Stone Mountain History and Hiking Guide

Expansive in both size and history, Stone Mountain has been a famous Georgia destination for years for both resident hikers and visiting recreationists.

Stone Mountain

With options for camping, boating and many more outdoor activities across 3,200 acres, Stone Mountain Park is a popular destination for out-of-town visitors and metro Atlanta residents alike. The park averaged nearly 4 million visitors a year pre-pandemic, making it Georgia’s most popular tourist attraction. Many of those visitors come for the theme park attractions—the Skyride, laser show or train ride around the mountain—but outdoor enthusiasts have plenty of nature-based activities to choose from as well. The park charges a per-vehicle fee for entrance, but there is no charge for walking or biking in. 

While Stone Mountain Park is full of options for outdoor recreation, it’s important to acknowledge the park’s contentious history. First-time visitors may already be familiar with the controversial carving of three Confederate leaders etched onto the north side of Stone Mountain. It is the largest relief sculpture in the world. Old and new visitors alike may be surprised to find the Confederate references don’t stop there. The streets inside the park are also named for Confederate Army generals, including Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Confederate flags fly along the park’s most popular trail, and Venable Lake inside the park is named after a family with well-documented Ku Klux Klan ties. Some people argue the park documents Southern history, but many others call it the largest shrine to white supremacy in the world. This guide will provide information on each path inside Stone Mountain Park that is available for hiking, followed by a brief park history. 

The view of Stone Mountain from across Venable Lake.
Stone Mountain Park

Hiking Trails 

Most people jog, walk or bike along the paved sidewalk or pedestrian street that makes a circle around the base of Stone Mountain. It’s an unofficial trail that’s not shown on any trail maps for Stone Mountain Park, but it is the only trail that is wheelchair accessible for a majority of its 5-mile loop. If you’d like the opportunity to go with a group or have a guided opportunity to experience the other park trails and sites, be sure to check out one of REI’s classes or events near Stone Mountain Park.   

There are 15 more miles of nature-based hiking trails inside the park that don’t get as much foot traffic as the paved loop. The Walk-Up Trail, the park’s most popular, takes hikers to the second-highest peak in the metro-Atlanta area: Kennesaw Mountain is twice as far from Atlanta’s city limits, but stands 200 feet taller than Stone Mountain. So, a hiker’s best bet for mountain views is inside Stone Mountain Park, specifically from the Walk-Up Trail.  

Walk-Up Trail 

  • Length: 2 miles out-and-back 
  • Difficulty Rating: Moderate 
  • Best For: Panoramic views of north Georgia 
  • Dogs: Not allowed  

The Walk-Up Trail, on which hikers can take themselves to the “top of the rock,” is by far Stone Mountain Park’s most popular trail, especially at sunrise. Starting at the parking lot near Confederate Hall on the west side of the park, the trail takes hikers along Stone Mountain’s most gentle (yet steady!) incline. Hikers should beware that the stone surface can be slippery, especially after rainfall. The trail gets a little steeper near the top, but there are rails for those who may need extra support. Hikers climb to 1,686 feet above sea level and, on a clear day, get 360-degree views, including a glimpse of downtown Atlanta and the North Georgia mountains. Those who complete the 1-mile trek to the top get to brag that they’ve climbed the largest piece of exposed granite in the world. Confederate flags have flown near the base of the trail for years. There are plans to move them, but so far, they remain. 

Cherokee Trail 

  • Length: 5-mile loop 
  • Difficulty Rating: Difficult  
  • Best For: Nature and historic views 
  • Dogs: Leashed  

Circumnavigating the base of Stone Mountain through a forested path, the Cherokee Trail is the longest in the park. The Cherokee Trail intersects the park’s popular Walk-Up Trail, and hikers can combine the two for a 7-mile challenge. Most of the Cherokee Trail offers moderate hiking, but the section on Stone Mountain near the Walk-Up Trail is steep: Be sure to wear the right shoes to grip its rocky surface. The trail also has the most varied terrain of all the hikes in the park, with sections that showcase views of the forest, lake and even ruins of a cabin once used by students of the historic Atlanta-area college for women, Agnes Scott College. Hikers often run into deer along this trail, and those who want to check out more wildlife can take the trail extensions to the Songbird Habitat Trail or the Nature Garden Trail. You may see the occasional Boy Scout, Girl Scout or American Heritage Girl making the trek to earn a badge, but hikers are more likely to have most of this trail all to themselves. 

Nature Garden Trail 

  • Length: 0.75-mile loop  
  • Difficulty Rating: Easy 
  • Best For: Learning about native plants 
  • Dogs: Leashed 

This trail is for the hikers who regularly stop to take pictures of the plants and trees they see: The Nature Gardens Trail showcases dozens of trees, shrubs and plants that are native to Georgia and provides information about their growing patterns and common uses. Hikers can stop to learn about everything from witch hazel to red mulberry and pick up a few ideas for plants to grow in their home gardens. This rock-lined dirt path is also a favorite for hikers with leashed dogs. A short connector trail will take hikers to the Cherokee Trail near its landmark rock chimney. 

Evergreen Trails 

Hawk Trail 

  • Length: 1.5 miles out-and-back
  • Difficulty Rating: Moderate 
  • Best For: Lake views 
  • Dogs: Leashed 

Heron Trail 

  • Length: 1-mile loop 
  • Difficulty Rating: Moderate 
  • Best For: Solitary hikes 
  • Dogs: Leashed  

 Bluebird Trail 

  • Length: 0.5-mile loop 
  • Difficulty Rating: Easy 
  • Best For: Solitary hikes 
  • Dogs: Leashed 

The Evergreen Trails are the most overlooked trails in Stone Mountain Park because the three short, interconnected trails are difficult to find, and difficult to follow, as they’re overgrown in parts. The easiest way to find them is by heading toward the Atlanta Evergreen Lakeside Resort, a conference center and hotel located off Stonewall Jackson Drive. Turn onto Lakeview Drive, then take the first left into the overflow parking lot. There, hikers will see a large shed with a stone base and wooden top—the trailhead for all three Evergreen Trails is behind this building. The Hawk Trail, which edges around the lake, can also be found by parking beside the Atlanta Evergreen Lakeside Hotel near the conference rooms (trust me, this will save you a walk!) and walking down the steps to the service entrance. The gravel road nearby will lead hikers to trees blazed with red to mark the trail. All three trails are ideal for hikers who want easy strolls that will likely not be interrupted by others, or for people staying at the nearby hotel who don’t want to venture too far.

Songbird Habitat Trails 

  • Length: 2 trails, 1-mile loop each 
  • Difficulty Rating: Easy 
  • Best For: Butterfly and wildflower lovers 
  • Dogs: Not allowed 

As its name suggests, the songs of bluebirds and nuthatches welcome hikers to the Songbird Habitat Trails, but the greatest sense of wonder comes from the field of wildflowers at the start. The constant buzz of bees (and screeching of cicadas in nearby trees) will accompany hikers as they walk along waist-high partridge pea plants with their bright yellow flowers. Hikers can choose to stay on the Meadow Trail full of wildflowers or venture up the stairs to a connecting Woodland Trail that provides more typical, tree-covered foliage. The trails cross at various points, giving hikers an opportunity to lengthen or shorten the loops to their liking. This area of Stone Mountain Park is the site of the archery and cycling competitions during the 1996 summer games. The back portion of the Woodland Trail borders private homes that are just outside the park.

King’s Trail at Indian Island 

  • Length: .75-mile loop 
  • Difficulty Rating: Easy 
  • Best For: Lake views and post-hike picnics 
  • Dogs: Leashed 

Before reaching the trail’s only parking lot, hikers drive across the feature from which the King’s Trail gets its name. Washington King constructed the wooden covered bridge that crosses Stone Mountain Lake. King came from an Atlanta family known for their exceptional bridge building; the family patriarch, Horace King, bought his freedom in 1846 after constructing several covered bridges across the southeast. From the parking lot, hikers can choose to go left or right to begin the trail that loops around a small island. There are plenty of places along the well-marked trail to stop for a rest on a large rock and admire the serenity of the lake. Finish your hike with lunch on one of the many picnic tables near the trailhead.

Mvskoke En’nenuce (Trail of the Muscogee) 

  • Length: 1.5-mile loop 
  • Difficulty Rating: Moderate 
  • Best For: Varied forest and lake views 
  • Dogs: Leashed 

The Mvskoke En’nenuce (Trail of the Muscogee) could be easily missed while driving near Stone Mountain Park’s east gate. It’s the only trail on the north side of the mountain in an area of the park not often used by pedestrians. However, it’s worth the effort to find this trailhead in a small gravel lot on Jefferson Davis Road. The loop trail provides varied forest and lake views similar to the Cherokee Trail, but in a more compact space. The trail’s name is written in the Mvskoke Nation’s language after Stone Mountain Park officials secured permission from the Principal Chief of the Muscogee Nation to name the trail after them: the original stewards of the surrounding land. This dirt trail has two distinct sections: a hilly section that takes hikers along a covered forest of pine and hardwood trees along the park’s border with Highway 78, and a serene walk along the shore of Stone Mountain Lake. Look out for protruding roots and rocks on the trail next to the lake. Be sure to enjoy the sun’s rays peeking through the tree cover and glistening on the water. 

Three people hike on a rocky trail.
Photo Credit: Ryan Tuttle

History of the Park 

According to the book Carved in Stone: The History of Stone Mountain, in 1962, an archaeological excavation near Stone Mountain showed that Native people from the Mississippian period lived in the area. Their descendants, members of the Mvskoke (Muscogee) Nation, would go on to live further south as Stone Mountain and the surrounding area served as a natural barrier between the Mvskoke and Cherokee Nations in the 1700s. 

Construction began on Georgia’s first railroad in the 1830s. Its route through the village of Stone Mountain eventually created a new industry for quarrying granite from Stone Mountain in the latter part of the century. Granite from Stone Mountain has been used in everything from steps at the U.S. Capitol to locks of the Panama Canal. In 1886, the Southern Granite Company bought Stone Mountain, which would eventually be run by two brothers: William and Sam Venable. 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech from 1963 may be the most famous reference to Stone Mountain: In the apex of the speech, he called for freedom to ring in Stone Mountain of Georgia. He was referring to the place where the Ku Klux Klan had its rebirth in 1915, with a cross burning on top of Stone Mountain. 

By 1923, Sam Venable gave permission to Atlanta Klan members to hold their annual rallies on top of Stone Mountain. That same year a sculptor began carving Robert E. Lee’s head into the mountain, but the carving of three Confederate leaders on mounted horses wouldn’t be completed until 1972. 

In 1958, the state of Georgia bought Venable’s land and smaller nearby lots. It opened as a state park in 1965. 

Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, and as the official venue for cycling, archery and tennis, Stone Mountain Park leaders attempted to soften the park’s Confederate imagery, including at one point, juxtaposing an image of Martin Luther King Jr. on top of the Confederate carving on Stone Mountain. 

Business at Stone Mountain Park suffered after the Charleston church shooting in 2015. In order to distance themselves from the white nationalist rhetoric and Confederate imagery the convicted killer used, several organizations that held annual conferences and other events at the park took their business elsewhere. The COVID-19 pandemic five years later also impacted local businesses.  

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the governing board of the park, has acknowledged in an interview for this article that softening the Confederate memorabilia around the park could bring business for conferences and other large gatherings back, but so far, change has been slow. The association approved a plan to move the Confederate Flag Plaza, currently at the base of the mountain along the Walk-Up Trail, to a new area called Valor Park. A date hasn’t been set for the move. 

A park spokesperson says there have been discussions to rename Venable Lake due to the family’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan. No final decisions have been made regarding that or changing the names of the roads honoring Confederate generals inside the park, like Robert E. Lee Blvd and Stonewall Jackson Drive.  

Georgia law protects the Confederate carving on Stone Mountain. Georgia code 50-3-1 says: 

“… the memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain shall never be altered, removed, concealed or obscured in any fashion and shall be preserved and protected for all time as a tribute to the bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause.” 

Several bills have been introduced to the Georgia State Legislature to end protection for the carving and other Confederate symbols, but these actions have yet to make it out of committee, and therefore don’t come close to overturning the existing law. Grassroots efforts to change the park have raised public awareness but have not resulted in tangible changes at the park. 

Some people in metro Atlanta actively boycott the park due to its glorification of the Confederacy while others choose to enjoy it because of its convenience, accessibility, affordability and beauty. Even though white nationalist groups have demonstrated inside the grounds in recent years, visitors from a wide variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds recreate at the park daily. 

Despite its storied past and present, Stone Mountain Park remains a favorite destination for locals and tourists alike. Its lush landscapes, versatile trailheads and enchanting atmosphere invite us all to immerse ourselves in the majesty of outside and contemplate the part we can play in the stories this place will tell going forward. 

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