By Rob Felt
Southside residents know as well as anyone in the country that dealing with
bumper-to-bumper traffic and sprawling growth requires periodic retreats to a less-civilized pocket of natural beauty. Driving for hours to make this escape would defeat the purpose, so what better place could there be than one in our own back yard?
In fact, there is such a place, and it's as close as Stockbridge... even if it might not feel like Stockbridge when you are there.
"Once you get back there, you'd never know you're near Atlanta," said Kim Jenkins, a secretary at the information center in Panola Mountain State Conservation Park.
The park offers 2 miles of self-guided trails that venture into the 1,000-plus acres of protected land. Two separate walks, the Rock Outcrop Trail and the Microwatershed Trail, loop in different directions from behind the information center, and it's in those areas that the modern world slips away.
For those looking to get even further off the more-traveled path, guided hikes into the normally prohibited areas of the park are also available, and these offer a look at untouched wilderness.
"It's a step back in time, and as close to pristine as you're going to find in this area," said Phil Delestrez, an interpretive ranger at the park.
Delestrez leads many of the hikes into the park's closed areas, and plays a large part in maintaining the integrity of its natural state. He doesn't spend all of his time hiking through the woods, though. Delestrez works to maintain the exhibits in the information center, paint wall murals that serve as educational tools for kids of all ages, and leads group classes on the local wildlife in the Panola Mountain area.
Christy Simonds of Conyers says her four children love to take day trips to the park, which also offers playground equipment and educational displays geared for kids in the information center.
"We take our walking sticks and go out onto the trails, they like to see the animals and go into the woods," Simonds said. They visit the park about for times a year for a family getaway.
One of the best ways to take advantage of the resources are the free Saturday programs that run all year long. Preregistration is required for these activities, as numbers are limited, but there are plenty of weekends this summer to make one of these dates.
This Saturday, May 7, the park will host Jim Wilson from the Audubon Society, who will lead a hike in search of springtime migrant birds in the park. The following summer dates still have openings.
May 21, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. "Snakes!" - This indoor program will feature live snakes.
June 11, noon to 2 p.m. "Bees and Beekeeping" - P.N. Williams, founder of the TARA Beekeepers association, will discuss bees, beekeeping, and the tools needed to be a beekeeper.
June 11, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. "Birds of Prey" - Live birds that have been rescued from injury will be used in a presentation that will include a talk about protecting the birds.
July 16, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. "Twilight Hike" - A sunset hike to the top of Panola Mountain.
Aug. 27, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. "Reptiles" - An indoor program that will discuss snakes, turtles and lizards, and how they are important to our ecosystem.
Call (770) 398-7801 to make a reservation or for more information.
The information center at Panola Park houses displays and interactive exhibits geared for children. Re-created habitats with stuffed animals, maps of the park and a live bee colony are some of the highlights. The center also offers nature related items for purchase and gifts, such as photo greeting cards of the park.
At the back of the information center are two classrooms where the indoor events are held, and they can accommodate a total of 80 people combined.
Indoor public restrooms are located off the back of the building.
There is parking inside the park near all of the facilities. The fee for parking is currently $2 per day, and this money contributes to upkeep and renovations. This amount can be paid at a drop box near the park's entrance or inside the information center during its normal operating hours.
For $25 a year, Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites offers an Annual ParkPass, which allows you to park in any of the state's 63 parks and historic sites for free. The pass is good for one year from the date of purchase.
Senior and disabled veteran discounts are available for the pass, which can be purchased at Panola Mountain in the information center or by calling (770) 389-7401.
Looking for a different place to hold a birthday party, family reunion or corporate outing? For group events of up to 100 people, Panola Mountain has four picnic shelters available for rent.
The facilities include water and a large grill (but no electrical outlets), and each individual shelter holds up to 50 people. They are near playground equipment and bathrooms, and some of the shelters are wheelchair accessible.
Reservations are $55 per shelter, paid at the time the reservation is made. This fee covers the shelter for the entire day: 7 a.m. until 15 minutes before dark. The reservations can be made online at www.gastateparks.org or by calling (800) 864-7275.
Alcohol is not allowed in the park, and the $2 parking fee still applies to all visitors.
Opportunities to get outside and conserve the natural habitat are available at Panola Mountain. Experienced hikers or those with a green thumb are needed at the park.
"We're always looking for volunteers to lead hikes or kill privet," interpretative ranger Phil Delestrez said.
A Chinese variety of privet is threatening to choke out native plant life, and the park is currently fighting to keep it from spreading. The low-growing shrub thrives in shade, and it kills the natural undergrowth.
Privet-killing volunteers venture out and find the plants, then cut them back to the ground and apply an herbicide directly to the stump. It's like pulling weeds in your lawn on a large scale.
Plans are under way to add a wetlands area to the park. The project is scheduled to be opened next year, and will included a public area and self-guided tour.
It will include about 8 acres of wetlands in an area that once naturally supported that habitat, and will be accessible by a system of boardwalks and information signs.