It's my sixth year in Atlanta and, until recently, I had yet to visit Stone Mountain Park. Sure, my parents and I had blitzed through the 3,200-acre park during a whirlwind weekend visit while I was in college, but I'd never taken the time to explore the touted family-fun destination that's Georgia's greatest natural attraction.
I mean, when a place brings hoards of church groups packed in buses and families stuffed in Winnebagos, it's just not enticing -- even if it is a mere 15 minutes away. Who wants to stand in line for an hour to see a big granite rock?
But I might not be in Atlanta forever. And it is a big rock.
So on a cloudy but temperate Saturday, I convinced my boyfriend to leave his fantasy sports teams behind for a couple of hours and visit the park. We drove through the entrance flanked by looming pines and oaks around 3 p.m. and parked next to one of the idyllic picnic pavilions. Kids played volleyball as their parents flipped burgers and dipped chips into salsa under a wooden kiosk.
After purchasing $22 adult passes, which allow you to visit more than 10 attractions (there's an additional fee for the Duck Tour), we decided to start the Stone Mountain extravaganza with a ride on the Scenic Railroad. We boarded the open-air car that would take us on a five-mile tour around the mountain. The train revved up its engine, tooted its horn and started down the steel track. A recorded, cartoonish voice that was thoroughly aggravating began to project through a loudspeaker, explaining the importance of railroads in Atlanta. The Stone Mountain line, which we were traveling on, was built in the 1840s and was the third railroad in the nation. The railroad helped quarry workers transport large chunks of granite to Decatur and Atlanta.
About 10 minutes into the ride, the steel wheels halted in front of a faux Georgia town, outfitted with a bank, a motel, and a fruit and vegetable stand. Two females, clad in puffy checkered dresses, and two males, sporting overalls, appeared on stage and started discussing trains.
"The only train you know anything about is a bridal train," one of the men said to the women. The women balked, but soon all was well and the quartet belted out mini renditions of "The Locomotion" and "The Chattanooga Choo Choo." The spurts of song threw smiles across the little kids' faces. I can't say the same for me; it was just way beyond hokey.
We returned to the depot hungry, and decided to purchase a glazed turkey leg (think "Flintstones"-size club) and a Diet Coke for $8.50. The cart tender only took cash. I guess at today's retro theme parks, you're allowed to have old-fashioned payment methods even when your prices are futuristic.
My boyfriend and I then headed up the mountain via the Summit Skyride. The car was cramped for the three-minute ride. Little kids pressed their cheeks to the windows and adults shifted behind them to nab a view. When we got to the top, more than 800 feet above the ground, we exited onto the summit, which was barren except for a snack stand and small building housing restrooms and info about the various views. The clouds prevented us from seeing anything worthwhile -- such as the Appalachian Mountains, which are 60 miles away and visible on a clear day.
A little worn out, we hopped in our car and bypassed the Stone Mountain Museum, Antique Car & Treasure Museum and Antebellum Plantation. Instead, we drove a couple miles to historic Stone Mountain Village. The town, which stretches all of a quarter-mile, consists of a church, stores filled with Confederate kitsch, and a collectibles market called "Remember When." We stopped at a charming German bakery, the Village Corner, to munch on mouth-watering smacaroons (a macaroon placed on a sugar cookie and drizzled in chocolate) and cannoli.
Later that night, we ventured back to the park for the highly lauded Lasershow Spectacular. Picnic blankets covered the lawn in front of the relief carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and kids donning glow stick necklaces wrestled in the grass as hundreds of people waited for the show to begin.
Around 8:45, lasers projected onto the stone and Pink's "Get This Party Started" blasted over speakers. The lasers, choreographed with the music, depicted aliens marching into a club, a DJ spinning and club-goers grooving. Next, purple, red, green and yellow lasers created a "music video" to the tune of Tim McGraw's "Something Like That." When McGraw sang, "I had a barbecue stain on my white T-shirt/She was killing me in that miniskirt," the lasers plopped a splash of barbecue sauce on a guy outlined by a green laser. He stood next to a woman with full, red lips in a miniskirt.
Although it was almost too cute for its own good, the laser show is so different that it was enjoyable. It ended with a large display of fireworks, and, of course, the inevitable traffic jam.
As we drove home, I decided I was glad I took the time to explore Stone Mountain. But if I visit again, I think I'll get off my lazy ass and hike up the 1.3-mile trail instead. And I'll stick to the natural beauty of the park and skip the attractions. Especially if the park decides to add adventure rides and water slides -- two proposals park officials are currently considering. The last thing the park needs is for its beautiful greenspace to be diminished by even more noisy, cookie-cutter rides.
Entrance/parking fee: $8 per vehicle
Cost of one-day attraction pass: adults (ages 12 and up), $22; children (ages 3 to 11), $18; under age 3, free; seniors/military, $19; twilight rate (usually available at 2 or 3 p.m. when attractions close at 6 or 7 p.m.; time varies per day), $14 (ages 3 and up)
Ride the Ducks sightseeing tour: A 40-minute scenic ride through the park in a open-air 1945 army-era DUKW that ends with a splash in Stone Mountain Lake. Individual ticket (ages 3 and up), $10 per person; add-on to one-day attraction pass, $7 per person.
For exact operating and attraction hours on a particular day, call 770-498-5690 or visit www.stonemountainpark.com.
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