Explore Panola Mountain State Park on a ranger-led guided sunset hike to the mountain’s summit, and explore the mountain’s fragile, rare ecosystem.
Of the three massive monolith mountains that rise east of Atlanta, including the ultra-popular Stone Mountain and the ultra-beautiful Arabia Mountain, only one mountain summit is off limits for exploration. Panola Mountain rises to the south of Stone and Arabia, a massive granite mountainous mound that rises from the surrounding terrain, sheltering rare plants and lichens that flourish there, but rarely anywhere else.
Due to the mountaintop’s incredibly rare and extremely fragile ecology, Panola is typically off-limits to all but a lucky few that join a ranger-led guided hike to the summit.
While there are many trails that explore Panola Mountain State Park, including our favorite, the scenic paved path to Alexander Lake, the actual mountain summit is accessible only through a guided, park-organized group hike. These guided group hikes explore the granite monolith, offering an in-depth look at the mountain’s unique flora. And the occasional twilight hike (check the Georgia State Parks website for availability) offers the chance to view a beautiful sunset from the summit, and a moonrise over a glassy lake near the mountain’s base.
Panola Mountain ranger-led guided hikes: the details
The adventure begins at the Panola Mountain State Park Nature Center, where our group of hikers is guide-led to the trailhead several miles away. After a Panola Mountain hiking primer by the ranger (step carefully to avoid the rare and fragile plant life, and stay with the group), the adventure begins as the sun dips toward the horizon. The hike explores a leafy forest and reaches a small, reflective pond at the mountain’s base, and then begins the climb upward to the summit. The dense, young forest begins to clear as the terrain becomes increasingly rockier.
The horizon widens as our group scales the mountain, and the sun hugs earth’s edge and begins to cast a colorful light show in the sky. The terrain is at first glance wide and barren, a massive, singular granite mound. But at a closer look, the setting sun’s warm glow reveals that the mountain’s entire surface is covered – literally everywhere – with fragile plant life.
Patches of mosses, lichens, and small plants crust the rock, creating a miniature landscape that contrasts greatly with the massive, wide-open expanses of granite.
The feeling is desolate, and the ecology is beautiful. Views from the Panola Mountain summit extend to Atlanta’s skyline in the far distance, and the vista is broad and sweeping. The panoramic view opens to dramatic, spectacular sunsets as the full moon rises, casting a beautiful glow on the surreal terrain as the colorful sunset paints the sky.
Our trail guide is highly knowledgeable about the mountain’s geology, history, and unique ecology, pausing the group at significant features on the mountain’s landscape. With twilight in full bloom, our group carefully descends the mountain summit by way of moonlight and flashlights. Before reaching the trailhead, the hike pauses at the pond at mountain’s base, catching sight of the moon’s reflection with a background song sung by insects and amphibians.
The twilight hike is a unique experience. Despite Panola Mountain’s close proximity to the city of Atlanta, the mountaintop is seemingly worlds away, unique and barren. And we couldn’t recommend the experience more highly. Check out the Panola Mountain guided hike schedule and make reservations on the Georgia State Parks website.
More outdoor adventures at Panola Mountain State Park
Panola Mountain State Park and the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area offer more than 30 miles of fantastic hiking, biking and running trails that explore and connect the two parks. For a great, self-guided day hike, follow the Alexander Lake PATH Trail to a viewing platform below the mountain’s summit, and following a boardwalk over the glassy Alexander Lake. And check out our more of our favorite trails in our Arabia Mountain and Panola Mountain trail guide.
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33.623402, -84.172538 // N33 37.404 W84 10.352