|Type||Inn to Inn Walking or Cycling|
|Distance||roughly 24 miles|
|Duration||Three days/two nights|
|Highlights||Historic sights, backyard gardens, great beer, great food|
In recent years, a non-profit group called the PATH Foundation has been carving out trails for walkers and bikers around Atlanta, and one of those starts right down the street from the Martin Luther King Center and continues 18 miles east all the way to Stone Mountain, a massive granite dome emblazoned with icons of the Confederacy that nod to a past the progressive city would rather forget (and these days often does).
I’d have plenty of time over the next few days to contemplate the stark contrast between Atlanta’s vibrant present and its dark past as I traveled back in time from New South to Old, sweating it out along bloomy backyard gardens, quaint rows of storefronts, kudzu fields and aging cemeteries.
The two-story yellow and mahogany brown house at 501 Auburn Avenue near downtown Atlanta does not shout its presence to the stream of traffic that rolls by endlessly a block west on Boulevard. Unlike many of the other restored Victorians that surround it, the sidewalk in front of the house has no National Park Service interpretive sign beyond its low wall of buzz-cut hedges.
But for those who make a beeline from around the world to see it, the gingerbread-accented building is nothing short of a shrine. That’s because in an upstairs room in the center of the home sits a bed with a rounded wood headboard, its floral-patterned inlay fading with the passing days. And in that very bed, on Jan. 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. came into the world.
I paused outside the house recently on a sticky late spring morning. Down the street past a row of squat gray and brown shotguns, adjacent to Freedom Hall – part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change – and the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church sits Dr. and Mrs. King’s tomb. This is Atlanta’s old Sweet Auburn district, which in King’s days was a bastion of black success in the painfully segregated South. Ground as hallowed as any you’ll find, it seemed a natural place to start as I set out on a long trek across the sprawling capital of the New South.
Atlanta, my hometown, can sometimes seem like a patchwork of unconnected neighborhoods, the McMansions of Buckhead in the north as far from the little cottages on the south side as can be. Spend even a short time here and it becomes apparent that it is in no way a walking city. In recent years, though, a non-profit group called the PATH Foundation has been carving out trails for walkers and bikers around the city, and one of those – I learned not long after returning to Atlanta a couple of years ago from New York – starts right down the street from the King Center and continues 18 miles east all the way to Stone Mountain, a massive granite dome emblazoned with icons of the Confederacy that nod to a past the progressive city would rather forget (and these days often does). It's called, appropriately enough, the Stone Mountain Trail. I’d have plenty of time over the next few days to contemplate the stark contrast between Atlanta’s vibrant present and its dark past as I traveled back in time from New South to Old, sweating it out along bloomy backyard gardens, quaint rows of storefronts, kudzu fields and aging cemeteries.
Leaving the King Center, I picked up the trail at the busy intersection of Boulevard and Freedom Parkway, a greenway-lined road that cuts through the Old Fourth Ward to connect the in-town neighborhoods of Inman Park and Virginia-Highland to the Downtown Connector highway. It’s an integral artery for this part of the city, a route I’ve traveled often. But turning my back to the skyline and ducking under some dogwood trees as I set off on the PATH trail, the stretch instantly felt new. Joggers braved the heat – the forecast called for a high of 97 degrees that day – and bikers on their way to work whooshed past here and there. Above, gauzy clouds wiped across the azure sky.
Before long I approached the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Carter Center complex atop Copenhill, which – as a trailside sign notes – was the spot from where General Sherman directed the Union forces during the bloody Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864. The opposite side of the fading, graffitied sign recounts another battle that took place there a century later, when – over three decades starting in the 60’s – residents of the historic surrounding neighborhoods fought to eventually halt major highway projects that had led to more than 500 homes being razed.
The Carter complex opened in 1986. With small lakes, a three-acre tract of old oaks and gardens – one holding 40-plus varieties of roses, including the coral red Rosalynn Carter rose – the 35-acre grounds make for a quiet inner-city sanctuary. Heading into the wonderfully chilly museum, which was renovated last year to reopen in time for President Carter’s 85th birthday, the space is filled with interactive, kid-friendly exhibits that detail Carter’s young life in Plains, Ga., his rise to the statehouse and then the White House, and his post-presidential humanitarian work around the world.
I could have stopped to have lunch in the little café inside the museum, but the trail was calling, and so I parked myself briefly on a bench in the rose garden to scarf a granola bar and a banana before heading off again. Crossing through nearby Freedom Park, I remembered childhood days riding bikes with friends through the stretch back when it was just a lot crazy with kudzu vines.
Past the nine-hole Candler Park Golf Course, the trail diverted onto pretty Clifton Road, lined by crepe myrtles fat with pink and purple pom-pom blooms, and soon it reached the short row of storefronts in little Candler Park village. I got a couple of strange looks when I pushed through the door into the popular La Fonda Latina restaurant wet with sweat, but soon composed myself thanks to copious amounts of water and a couple of fish tacos slathered in a light, creamy jalapeno sauce.
Renewed and ready to get back to the hike, I grabbed more water at the Candler Park Market and headed down McLendon Avenue into the leafy Lake Claire neighborhood. By that point I had settled on three rules to guide me through my long trek: 1) Be leisurely; it’s not a race; 2) Seek out shady places to rest early and often; and 3) Investigate – don’t just plod along with your head down but instead look around, listen, smell the air and check things out. I would repeat those directives often along the way, using them to help me slow down and savor the journey.
For instance, I put Rule One into use when the trail met Dekalb Avenue, reclining in the shade under the soaring towers of the elevated MARTA train tracks next to a PATH sign that told me I had gone 6.32 miles so far. It was a sun-bleached trip the rest of the way out to Decatur, where I left the trail behind and headed into the in-town suburb’s square, with its restored 1898 courthouse and mounted cannon dating from “the Indian War of 1836,” to accept my reward for a sultry, daylong walk – beer. And I don’t mean the lawnmower, throw-it-down-your-gullet type stuff. I was headed for the Brick Store Pub, well known among beer geeks far and wide as a hub of exceptional brews. BeerAdvocate magazine voted the 13-year-old neighborhood pub the world’s second-best beer bar back in 2008, and its low-lit main space and intimate Belgian bar upstairs are rarely uncrowded.
Luckily I was on the early side that afternoon, and pulling up a seat at the bar I ordered a Mikkeller Drink’in the Sun, a refreshing, low-gravity, citrusy brew from the increasingly popular Danish “gipsy brewer.” I could have stayed on that barstool all night, gorging on the pub’s great fish and chips and losing myself in its rare brews, but soon I was ready to head to my stopping point for the night, a bungalow just off the trail across the street from Agnes Scott College that my brother Russell and his family bought last winter. Had I not been lucky enough to have family to stay with, I could have spent the night at either of two quite comfy-looking B&B's just a few blocks off the trail- the Milebright in Avondale, or the Garden House in Decatur. My wife, Claire, came out to my brother's, and we ate Portuguese-stye salt cod fritters, vinegary tomatoes and sautéed Swiss chard as we watched the Lakers pummel the Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
My legs were stiff the next morning as I started out around 8:30 a.m., but I felt well rested and ready to tackle the rest of the hike out to Stone Mountain. First, though, I needed a breakfast fit for a construction worker, and I knew just where to go. Exiting the trail off East Ponce de Leon Avenue and traversing the train tracks over Sams Crossing, I made my way to the first-ever Waffle House on East College Avenue in the Avondale Estates area. For years the building that housed the matriarch of the iconic roadside chain was occupied by a generic Chinese restaurant, but a few years ago it was restored to its former glory. Built in 1955, its vintage sign makes the building easy to spot, and from the glass wall in front you can see platefuls of fake waffles, eggs and bacon lining the counter.
I felt I was being taunted by all that faux food, but luckily just down the road was another, operational Waffle House. Arriving there giddy I bellied up to the bar and took full advantage of the physical feat that was in store that day, tucking into an All-Star Special of two eggs over easy, hashbrowns scattered and smothered with onions, a few strips of bacon and a waffle, washing it down with coffee, orange juice and a big glass of ice water. It wasn’t easy unsticking myself from the stool, but I knew I needed to get moving soon after that big breakfast, and so back toward the trail I went. The mercury was to reach 92 that day, and I took the first of what thankfully turned out to be many opportunities to grab bottles of water at a gas station and hoofed it back across the tracks.
Not far past Pin Ups – touted online as “ATL’s largest gentlemen’s club” – the trail headed off-road. Honeysuckle hung in the air and bushes leaned under the weight of bulbous blackberries as the path skirted office parks and passed a lot filled with a rainbow collection of shipping containers. Traveling behind some houses, I marveled at bushes sporting neon pink Knock Out roses and sunflowers as big as your head.
Consulting one of the maps I had printed from the PATH’s Web site, I realized I was close to my next side trip off the trail – a jaunt to see the famed Dekalb Farmers Market. From the map, it looked as if the market would be just off the trail somewhere around the 10.5-mile mark, but getting there ended up requiring a roughly three-quarter-mile hike back to East Ponce de Leon Ave. (Directions: turn left off the trail onto Rockbridge Road after the 10-mile mark, then right onto North Clarendon Avenue, left onto Chestnut Street crossing the tracks, follow it right as it becomes Patterson Avenue at the bottom of the hill, turn left onto East Ponce and the market will be on your right at the intersection of East Ponce and Laredo Drive. If you’d like to avoid that extra mile and a half round trip, which means passing up some picturesque off-road sections of the trail, just stay on East Ponce as you pass Pin Ups to get to the market, then keep going down East Ponce, turn right at Patterson Avenue, follow Chestnut Street up the hill across North Clarendon Ave. and down one block; the trail will be on your left.)
The farmers market may have added a little mileage to my hike, but it was well worth it (see Rule Three). Checking my backpack as I entered, the massive space was as cold as a walk-in cooler and loaded with heaps of the freshest produce I’d ever seen – a spectrum of peppers, from japones to chipotles to pasillas; giant yucca, piles of fresh jicama. I wandered around wide eyed, ogling the myriad meats and cheeses. Still pretty full from my insanely large breakfast, I passed up the long, snaking line at the café, which offers everything from lamb curry to fried chicken, and went with a banana and strawberry smoothie, grabbing some organic almonds and a couple of carrot cake Clif Bars to bring with me.
Back on the trail, it wasn’t long before a distant hum of traffic told me I was approaching Interstate 285, known locally as the Perimeter because it encircles the city. It was an odd sensation scurrying across the road onto the overpass, and standing in the middle watching traffic rush by below I let myself reflect for a moment on how far I had come to reach the city’s fringes, and – from that brand-new vantage point – how small Atlanta seemed all of a sudden.
Outside the Perimeter, the trail soon entered the small town of Clarkston, the subject of last year’s best-selling book, “Outcasts United” by Warren St. John, about a soccer team of refugee boys pulled together and coached by a Jordanian-born woman. As the book details, Clarkston was selected in the late 1980’s and early 90’s to serve as a place where refugees from war zones like Sudan, Congo and Iraq could be sent to resettle. These days, more than one third of Clarkston’s roughly 7,200 residents were born overseas, and students at its high school hail from 50-plus countries.
Clarkston’s diversity was quickly apparent, as I shared the path with women in hijabs making their way through town. An especially pretty stretch came when the trail left the tracks behind and headed into a canopy of trees, leading to an awning of water oaks that lent a long stretch of shade. Eventually it emerged from the woodsy stretch and ran along East Ponce again, passing the large Melwood Cemetery, founded in 1928, and the small Zion Baptist Church.
It was a sweaty slog for some time until the trail rose to cross North Hairston Road, where the mountain finally appeared on the horizon. The sight of the monolith dome, covered in a dark green beard of trees, was nothing short of awe-inspiring, its presence easily making for the most dramatic vista of the trip so far. Renewed by the sight, I stopped briefly to rest and rehydrate at a Texaco station before pushing on. (It should be noted that the road weary can opt to jump on the 120 bus anywhere along East Ponce to fast-track to the mountain; just make sure you watch for that eye-popping first view of the rock.)
After the trail made its way through a nondescript industrial stretch, I finally arrived in Stone Mountain Village. Greeted by a line of smoke piping out of Crazy Ron’s Bar-B-Q trailer, the next thing I knew I was stuffing myself with a chopped chicken “sammich” slathered in vinegary red sauce. (The organic almonds just weren’t cutting it by the Mile 17 mark.) After wolfing down the barbecue I started my aching legs back up, but a moment later came the Village Corner German Restaurant, its sign beckoning me with a frothy mug of beer. A Spaten Lager and the restaurant’s air conditioning turned out to be just what I needed to recharge for the last stretch of the trip.
At last came the end of the PATH trail, marked on a sign as 18.04 miles beyond the place where I first turned my back on Atlanta’s skyline. And while I wanted to bask in the moment, I couldn’t help but think of the bed waiting for me at the Evergreen Marriott Conference Resort, which I knew was all they way on the opposite side of the park. That last stretch of my walk, down Robert E. Lee Boulevard to Stonewall Jackson Drive, up and down for a mile or so over the steepest hills I had encountered yet, seemed to drag on punishingly. I was running on fumes, feeling blisters form as I limped stiff-legged around the mountain. Finally I arrived at the resort around 7 p.m., and after buying a swimsuit in the lobby shop I sank into an outdoor whirlpool to soak.
Claire drove out to meet me, and we headed down to Stonewall’s sports bar on the resort’s lower level. Pondering our odd, somewhat surreal surroundings, I ate a bacon cheeseburger – two meals with bacon in a day, if you’re keeping score at home – while we drank beers surrounded by a crowd of convention-goers. My gait was that of Frankenstein after a week on horseback, but I was intact, basking in a glow of miles and memories. I figured I had walked about 14 miles in all that day.
Early the next morning Claire dropped me off at the activity center of the park. Outside Memorial Hall the mountain loomed before me, its massive bas-relief sculpture of Jefferson Davis and Generals Lee and Jackson bathed in the clear morning light. The mammoth carving, which was started in earnest in 1923 by Gutzon Borglum, who went on to sculpt the Mount Rushmore monument, stands an ugly memorial to a bygone era. But it is not the only dark side of Stone Mountain’s troubling history. In 1915, the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan was founded there, and it is said that the first cross burning was held atop the mountain at that meeting.
My early memories of Stone Mountain are confined to the cheesy laser light show projected onto its face nightly each summer, and walking around, I found a multi-ethnic crowd inside the park that seemed oblivious to the mountain’s stigma. The carving, it seemed, was hardly the focal point of the park. Visitors tromped over nature trails, rode Duck Boats into one of the lakes that surround the mountain, circumnavigated it on a 5-mile train ride, played games in an amusement park-like area and golfed 36 on-site holes.
The mountain is shaped like a teardrop turned on its side, and you can walk up it fairly easily. But my legs were in no shape to climb, so opted to take the Skyride gondola up. Arriving at the top I perused exhibits on the mountain’s geology and its various flora and fauna before stepping out onto the windswept, moonlike surface dotted with little pools of rainwater. There, in the distance, stretched out flat across the hazy horizon like a mural, stood Atlanta’s long skyline, and as my eyes examined the dense carpet of trees that lay between it and the mountain, I couldn’t help but think, “Damn that’s a long way”
A couple of turkey vultures floated by and some twangy music from a Christian rock concert being held at the park that day bubbled up from below. Now and then someone would arrive at the top of the walk-up trail, shimmering with sweat under the bright sun and huffing short breaths. I sat down and stretched out, thinking back over the past few days, and soon realized everyone had cleared out momentarily, leaving me all alone at the top. It’s a tranquil scene up there, and I found myself thinking not about the carving or the Klan but the special place the mountain held long before in the lives and rituals of the Creek Indians that populated the area.
After a while baking in the sun I was ready to go, and despite the sorry state of my legs I decided to follow the procession of hikers down the mountain’s gradual slope. Running into a camp group of refugee kids from Clarkston, one wearing a Kuala Lumpur T-shirt, I chatted briefly with a counselor as we started down the trail. By the time I neared the bottom the mountain’s past felt deflated. But then I encountered a row of five flags, the American rising the tallest above the Confederate battle flag and various iterations of the Confederate national flag. A plaque noted that they were placed there by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the group that first commissioned the carving on the mountain nearly a century ago.
Plunged back into reflection, I remembered reading that the carving wasn’t completed until 1972, and I thought back on a quote I saw at the Carter museum from his inauguration as Georgia governor in 1971: “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over,” it read. “The test of a government is not how popular it is with the powerful and privileged few, but how honestly and fairly it deals with the many who must depend upon it.”
I walked out of the park and stopped to grab lunch at Weeyums sandwich shop across the street from the welcome center. Sitting down to wait for my order, I looked up to see a framed portrait of King near the door, and at the other end of the shop on the side of a video game console I spotted a picture of the Obamas on election night labeled “The First Family.” The mountain’s massive carving seemed to shrink then, and its dark past receded further into history. “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia,” King said near the end of his “I Have a Dream” speech back before the carving was complete. Nearly 50 years later change has arrived, even in stubborn Stone Mountain.
It was a short walk to hop on the 120 MARTA bus at the foot of Manor Drive, and from there I was back at my house in southeast Atlanta, with the help of a train and another bus, in just two short hours. My epic journey over, I reflected on all I had seen along the way. It was obvious that I had come to know my hometown much better, and all it took was a long walk.
The PATH Foundation’s site (www.pathfoundation.org) has all the maps and info you’ll need for your trek. Don’t bother ordering the brochure, the pdf maps will do just fine.
Atlanta's Visitors Bureau is a great one-stop planning tool.
At the King Center/National Historic Site you can register for a tour of King’s birth home in Freedom Hall at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Boulevard (do so early, as the tours are limited in size and fill up fast). If you can’t make the tour, the interpretive sign with info on the house is across the street. Freedom Hall has exhibits upstairs with cases full of King’s personal items – the Wrangler jacket he wore while marching, his tie tacks and cuff links, and the key from his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, as well as exhibits on Coretta Scott King and Gandhi.
There’s much to see at the Carter Presidential Library/Carter Center (http://www.jimmycarterlibrary.org/) complex as well.
And Stone Mountain’s site (http://www.stonemountainpark.com/) has plenty of info on sites and activities throughout the park.
MARTA’s bus and train maps and schedules can be found online (www.itsmarta.com).
Danneman’s Coffee Shop near the King Center is a great place to stop for breakfast before you start down the trail.
La Fonda Latina serves excellent Mexican in Candler Park.
There are loads of great restaurants and bars around Decatur Square, but you can’t beat the Brick Store Pub when it comes to beer. (www.brickstorepub.com)
In Avondale Estates, be sure to check out the Waffle House Museum, and walk a bit down East College to fill up for your trek.
The Dekalb Farmers Market is certainly worth a stop.
On the right where the trail first enters Stone Mountain village, Crazy Ron knows his barbecue.
The Village Corner German Restaurant and Bakery is filled with breweriana and pours a fine Spaten.
Weeyums Philly Style sandwich shop is situated across the street from the Stone Mountain Welcome Center.
Unless you have family in Decatur, try the Holiday Inn right down the street from the square.
If you’d prefer a B&B and don’t mind trekking a bit out of the way, the pretty Mileybright Farmhouse Bed & Breakfast in Avondale Estates dates from 1900 and was the boyhood home of one of Waffle House’s co-founders.
Rhoda and Doug Joyner run the Garden House Bed and Breakfast, which is also just a dozen or so blocks off the trail at 135 Garden Lane in Decatur.
The Evergreen Marriott Conference Resort has 336 rooms, two restaurants, indoor and outdoor pools (including whirlpools for soaking after a long walk) and a full-service spa. The park’s shuttle connects to the resort.
Nick Kaye, a native Atlantan, spent close to six years as a staff
member of The New York Times, where his work, consisting mainly of
travel and real estate articles, has appeared frequently since 2003.
He detailed the past, present and future of brewing in New Orleans for
The Times in spring 2009, and that summer he joined the new,
Atlanta-based Beer Connoisseur Magazine as Managing Editor.