You know how in the movies where the heroes are slogging through the jungle, then the camera shows subtle changes in scenery implying something big is about to happen, then they round a bend and see this vast civilization splayed out as far as the eye can see?

Something like that happens on the Stone Mountain Loop — cinematic in scale except the view is way bigger than a movie screen. You have to park at the Upper Trailhead and take the first left turn where the signs point toward the waterfalls. Once you’re past the falls, the trail flattens, passes a great big rock on the right, and the view ahead starts to brighten, like maybe there’s a big meadow up there.

I alluded to this after my first trip to Stone Mountain last year. Pretty soon an immense gray shadow forms on the right, and you realize it’s really, really big, because it fills the background in your field of vision.

Within moments there’s a break in the forest and the full, vertical-striped glory of Stone Mountain’s granite dome fills your mental frame. Even if you’ve seen it before, the effect is surprising. There must be a thousand more examples of scenic splendor in the Carolinas that I haven’t seen, yet I have a hard time believing many of them surpass the sheer visual impact of Stone Mountain. But only if you go the way I outlined.

If you take the shorter route from the Lower trailhead, you walk maybe a half-mile before the view kicks in; if you take the Upper Trailhead, however. it’s about 1.75 miles to the break in the woods, deep enough that the shift in scenery is much more dramatic.

Even on a muggy, gray Saturday morning with no blue sky to frame the granite, I was standing there almost as slack-jawed as I was the first time. My pictures don’t have near the pop of the shots I snapped on a sunny day, but I’m not complaining. I actually walked up to a couple folks enjoying the view and asked, “is there anyplace in North Carolina cooler than this?”

“Nope,” the guy said, “and we’ve been coming here for 50 years.”

I’ve been revisiting many of last year’s North Carolina hikes to refresh my memory for new EveryTrail guides — I figure you need to walk a trail at least twice before you can presume to tell others how to avoid getting lost on it. It’s also nice to see my first impression (“whoah!”) confirmed.

I guess that’s enough blabbering — let’s see the pictures.

Wildflower along the trail

Great thing about a forest: there’s always something blooming. I’ve already given up on trying to time my hikes around the best blooms — they’re only around for a week or so, and you can’t be all the places where the blooms are booming. Same for the fall colors: You can contort your schedule eight ways to Sunday to try to catch the so-called “peak,” or you can be on your way and let nature provide.

Looking up to Stone Mountain Falls

Stone Mountain Falls is an awesome 200-foot cascade, but it’s not photogenic. I figured total cloud cover might be superior to direct sunlight. Nope. Only way to catch this one at its best is to park yourself with a tripod at the base of the falls with a flaming-red October sunset, and have some fun with long exposures (wonder if the moon shows up over the top of the falls? That’d be cool).

Flow in the creek

The creek flowing down past the falls is a bit more obliging. I strapped my little hiking tripod to a tree to get this shot, a four-tenths of a second exposure.

Stone Mountain rises above the trees

Another shot of Stone Mountain. Sometimes I like it when a camera doesn’t do the scene justice — provides an excuse to see it again in real life.

Corn Crib - Hutchinson Homestead

Another highlight of this hike: I stopped by the Hutchinson Homestead, where the Hutchinson clan lived from 1855 to 1955. Had a great conversation with a guy named Jack, who told me he grew up in a household without electricity not too far from here; after the World War II, the Rural Electrification Agency finished wiring the far-flung corners of the country, and that’s when the power lines finally reached his family’s farm.

“I know how much our first bill was,” he told me. “I remember Daddy complaining because it went up from 80 cents a month to a dollar.” Those were the days, my friend.

Hutchinsons in 1950

Two of the Hutchinsons in 1950.

Hutchinson Homestead

Their homestead. It’s been renovated for park visitors but it’s not a re-creation. They actually lived in this log house, with eight kids at one point.

Dining Room,  Hutchinson Homestead

The dining room.

OK, back to the hiking. After the Homestead, the trail goes down an old gravel road, then turns right into a single-track climbing pretty much straight up the hillside. This is the strenuous part of the hike; the rest is pretty tame.

Mushrooms along the trail

Saw a bunch of bright orange mushrooms along the way.

Cloudy day at Stone Mountain summit

The view from Stone Mountain summit. Not bad for an overcast day.

Forest near the summit

Another great thing about this hike is this section near the top running through this grassy section of timber. Looks much more alpine than you’d expect for this part of the state. It is over 2000 feet, however, which is well above the pine line.

After that it’s a gentle downhill walk back to the parking lot.

Links for this hike: