By Walt Harrison

I used to be a town person years ago. Lived in Midtown and Candler Park and loved it! There was a lot going on and a lot to do. Every so often, though, I had strong need to get out of town even if just for the day. Money and time always being issue, I had three basic criteria: (1) I didn’t want to spend most of the day in the car so my destination needed to be as close as possible. (2) I was looking for some place I had never been or to do something I had never done. (3) It had to be inexpensive.

I suspect many of you Intown folk share that need to escape the fast-paced city life from time to time, so I thought I’d offer a suggestion for your consideration. This destination is a half-hour ride from downtown Atlanta. If you bring lunch and beverage, a day will set you back about $35, gas included, and if you’ve never been there, I think you will find it a unique and interesting experience. I know this is supposed to be a gardening column, not about travel, but there is a connection that will soon become apparent.

In my last article, I mentioned that one of my neighbor’s is Panola State Research Park. I suspect that few Intowners have heard of Panola Mountain or know much about it; fewer still have ever been there.

Panola Mountain could best be described as a baby Stone Mountain, but it’s still quite a chunk of granite. Unlike Stone Mountain, you won’t find boat rides, trams, barbeque contests and fireworks. What you’ll find instead is a pristine example of what is technically known as a Georgia monadnock, meaning a large piece of exposed rock. Unlike Stone Mountain, Pine, Arabia and other monadnocks, Panola has never been commercially quarried for its granite. Early European settlers used the granite to make well covers, water troughs, fireplaces and such but the impact on the mountain was negligible.

Tiny Krill (shrimp-like creatures) live in the grit of the solution pits (depressions in the granite that hold water after a rain). Diamorpha is a small, low-growing plant that also lives in the solution pits and in the spring bloom a brilliant red, giving the gray mountain big swatches of bright color. It is an amazing sight. Other native plants like the rare ground cedar (lycopodium), spiderwort (tradescantia) and the favorite fall-blooming Stone Mountain daisy (helianthus porterii) grow around the mountain.

Panola Mountain and the area surrounding was designated a state research park to assure that this unique geological feature and its flora and fauna would remain unspoiled now and in the future. To visit the mountain itself requires a guided tour in the company of a park ranger. Go to gastateparks.org/PanolaMountain and you can find available tours.

While you are in the area, a 10-minute drive will take you over to another monadnock – Arabia Mountain.

Arabia was at one time a Davidson family quarry but is now part of the DeKalb Parks System. Arabia Mountain is a little different from Panola and Stone Mountain in that it is 100 million years older (give or take a decade or so) than these other monadnocks. The type of stone that constitutes Arabia is only found in Africa; so it has been surmised that when continents separated millions of years ago, a little chunk of Africa was left right here in Georgia.

Arabia Mountain is only a couple of hundred feet above Klondike Road that runs past it but the mountain covers a large number of acres. It is a great experience to climb to the top of Arabia and look out over the vast expanse of stone. If you go when the weather is very warm, be sure to wear sunscreen, sunglasses and take water. It’s bright, hot and dry – kind of like being on the Arabian Desert, thus the name.

While at Arabia, visit the old quarry and the visitors center. Quarrying is one of the oldest and biggest businesses in the area. Find out more about the culture and economics of granite quarrying at arabiaalliance.org.

All and all, visiting Panola and Arabia would make a pretty good day, but if you start early there’s one more place that’s a must-see.

Maybe you’ve heard of the monastery in Conyers – the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirits. Fifteen minutes from Arabia Mountain, this is definitely worth the drive. Every time I visit, park my car and get out, the first thing I notice is how still and quiet it is here. This is a peaceful place and a world until itself. For many years, the brothers maintained a vow of silence. Although that vow is no longer practiced, it is as if the quietness and stillness has never left. The evening vespers service is beautiful and well-worth staying for.

Years ago, one of the brothers started doing Bonsai, the Japanese art of manipulated growth of trees and plants to produce miniature versions of mature specimens. These specimens are artfully used to create dramatic and pleasing scenes. The collection at the monastery is one of the best in the south, if not anywhere in the country, and is well worth seeing. There is a gift shop selling religious items and a great fruitcake made at the monastery bakery. For those of you that really need to get away, one can rent a room for a night or weekend.

So there, that is a pretty full day away from town and a 45-minute drive will get you back home.

Walt Harrison is the owner of Habersham Gardens, 2067 Manchester St., in Morningside. For more, visit habershamgardens.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.