Growing up in a small town just south of Atlanta, I visited Stone Mountain Park several times with my family or on school field trips. While it’s a mixture of a theme park with rides, shows and museums, it’s also a beautiful place for boating, picnics and hiking. As a kid, I never fully understood what the big deal was about the place. Why visit Stone Mountain when you could go to a real theme park with roller coasters and dark rides? Recently, I had a chance to visit the park again for the first time in over 20 years and now I understand why Stone Mountain Park is so special.
At the heart of the park is Stone Mountain itself. Turns out, it’s not a mountain at all, but rather something called a pluton. During the formation of the Blue Ridge Mountains, magma bubbled up into the Earth’s crust, cooled and solidified into this enormous piece of solid granite. From ground level, Stone Mountain is 825 feet tall. However, we can only see about one-eighth of the entire granite structure, which continues underground for about nine miles! The carving on the surface of Stone Mountain covers three acres, larger than a football field. The three men depicted in the carving are soldiers from the Civil War’s Confederate Army: Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee and Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. It also depicts their favorite horses: “Blackjack”, “Traveller” and “Little Sorrel”.
This unique carving towers 400 feet off the ground and measures 90 by 190 feet. The carving is recessed 42 feet into the mountain and the deepest point is at General Lee’s elbow. Three different sculptors actually worked on the carving during its creation, which dates back to 1918. Several factors delayed the completion of the project, including budgets and even World War I. By the time work resumed, new techniques were utilized like a thermo-jet torch that could craft fine details like eyebrows, buckles and even individual strands of hair. The carving wasn’t completed until 1972 (there were many years where the project was abandoned) and my mother even tells me she remembers when the scaffolding was up for the carvers.
My childhood memories go back to the diesel locomotive train that encircles the mountain. Clocking in at just under four miles, the scenic railroad gives stunning views of not only Stone Mountain, but the surrounding park and nature trails as well.
The “6143′ was built by EMD in 1950. They were originally designed for the New Georgia Railway, but were later sold to Stone Mountain Park after New Georgia’s demise.
Today, flat screen monitors display facts and history about the park as riders enjoy the 30-minute round trip. Many of those facts about the mountain include the unique flora and fauna found there. The Stone Mountain Yellow Daisy is named as such because it only grows within a 60-mile radius of the park. In the fall, the park celebrates this naturally growing flower with its arts and crafts Yellow Daisy Festival. During my recent spring visit, I noticed an abundance of red moss, which grows naturally in the cracks of the surface where small amounts of water can get in.
What I remember most from my childhood is the iconic Skyride that takes riders to the top of Stone Mountain aboard 60-passenger gondolas. The Swiss-built cars take riders from the summit to the peak in less than three minutes. The ride was rebuilt just in time for the 1996 Summer Olympics, which were held in Atlanta. Stone Mountain Park was host to three games: Tennis, cycling and archery. Considering the huge influx of tourists coming into Atlanta that year, it was a reason to change the capacity in the gondolas from 20 to 60 passengers per trip.
Since my childhood visits, Herschend Entertainment Group, who also operates Dollywood in Pigeon Forge Tennessee and Silver Dollar City in Branson Missouri, have taken over the operation of the parks attractions. At the base of Stone Mountain, they have added a small village of shops, restaurants and attractions, including an interactive indoor playground called The Great Barn as well as a ropes course called SkyHike. I decided to use my Adventure Pass to try out their 3-D theater, which has shown several different movies over the years.
At the time of my visit, “Journey 2” was playing which seemed to be a shorter version of the sequel to the “Journey to the Center of The Earth” movie which was in theaters several years ago.
By far the best thing Herschend Entertainment has added is “Ride the Ducks,” which can be purchased as a small up-charge if you opt to buy the All-Day Adventure Pass. A “Duck” is an amphibious vehicle that can not only travel on land like a giant tank/school bus, but can also plunge into the water and act as an oversized vessel to traverse the lake surrounding Stone Mountain Park. These vehicles are based on a World War II design known as the “DUKW” and are actually certified by the United States Coast Guard.
From the inside, the duck looks sort of like a school bus with two-seater benches and a central aisle with an open air design instead of glass windows. Before boarding, everyone, including children, are given a “quacker,” which is like a plastic party favor that sounds like and is shaped like a duck’s bill. Indeed, the kids use these things constantly during the 45-minute ride (you’ve been warned), but the guides do make it fun and after all, this is a family attraction. Once out on the lake, the tour guide steps aside and lets children (and adults, if you are so inclined) take a turn driving the Duck under their supervision. Overall, with the sound system playing upbeat music that everyone can “quack” along to, it’s definitely worth the extra cost to give it a try next time you are at the park.
So next time you find yourself in Atlanta and are looking for the perfect mixture of nature and theme park, you have got to spend a day at Stone Mountain Park. It’s filled with some great attractions, beautiful scenery and fascinating history. For more information visit StoneMountainPark.com. Also make sure to follow TPUJosh on Twitter by clicking this link and liking our Theme Park University Facebook Page by clicking here!