By Michael Davis
Tooling down U.S. Highway 78 out of Decatur, a mammoth mound rises into view from beyond the heavy pines and oaks.
Stone Mountain, the largest exposed piece of granite in the world, is more than the "eighth wonder of the world" as park officials call it. It's a park, a preserve, a history lesson and a hang-out.
More than 4 million people come by Stone Mountain Park - a 3,200-acre park owned by the state but not a state park - every year.
On a Sunday afternoon in May, metro Atlantans, Georgians, out-of-towners and foreign visitors climb the "big rock," play on its expansive greens and stroll through its trails.
"We love it just because you can get up here and spend time chasing young-uns around," said Billy Cates, a Covington resident on a recent visit to the mountain's summit with his wife and two sons, Kurt, 3, and Austin, 14.
"It's just wide open," he said.
Indeed, Georgians and others have taken advantage of Stone Mountain's wide openness as far back as the beginning of the state's recorded history é and further. The park says evidence of human habitation goes back 5,000 years.
The mountain became a well-known tourist attraction in the early 1800s when an inn and a stagecoach line were established. The area later boomed when another line went in to fulfill travelers' needs to get to the gold mining town of Dahlonega.
In 1963, the park opened after decades of state attempts to secure the land around the mountain were interrupted by the Great Depression and World War II. In 1964, a sculptor was commissioned to finish a job started nearly 40 years before.
Probably the most recognizable memorial to the history of the Confederacy, sculpting the three-horsemen shown astride their steeds on the north face of Stone Mountain - President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and Lt. General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson -proved no easy task for memorial boosters.
Initiated at the request of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who were deeded rights to the north face by the owning Venable family, in 1923 by sculptor Gutzon Borglum (eventually of Mount Rushmore fame), the work was abandoned after an auspicious beginning in 1925 leaving only Lee's head completed. Another sculptor was commissioned but was unable to complete the work and the lease reverted back to the Venable family.
It wasn't until the site came under the control of the state Legislature in 1958 that work began anew, and, in 1964, under new direction and with a new plan that including blasting off the previous work and scaling back the size of the memorial, so it began. "Not a blow of the hammer was struck for 36 years, from 1928 to 1964," writes Willard Neal in his book "Georgia's Stone Mountain."
The memorial itself, which can be seen up close on the park's Swiss cable car, was finished by 1970 using modern kerosene torches. The work is 90 feet tall and 190 feet wide. The outer "frame" from which the memorial is carved, spans three acres and sits back 42 feet back into the mountain.
Standing back from the railroad tracks, sometimes hidden from view by the locomotive that revolves around the more than 5-miles of track at the base of the mountain, is ground-zero of 1.4 mile trek up Stone Mountain's western slope. It's a trek some choose to make skyward, some choose to make toward terra firma.
Others choose the cable cars.
"I can't keep up with him on level ground," Billy Cates says pointing to his 3-year-old Kurt, who is being rustled up by his mother.
Ironically, wife Patty says a trip to the mountain is "time with family and for slowing down."
Hauling up the mountain is more than an exercise in exercise, however. Not far from the base, the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated a terrace in honor of the state's Confederate history. To this day, the first and second Confederate flags fly alongside the Stars and Stripes and the controversial Confederate Battle Flag.
Farther up, a pavilion provides a bit of shade from the spring sun.
Sill farther up, a pair of aluminum handrails aide hikers up and down a steep slope, creating the effect of a stairway with no stairs.
What to do
But a visit to the park in east DeKalb County, which is surrounded by suburban life, doesn't have to be all about nature and landscapes.
In 1998, the entertainment group Herschend Family Entertainment Corp. took over operations of the park's commercial ventures and has since pumped more than $60 million into park improvements, including the park's Crossroads attraction, a 6-acre theme park that which opened in 2002 and is based on a fictitious 1870s-era southern town.
Crossroads "gave us the ability to add other attractions," said park spokeswoman Christine Parker.
Included in the price of an attractions pass, Crossroads' notables include glass-blowers, staffers in period costumes rambling stories and a 4D theater called Tall Tales of the south.
The park will also open a wild animal attraction, Jim Fowler Wonders of the Wild, beginning May 31, which will run until July 17.
2005 also marks the 22nd anniversary of the park's Lasershow Spectacular, a multimedia show based around projection of laser animation. Visitors can join a crowd of about 10,000 on a typical Friday or Saturday evening, the park's Parker said.
One attraction not included in a regular park pass is "Ride the Ducks," a sight-seeing tour around the park on a refurbished World War II amphibious vehicle.
"One of the reasons it's not included in the All Attractions pass is that we have people come out just to do that," Parker said.
For those who can't quite fit in all they want to do at the park in a day, the park also offers lodging and camping opportunities, including the 92-room colonial style Stone Mountain Inn, a facility managed by the Marriott group of hotels.
While visitors can enjoy much of the mountain relatively free of charge (save for an $8-per-day parking fee), many of Stone Mountain's attractions require an admission pass.
The park sells a one-day attractions ticket for $20 ($17 for children 3-11) that covers the cost of most attractions, including Crossroads, Skylift and other attractions, but not "Ride the Ducks." Individual attraction passes are $7, except "Ride the Ducks," which is $9.
The park also offers yearly membership packages starting at $109 for a 2-member pass. The membership packages include one parking pass good for the year.
How to get there
Stone Mountain Park is located 16 miles east of downtown Atlanta, easily accessible from U.S. Highway 78, the Stone Mountain Freeway.
From the southside, take Interstate 285 east (towards Augusta). Follow I-285 to exit 39-B, U.S. Highway 78 and exit east. Travel 7.7 miles to exit 8, the main entrance to Stone Mountain Park.
If you go
Ride "Ride the Ducks" and hit the gift shop for a statesmetal beer mug, which is similar to pewter, with a relief of the memorial.
On the net:
Stone Mountain Park
Stone Mountain Memorial Association