The gates to Panola Mountain State Park are nestled under tall grey pines in the northern parts of Henry County. The park is situated just off Highway 155. If you’re not on the lookout for the park, you’ll miss it in the blink of an eye. I’ve visited the park a number of times for picnics and bike riding over the years. However, this summer was the first time I’d actually climbed to the top of Panola Mountain.
Panola Mountain sustains a fragile ecosystem upon its broad granite shoulders. Intricate mosses and lichens grow slowly on the face of the granite. Prickly pear and yucca grow under the red cedars and junipers. The mountain can look so still and silent; but when you stop to look closely, a world of determined yet fragile plants slides into focus.
Michie Turpin and I met Shawn Baltzell (Panola’s Site Manager) and Lieren Forbes (Park Naturalist) at 8 a.m. on a July morning at the park. The cool of morning faded quickly with the unstoppable climb of the Georgia sun. After a quick cup of coffee we set out to climb the mountain. With so many rare and delicate species of flora calling Panola home, it’s crucial to follow a specific path and tread carefully when ascending the mountain. All hikes up the mountain are guided by park staff to ensure the safety of the delicate ecosystem.
Lieren picked a careful path for us to follow up the granite face of the mountain. Along the way she and Shawn pointed out the natural wonders of the mountain. The mountain is studded with shallow depressions in the granite called solution pools. These solution pools provide a uniquely crucial microcosm for select species to flourish. After heavy rains, these pools fill with water. Within the sand and gravel in the pools, small red Diamorpha grow. These tiny plants bloom red in the early springtime and then lie in reticence for the better part of the year. The Diamorpha has small stalks to hold their small seeds up over the blisteringly hot granite. If the seed falls from its tiny tower upon the rock, it would scorch and die. Life hangs in the balance up here.
Black vultures float above the trees on the warm thermals. The view from the mountain’s top is a sea of green trees. Panola Mountain sits 944 feet above sea level. You can see the faded Atlanta skyline in the distance. The technical term for this mountain is a Monadnock. A Monadnock is a large stone outcrop or mountain that rises from an area that is relatively level. Stone Mountain and Arabia Mountain are similar Monadnocks that are visible from Panola. Both Stone Mountain and Arabia Mountain provide lovely day hikes, but the fragile species are all but gone from their rocky faces. Unguided human traffic along with pet traffic has taken a toll upon these other two mountains.
Along with the guided mountain hikes, Panola Park has a huge archery range, biking paths, a lake for fishing and kayak paddling…. and the park is connected to the Georgia Path. The park hosts archery lessons, bird watching walks and evening hikes. The park surrounding the mountain is a thriving outdoor haven for nearby counties. The Mountain itself is a resting testament to nature’s wonders. Panola Mountain is truly a hidden gem tucked within the Georgia pines.
By Kemble Hildreth