Monday, October 21, 2013

Fort Mountain State Park: Stone Wall Loop (Blog Hike #445)

Trails: West Overlook, Tower, and Stone Wall Trails
Hike Location: Fort Mountain State Park
Geographic Location: east of Chatsworth, GA
Length: 1.1 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2013
Overview: A mountaintop hike featuring a grand overlook and a prehistoric stone wall.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Chatsworth, drive east on SR 52 7.2 miles to the park entrance on the left. Turn left to enter the park.  Stay on the main park road as the spur road to the park office exits right and the campground road exits left.  Follow the main park road to its very end at the Old Fort Picnic Area.  Park in the picnic area parking lot.

The hike: Located on the western fringe of north Georgia’s Cohutta Mountains, Fort Mountain is most famous for its mysterious prehistoric “walls of stone.”  Many people think the walls were built around 500A.D. by an unknown tribe of American Indians.  Some people think they were built in the 1300’s by Welsh explorers as a defense against American Indians.  Another theory attributes the walls to Hernando de Soto or other Spanish conquistadors.  Cherokee legend states that the walls were built by the Moon Eyes, a light-skinned people who could only see at night.
            While the wall’s ancient builders remain a mystery, Fort Mountain State Park’s appeal to modern visitors is clear.  Established in 1938 as a result of a land donation by Ivan Allen, the park’s 3712 acres not only contain the mysterious walls of stone, but the mature forest has become a recreation paradise.  In terms of lodging, the park features a 70-site campground and 15 cottages.  The park also has a small lake near the campground, and several picnic areas dot the park.
            In terms of trails, Fort Mountain State Park features 25 miles of horse trails and 27 miles of mountain bike trails including the 14.6 mile East-West Bike Loop, which is rated as one of the best bike trails in the southeast.  For hikers, the best and most famous option is the 8.2 mile Gahuti Trail, a hiker-only loop trail that involves a lot of up-and-down as it circles Fort Mountain’s summit.  I arrived too late in the afternoon to attempt the Gahuti Trail, so I chose to hike the short loop described here.  Not only does this route take you to the mysterious walls of stone, but it also features a fine west-facing overlook and a stone tower built by the 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Directional sign at trailhead
            To start the hike, pick up the yellow-blazed West Overlook Trail where it leaves the picnic area road at the north end of the parking area.  A wooden information kiosk and a metal brown directional sign mark this point.  The wide, slightly rocky trail immediately heads into the mature broadleaf forest and climbs on a gradual to moderate grade.  Some numbered red markers attached to trees correspond to a trail guide available at the park office that helps you identify some of the trees.
Climbing on West Overlook Trail
            After climbing roughly 150 feet over 0.3 miles, the trail forks with the yellow-blazed trail continuing to climb to the right and a red-blazed trail leveling out to the left.  For the shortest and easiest route to the overlook, angle left on the newer red-blazed trail.  This short, slightly descending trail takes you around a rock outcrop to a set of wood/metal steps, where another left turn quickly brings you to West Overlook.
            Because Fort Mountain is the western-most peak in the Cohutta Mountains, the view here extends for 80 miles on a clear day.  Famous Lookout Mountain can be seen in the distance, and the cities of Chatsworth and Dalton can be seen in the valley below.  On the partly cloudy afternoon of my visit, the scattered clouds created patchwork shadows on the valley below.  This overlook gives one of the best views in Georgia, so take some time to see what you can see.
View from West Overlook
            After viewing the overlook, do an about face and climb all of the wood/metal steps, some 100 in all, passing the trail you came in on along the way.  At the top of the steps, you reach a major trail junction.  To head for the CCC tower, continue straight.  A little more climbing brings you to the clearing that contains the stone tower.  Visitors are no longer allowed to climb the tower to get views from the top, but the stone tower still makes an unusual architectural structure to study at the highest elevation on this hike.
CCC's stone tower
            After studying the tower, continue straight across the clearing and reenter the forest, still heading east.  The trail descends slightly to reach an intersection with the blue-blazed Stone Wall Trail.  To see the mysterious stone wall, turn right here to begin the Stone Wall Trail.
            The Stone Wall Trail descends gradually and curves to the right with the highest land to your right.  At 0.8 miles, you reach the east end of the stone wall.  This point is unmarked, but the wall is obvious.  The wall continues for 800 feet and varies between 2 and 6 feet high.  Historians think the wall was even higher before it succumbed to centuries of plunder by treasure hunters.  The wall is not straight, but 30 “pits” were built into the wall for unknown reasons.  The trail parallels the wall, so you can study the wall while you walk.
Wall of stones
            0.9 miles into the hike, you reach an intersection with the CCC Stone Tower Trail.  To get back to the parking lot, turn left and begin following the red blazes on a moderate downhill grade.  This rocky and rooty trail is the original one built by the CCC in the 1930’s.  A 0.2 mile descent on this rough trail will return you to the trailhead and complete the hike.

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