We planned for July 11th with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. We had tickets to see a funk band in a cave! Our tickets had been purchased before the quarantine was in place with an original show date in April. The coronavirus had postponed it until July, and despite our hesitation, we planned to attend. There were several factors involved: our tickets were non-refundable, Jodi’s daughter (who had come to visit two weeks prior) needed a ride home to Alabama, and the concert was a good reason to go camping in North Georgia.
About a week and a half before the event, word came by email: the concert would be postponed until Spring 2021. As sad as we were that The Floozies would have to wait until next year, the delay came with a sigh of relief. Being a concert goer in a crowded subterranean music venue in the middle of a pandemic would have been worrisome, at the least.
We quickly modified our plan—our three-state camping trip with concert became two states and one night in the woods. All that was left was to pick a location and after some research we settled on the Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA just outside of LaFayette, GA. And so, we left Saturday morning to take a quick skip through Northern Alabama before heading into the North Georgia mountains.
Pigeon Mountain is part of a series of peaks along the Georgian reaches of the Cumberland Plateau, one of many ranges that form the roots of the Appalachian Mountains. Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA encompasses Pigeon Mountain and the series of peaks northeast of it. It is a massive single-tract property encompassing more than 20,000 acres of mountains, canyons, fields, and forests. It is home to scores of caves, dozens of trailheads, numerous campsites, and countless other points of interest. The near 36 square mile property has peaks that reach more than 2,300 feet and canyons below 1,100 feet. Most of the landscape is blanketed with thick forests and is peppered with bluffs, boulders, lookouts, and waterfalls. It is a beautiful place to behold and I hope to have weeks to explore it next time!
After the rendezvous in Northern Alabama, our route followed the Cumberland Plateau to Pigeon Mountain. The narrow winding roads wandered the countryside often confounding our sense of direction, but when mountains began climbing between tree lines north of Trion, GA, we knew we were getting close. We took a pit stop in LaFayette to pick up ice and some last-minute supplies, and then headed toward our destination.
The next twenty or so hours would be dedicated to getting a solid feel for what Pigeon Mountain had to offer, but before we scaled that mountain we wanted to know what we were in for—so we took a long sweeping drive around the outer boundary of the preserve. The drive was lovely! The road edge featured historical sites and homes, beautiful houses on rolling meadows, and fields of corn and sunflower—all gave way to the thick forests of the mountains as they slopped upwards from the canyon floor. We took Highway 193 leading up the eastern edge across the property near its northern reach. Hog Jowl Road carried us down the western edge to Dougherty Gap, a small zig-zagging road that brought us up the southern ridgeline to where we turned onto Rocky Lane and began our exploration.
The southern stretch of Rocky Lane bisects Pigeon Mountain with the WMA on the west and various farms or private properties on the east. About a mile into the preserve, the winding road had passed several trailheads. The rises and falls of the mountain road led through lush forests and along stone gullies that’d harbor rainy day streams. We made our way towards Sawmill Lake and because it was getting later into the afternoon, we needed to find a suitable campsite. The frequency of other vehicles on the mountain had shown us that—unlike most of our visits to WMA’s—we would not be alone in the woods tonight.
We reached Sawmill Lake and were astounded: most WMA camp areas are simple plots of grass near the main entrance—the campsites here were so much more! Sawmill Lake hosts several distinct fields with trees and posts for hammocks, special areas for horse camping, and several unique sites near and around the lake. Sawmill Lake is one of five official campsites within the Crockford-Pigeon Mountain property, and over the course of our exploration we noticed remnants of unofficial camping within the preserve and numerous RV and camping facilities nearby.
Having settled on a campsite we set out to see what we could find before sunset. Heading east from Sawmill Lake, Rocky Lane leads past Rocktown Road, a southern fork that leads to the Rocktown trailhead. Having been in the car most of the day and having passed on many trailheads already, we were eager to get out and see what was hiding in the woods.
We gathered up our packs with plenty of water and set out. The well-worn trail curved around a low hill and rose into a scrubby forest. Just south of the trail was a large boulder that Jodi and I immediately expressed an interest in climbing. We tested hand and footholds while Rebecca fussed. We were not prepared to scale boulders and lacked any kind of training on how to safely do so. We had the desire but lacked necessary equipment and ability.
While we examined the boulder a pair of hikers passed us on the trail. They appeared lightly dressed for the hike and were carrying what appeared to be large folding mats on their backs. Curious about their kit, I watched them head up the trail and heard them comment about their being better boulders further out. Eventually we moved on, following the trail deeper while looking for birds among the scrub tree branches.
Around a few bends we again encountered a boulder. We decided to take a closer look and broke from the clearly marked trail. We wandered from rock formation to rock formation, looking for easy highs to scale and taking pictures. We found that the Rocktown trail runs along a field of boulders under a blanket of forest. Between boulders the terrain varies from leafy underbrush and mosses to hardened clay and stone, but we found it stable and fairly easy to travel.
On the way back we crossed paths with the matts again—I stopped to ask them what they were carrying. They said they were crash pads for bouldering, a form of rock climbing that I had never heard of and that Crockford-Pidgeon Mountain is somewhat famous for.
We reached the car and decided to explore the rest of Rocky Lane before nightfall. Further east the road forked again and followed the ridgeline of the Shintone Valley. Rocky Lane curved north and to the south Southbrow Road led up a nearby hill. A small sign with the words “Hood Lookout .2” caught our attention. We quickly wheeled south and sped toward the only vantage from the mountain top we’d find this weekend.
We enjoyed the view of LaFayette and the distant mountains as the sun set behind us. We made plans to return to this spot for the sunrise, before checking out the last article on our agenda that evening—Petty John’s Cave and its adjacent campsites. Though cozy, we had resolved ourselves to sleeping on the mountaintop and returned to the campsites at Sawmill Lake before night really set in. We watched the stars come out from our hammocks as we drifted to sleep. Much like today—tomorrow required an early start.
Part II Coming Soon!