A monolithic gray-granite outcropping (the world's largest) carved with a massive monument to the Confederacy, Stone Mountain is a distinctive landmark on Atlanta's horizon and the focal point of its major recreation area, which includes 3,200 acres of lakes and beautiful wooded parkland. Having celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008, Stone Mountain is Georgia's number-one tourist attraction, and one of the 10 most-visited paid attractions in the United States.
Stone Mountain itself was formed about 300 million years ago, when intense heat and pressure caused molten material just below the earth's surface to push upward. That material cooled slowly (it took 100 million years) and formed compact, uniform crystals. Initially, a 2-mile-thick overlay of the earth's surface covered the hardened granite, but over the next 200 million years, that layer eroded, exposing the mountain we see today. The dome-shaped rock rises 1,683 feet above sea level and covers 583 acres. Half of Georgia and part of North Carolina rest on the mountain's base.
Make your first stop the Discovering Stone Mountain Museum to get some perspective on the mountain's history. Exhibits take you through an intriguing chronological journey from the area's past into its present.
Although the best view of the mountain is from below, the vistas from the top are spectacular. Visitors who are part mountain goat can take the walking trail up and down its moss-covered slopes, especially lovely in spring when they're blanketed in wildflowers. The trail is 1.3 miles each way. Or you can ride the Skyride cable car to the top, where you'll find an incredible view of Atlanta and the Appalachian Mountains. The best approach is to take the cable car up and then walk back down. A new view can be had from the Sky Hike attraction, a quarter-mile family adventure course four stories high.
For a different perspective, check out the park from onboard a World War II amphibious vehicle: The park's Ride the Ducks Tour is a 40-minute adventure that moves from land into the waters of Stone Mountain Lake. Tours run from 11am daily; tickets are $9 for ages 3 and up, or $6 when added to the One-Day All-Attractions Pass. Duck Tours are included on the One-Day Pass on "Limited Attraction Days" (Mon-Thurs in the fall) at no additional charge.
A highlight at Stone Mountain is the Lasershow Spectacular, an astonishing display of laser lights and fireworks with animation and music. The brilliant laser beams are projected on the mountain's north face, a natural 1-million-square-foot screen. Shows are presented on Saturdays at 8:30pm from March through October, except from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, when they take place every night at 9:30pm. They're free with park admission. Bring a picnic supper and arrive early to get a good spot on the lawn at the base of the mountain.
Other major park attractions include the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad, an open-air train that chugs around the 5-mile base of Stone Mountain. The ride takes 40 minutes and includes a live "train robbery" skit. Trains depart from Railroad Depot, an old-fashioned train station, where there's a restaurant with all the fixings for a fried-chicken picnic, just in case you forgot to bring your own.
The Antique Car and Treasure Museum is a jumble of old radios, jukeboxes, working nickelodeons, pianos, Lionel trains, carousel horses, and clocks, along with classic cars. The Scarlett O'Hara, a paddlewheel riverboat, cruises the 363-acre Stone Mountain Lake.
Visitors can now travel back in time at Crossroads ★, where you can explore an 1870s rural southern town, complete with a cast of authentically costumed characters who sing, play instruments, tell stories, and demonstrate crafts such as glass blowing, candle making, and blacksmithing. In addition to the town's quirky and talented characters, other special treats include a gristmill and bakery, a general store with candy and ice-cream production facilities, and a boardinghouse restaurant that serves up tasty Southern cuisine, from chicken and dumplings to fried catfish. If you plan to eat, you might want to stop by and add your name to the list before you explore the town, as there is often a wait.
Another part of the Crossroads attraction is the Great Barn, a hit with children and adults. Join in the fun as you help "harvest" fruits and vegetables throughout this multi-level foam factory to rack up points for your team. The Treehouse Challenge is a one-of-a-kind outdoor adventure that pits boys against girls to control balls on a large track that links the two tree houses (sort of a life-size pinball game). The town's centerpiece is the Tall Tales of the South theater, where visitors use special glasses to view a 3-D film with 4-D (yes, four) special effects. The frog's tongue, which stretches into the movie audience from its perch on a swamp log, is just one of the surprises of the experience. Small children might not enjoy the film, as some of the effects are a bit unnerving.
The 19-building Antebellum Plantation offers self-guided tours assisted by hosts in period dress at each structure. Highlights include an authentic 1830s country store; the 1845 Kingston House (which represents a typical overseer's house); the clapboard slave cabins; the 1790s Thornton House, elegant home of a large landowner; the smokehouse and well; the doctor's office; a barn, a coach house, and crop-storage cribs; a privy; a cook house; and the 1850 neoclassical Tara-like Dickey House. The grounds also contain formal gardens and a kitchen garden. It takes at least an hour to tour the entire complex. Often (especially in summer), there are Civil War reenactments, craft and cooking demonstrations, storytellers, and balladeers on the premises. Children will enjoy getting up close and personal with the critters at Grandpa's Farm at the Plantation, featuring domesticated farm animals such as pigs and goats.
Additional activities: golf (on top-rated courses designed by Robert Trent Jones and John LaFoy), miniature golf, 15 tennis courts, a sizable stretch of sandy lakefront beach with four water slides, carillon concerts, rowboats and paddleboats, bicycle rental, fishing, hiking, picnicking, and more.
Stone Mountain is one of the most beautiful parks in the nation and hosts a number of major events throughout the year, so visit its website for dates and details. Consider spending a few days of your trip here; it's a great place for a romantic getaway or a family vacation. If you can only spare a day, it's an easy drive (about 30 min.) from downtown.
The Face of a Mountain -- Over half a century in the making, Stone Mountain's neoclassical carving -- 90 feet high and 190 feet wide -- is the world's largest bas-relief sculpture. Originally conceived by Gutzon Borglum, it depicts Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson galloping on horseback throughout eternity. Borglum started work on the mountain sculpture in 1923, but abandoned it after 10 years due to insurmountable technical problems and rifts with its sponsors. (He went on to South Dakota, where he gained fame carving Mount Rushmore.) No sign of his work remains at Stone Mountain, but it was his vision that inspired the project. Augustus Lukeman took over in 1925, but 3 years later, the work still far from complete, the family that owned the mountain lost patience and reclaimed the property. It wasn't until 1963, after the state purchased the mountain and surrounding property for a park, that work resumed under Walter Kirtland Hancock and Roy Faulkner. It was completed in 1970.