One Big Rock

Published: February 12th 2012
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Stone MountainStone MountainStone Mountain

Look for the building near the base to sense the enormous scale

Stone Mountain

I spent most of today at Stone Mountain.

I first encountered it last Saturday for the laser show.

Stone Mountain is a granite monolith, the largest in the world.

This means the entire mountain is a single block of granite stuck in an area of rolling hills.

There are much larger granite blocks in the world (think of the Sierra Nevada) but they are all part of mountain ranges.

Stone Mountain stands alone.

The north face of the mountain is nearly vertical.

It contains the world’s largest relief carving, Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and Stonewall Jackson on horseback.

The mountain has been a Southern tourist site for a long time, basically since the time settlers discovered it.

At this point, it has turned into a theme park.

This theme park features two museums (one on geology, the other on the carving) a mini-golf course, a huge climbing complex, a boat ride, a miniature train around the mountain, several theme restaurants, and much else.

I was interested in the mountain itself, so I mostly ignored the rest.

Stone Mountain Trail

The best way to
Stone Mountain TrailStone Mountain TrailStone Mountain Trail

A look at a typical section of the Stone Mountain trail on the lower portion of the mountain.
see the mountain is on the climbing trail.

It goes straight up the least steep part of the mountain.

People have been using it for at least two hundred years.

A sign board points out that people have been trying to descend on other routes, and getting into trouble as a result, for nearly as long.

One early employee, Elias Nour, became famous for his heroic rescues of wayward visitors.

The trail, as expected, mostly involves walking on granite.

It’s not at all technical, but it is hot and exposed.

Granite radiates heat in direct sunlight, so the climb involves heat from above and below.

The trail is also the most popular climb in Georgia, so expect company.

The first part of the trail passes by a set of flag poles.

These poles proudly fly the five flags used by the Confederacy in its brief existence.

I realize the mountain is a Confederate memorial, but I still found it rather disturbing.

The trail then enters clumps of trees.

The lower part of the mountain is covered in pine trees, so groups of them
Atlanta from Stone MountainAtlanta from Stone MountainAtlanta from Stone Mountain

The towers of Atlanta, seen from Stone Mountain. Look for the rectangular smudges on the horizion.
appeared periodically on the climb.

Unfortunately, the trail also passes bunches of graffiti.

People can’t seem to resist carving their names in the rock along the trail.

About two thirds of the way up, the trail breaks into open rock for good, and the view first appears.

The view here is to the west.

Since the mountain is a monolith, the view stretches for miles.

On a good day, the towers of Atlanta are clearly visible in the distance.

Today, they were little more than smudges in the heat haze.

During high summer, the smog on the mountain can get so bad that a climb is like breathing diesel fumes.

After this point, the trail gets steep.

Climbers have two choices for getting up.

The first involves a technical scramble through boulders.

It’s pretty straightforward for those with hiking experience, but a real challenge otherwise.

The other route is straight up the rock, with the aid of a railing.

Climbing this felt like a little piece of the Half-Dome cables (the last part of the trail to Half-Dome in Yosemite) in the
Stone Mountain railingsStone Mountain railingsStone Mountain railings

The steep section of the Stone Mountain trail, with railings to aid the climb.
middle of Georgia.

The top of Stone Mountain is gently curved and very wide.

The view stretches in all directions.

Given the humidity and pollution, I could see the land nearby and nothing else.

The steepest parts of the mountain are now protected with fences.

A sign notes that going beyond the fence is a misdemeanor and will result in a fine.

Of course, one will probably need to survive their fall first.

The fence on the northern side is directly above the carving on the mountain face.

Walking up to it produces a vertigo-inducing view of the entertainment complex far below.

Behind this are a series of concrete blocks cemented to the rock face.

Bits of rusted metal stick out.

These are the old anchors of the ropes workers hung from while working on the carving.

The walk down is pretty much the reverse of the walk up, hot and crowded.

At the trail head, a ranger offers all hikers a Stone Mountain hike completion certificate.

Stone Mountain Carving

A museum covers the
Stone Mountain top viewStone Mountain top viewStone Mountain top view

Haze, trees, and sprawl, in all directions
complicated story of the carving.

As expected, it has a great view.

The museum is a strange hybrid where certain exhibits are free and others need to be paid for.

The idea for a memorial to the Confederate cause started in the 1880s during the height of the Lost Cause movement, which romanticized the war as the highest expression of Southern nobility (as opposed to Northern money-grubbing crassness).

The primary organizer was Helen Plane, the widow of a former officer who died at Gettysburg.

The first sculptor hired was Gutzon Borglum, who found fame later carving Mount Rushmore.

His skills were not nearly as developed at this point.

He designed an entire army marching across the face of the mountain, with Robert E Lee in the middle.

He projected his sketch on the mountain, and had his workers paint it on the surface.

They started work with dynamite in 1916.

He got so far as to carve Lee’s head when his sponsors became tired of his slow progress and fired him.

Borglum did learn from this experience, and applied the lessons to Mount Rushmore.

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The complex in front of the carving, as seen from directly above it. The building is Memorial Hall, with the Stone Mountain Inn behind it. I shot this photo through the security fence.
replacement was another sculptor, Augustus Lukeman.

One of his first acts was to blast off all of Borglum’s work.

He simplified Borglum’s original design to three central figures, the ones that currently appear on the mountain.

He also made a model of the final carving.

The model is on display in the museum.

His foremen used precise measurements and geometry to transfer the design of the model to the rock face.

This led to much more accurate results and faster carving.

Progress was still very slow, however, and the project closed in the 1920s due to lack of funding.

The Great Depression ensured it wouldn’t be starting back up for a while.

In the early 1960s, the state acquired what until that point had been a private attraction.

One of the first things the new park managers did was provide funds to finish the carving.

Unfortunately, most men who knew how to sculpt granite had retired by that point.

They finally found a stone carver who had the necessary artistic skills, Walter Hancock.

He was also terrified of heights!

He worked on the
Stone Mountain carvingStone Mountain carvingStone Mountain carving

The famous Confederate carving on Stone Mountain.
carving just long enough to finish the trickiest part of the job (carving the heads of Jackson and Davis) and then got out of there.

The remainder of the work was done by local stone masons, using the original model from sixty years earlier.

The great irony of this project is that most of the work was done by people who had no artistic backgrounds whatsoever.

The carving was finally dedicated on 1970.

The featured speaker was Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was later convicted of corruption.

I’m sure there is a message in there somewhere.

The museum does a pretty good job describing all this.

It also features a gift shop that shows one of the uglier aspects of Southern culture.

For most of my trip, Confederate sympathies have been fairly subtle.

They are always present, of course, but it was a low key presence.

Charleston gift shops have plenty of confederate history books, but they are always mixed in with other Civil War material.

In this gift shop, the Confederacy is front and center.

No matter what people want with the
Stone Mountain modelStone Mountain modelStone Mountain model

The model used as the basis for the Stone Mountain carving.
stars and bars on it, it’s available.

Don’t even ask about the “Confederate parking only; Yankees go back north” signs.

This place weirded me out; they do realize the Confederacy lost the war over a century ago, right?

Additional photos below
Photos: 19, Displayed: 19


Stone Mountain ParkStone Mountain Park
Stone Mountain Park

The climbing area, one of many attractions at this complex
Trail sideTrail side
Trail side

The slope of the mountain climbed by the summit trail
Summit trailSummit trail
Summit trail

Did I mention it involves walking on exposed granite?
Confederate memorialConfederate memorial
Confederate memorial

Creepy for a northern resident
Getting steepGetting steep
Getting steep

The trail will soon rise above the trees
Mounting boltsMounting bolts
Mounting bolts

Remains of support mounts for workers on the carving
Trail climb from parking lotTrail climb from parking lot
Trail climb from parking lot

The section of mountain climbed by the summit trail.

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