Over the past few years Rebecca and I have established a simple modus operandi for camping: hammocks by car side. Yes, we glam-camp. The model we use stems from camping together at music festivals and has been streamlined for overnights in the wilderness. We carry our hammocks, sleeping bags and/or blankets, a couple of small pillows, change(s) of clothes, towels, a small cooler for ice/cold foods, a bag of dry goods, and lots of water. In addition, we each carry our normal kit, though modified slightly to accommodate staying overnight.
We had settled on a campground, selected our trees, situated our hammocks, and eaten a light dinner—and at that point were cozy as caterpillars in our cocoons when the need to relieve myself arose. I shuffled my blankets and rolled out of the hammock, slipped on my shoes, and wandered away from the campsite into the field beyond the car. The sky opened between the trees as a void of darkness and I was momentarily caught between the desire to observe and the task at hand.
A clear night sky is a thing difficult to rival in the human mind. Its presence is one of profound scaling, for me no moment is as sobering yet so intoxicating as looking up at the night sky and being presented with all the evidence of exactly how infinitesimal we, as a species, are when compared to the observable universe. The night sky on Pigeon Mountain had that effect—in the hours between sunset and moonrise the sky was pitch black with little pinpricks of starlight that mark objects many millennia away in both time and distance.
A few hours later, the moonrise woke us up. It was so bright you could read by it. We quietly took in some moon beams for a while, in awe of the brilliance of our moon, and eventually went back to sleep. When the morning came, we quickly broke camp, threw everything in the car, and hurried to the lookout. Every minute brought us closer to sunrise—and we didn’t want to waste even one. We arrived at the vantage point and as expected we would not be alone with the sky.
Four people had already claimed the rocky break in the tree line. While we finished our wake-up routines, one person packed up his camera and left. I was worried our arrival had upset him but our new acquaintances informed us that his goal was to photograph the comet, Neowise, which would be rising just before the sun, and that clouds had moved in and obscured where it would be rising. Being avid space nerds—we made note of the comet and made plans to look for it in the weeks ahead.
We exchanged names with our new friends and began talking about the mountain as we watched the light grow on the horizon. They were locals and knew a great deal more about the area than we had gleaned from the internet. According to them, some of the most notable features of Pigeon Mountain are the rocks. Specifically, those that are good for bouldering and the gaps that make for good spelunking.
I must confess, before our visit I knew nothing about the extreme form of rock climbing known as bouldering and, as of this writing, I still know very little. I have been able to glean an understanding of the premise and according to our new confidants, Rocktown, Pigeon Mountain has some of the best bouldering in the Appalachian Mountains. By their recollection, the trailhead is literally crawling with bouldering enthusiasts during the cooler spring and autumn months.
In a nutshell, bouldering is a form of free climbing that focuses on short, low elevation, highly technical rock climbing. Because of the intensity and techniques involved enthusiasts frequently fall or bail, and for this reason bouldering takes place close to ground level with spotters helping climbers land on crash pads safely. A given climb is referred to as a “problem.” Problems vary in objective and difficulty. Objectives can be anything from navigating a rock face to reaching the summit of a boulder. Difficulty can be adjusted by multiple factors including the technical skills needed to complete the task and/or the height above ground. Most problems are arranged between 5 and 15 feet above ground.
The Rocktown Trail is a bouldering enthusiast’s dream, the winding trail roams between scrub forests and boulders for most of its length. I can see why Pigeon Mountain is such a popular destination for the activity.
On the other hand, spelunking is an activity I was at least glancingly familiar with. As a child my grandparents made sure that we were exposed to a great many natural wonders—among them was a trip to some cavern in the lower Appalachian Mountains. My childhood memories are fuzzy, but I remember gawking at the stalactites and stalagmites clinging to the floor and ceiling, the cave bound streams and springs that seemed to run everywhere, and the beautiful rock formations that filled the caves we visited. Later in life I learned about spelunking—the practice of exploring wild caves.
Our new friends shared stories about Petty John’s Cave. One of nearly 50 caves located around Pigeon Mountain, Petty John’s is on the eastern side of the mountain, just off Rocky Lane. While most of the caves are in secluded locations throughout the Wildlife Management Area, Petty John’s is easy to find—it’s on Google Maps and there’s a kiosk. In addition to general information about the cave system there are forms for cave goers to fill out before venturing underground. The cave system stretches 6.5 miles into the earth and has been thoroughly explored over the years. It is also well traveled—making it an ideal spot for aspiring spelunkers to start.
Pigeon Mountain is also home to Ellison’s Cave, which requires special permission to visit. At 12 miles it registers among the deepest caves in the country and is home to several pits. The most notable being The Fantastic Pit, a 586-foot unobstructed vertical cavern, which holds the title of deepest pit in the continental US. Like many caves, the location of Ellison’s Cave is sequestered to protect the underground ecology and entry requires a permit because of the dangers involved.
Our new friends had one more piece of advice: Pocket Lane. To reach it we would have to circle the mountain one more time. After a quick look at the entrance to Petty John’s Cave and having asked a few questions of would be spelunkers, we followed Highway 193 to Hog Jowl Rd then took it south until we found the unassuming country road known as Pocket Lane. The lane led us through forests and between farmhouses until it opened along a field of sunflowers and a gravel parking lot.
We had been sent here on the promise of a short hike and a waterfall, and in our search, we found several more trailheads and additional camping in what has been dubbed “The Pocket.” Our Point of interest was the Shirley Miller Trail, named for one of Georgia’s First Ladies and dedicated to her commitment to non-game wildlife conservation. The short trail starts as a boardwalk over a silt bog that follows the edge of Pocket Branch. A seasonal stream that had been rendered as a path of water worn rocks, small boulders, and sand by the dry summer. The mountain spring was hidden but trickled between the rocks and occasionally formed pools of clear cold water where the gravel was thin or impermeable.
The boardwalk ended as a stair meeting a foot trail on the muddy bank. We followed it along the creek bed over boulders and roots until we found the end. The waterfall, diminished by the dry weather, was little more than a trickle clinging to a cliff face with a near placid pool of water below it. But, between the still, reflective waters, the moss-covered cliffs, and the flourishing fauna it was beautiful none the less. In the moments we spent in the shady canopy by the cliff face we built a cairn on a boulder point that would be washed away soon, enjoyed the cool spring water on our faces, and began our trip home.
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