a beam at the Sky Hike
For the kids in our group, the highlight of the trip was the Sky Hike, a three level ropes and balancing course.  My personal role was to stay on the ground and take pictures!  Safety harnesses insured that everyone stayed safe as they made their way across various ropes, ladders and narrow plank bridges.  It is not an activity for anyone who doesn’t like heights! [Note: closed toe shoes are required for the Sky Hike.  This prompted a quick trip to Target for the kids to buy appropriate shoes since they had only brought sandals.]  We also played miniature golf and watched a glass-blowing demonstration.  Other members of the group took the train ride around the base of the mountain, went on the “Duck” (an amphibious vehicle tour of the park), rode the cable car to the top of the mountain, and did driving tours.  And everyone enjoyed the swimming pool at the hotel!  It was August, and with temperatures in the nineties and high humidity, the pool was the perfect place to be at the end of the afternoon.

Glass blowing demonstration
Practicalities: A vehicle fee of $10 is required for entrance to the park.  Most attractions in the park (except for the laser show) require a ticket. If you plan to do two or more, it is better to buy a one-day pass (adults $27 plus tax, child $21 plus tax).  If you buy the pass at the hotel, you get two days for the price of one.
We were there on a weekend.  We noticed that lines to get into attractions were much shorter on Sunday than on Saturday, when the kids had to wait nearly an hour to get onto the ropes course.  On Sunday morning, there was almost no wait.
We stayed at the Stone Mountain Inn (a Marriott Hotel), which is close to the Visitor Center and attractions.  At the other end of the park near the golf course is the Evergreen Marriott Resort and Conference Center.  
Historic grist mill at the picnic area

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