On a pollen-saturated spring morning, Panola Mountain naturalist and interpretive ranger Lieren Forbes hops and twirls in her khaki uniform on a rock outcrop of the mountain. The exercise, which Forbes calls "Stay on the Gray," is similar to the children's game "The Floor Is Lava," but it's not just for fun.
Forbes is leaping from patch of gray stone to patch of gray stone to avoid stepping on the sea-green lichen blooming on the rock. As a guide, Forbes spends a lot of effort trying not to disturb the mountain's delicate ecosystem, and a lot of effort teaching others not to, either.
Panola Mountain is a monadnock, or a small mountain, similar to nearby Arabia and Stone mountains. Unlike its sister mondanocks, however, Panola Mountain is a pristine National Natural Landmark. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has labeled it the "crown jewel" of the Arabia Mountain Natural Heritage Area because, while the department encourages visitors to the park around Panola, the actual mountain ecosystem has been kept as untouched by humans as possible.
"Ours is the last pristine one," Forbes explains. "It was never quarried, it's had very minimal impact on it. It's what a monadnock would have looked like hundreds of years ago. So, in order to try and keep that as pristine as possible, we limit the access to it."
Access to the actual monadnock is limited to small guided tours that occur with limited frequency. On those scheduled tours, which include a hike of about a mile and a half around the mountain itself, visitors must keep to a narrow path designated by the guide – even stepping only where the guide has stepped.
"We have literally hundreds of different types of lichens and mosses that grow, and if you don't know what you're looking at, it's very easy to crush them," Forbes says, standing on a rock outcrop adjacent to the mountain. "So looking out here, a lot of people would look at this rock outcrop and think 'There's nothing out there that I could kill.'
"And right now it's hard to tell all the different species, but right after it rains, it is a hundred different colors of gray, and green and brown and just a beautiful mosaic of life that's very delicate when it comes to human impact."
The average non-ecologist probably remembers the principle of succession from a middle school science textbook. Ecological succession is the lengthy process that happens to an ecological community over time. It's how a barren plot of land goes from only growing lichen and mosses, to hosting grasses, then shrubs, then pine trees, then a full-on mature hardwood forest.
“The cool thing about a rock outcrop like this is you could actually in one shot get a picture of that traditional succession image from the schoolbooks," Forbes says. "You can get that picture, which is meant to simulate time, in one real shot.”
That's because succession happens differently on an untouched monadnock ecosystem like Panola Mountain. Shady hardwood forests blend with less-dense clumps of pine trees, which open up to clearings of rock where only much smaller forms of life grow. Foamy lichen sticks to the gray rock in some areas, mingling with the tiny, fire-red diamorpha plant that famously also clusters on Arabia Mountain.
That natural diversity of plant life was historically allowed to flourish on Panola Mountain, but not on Arabia and Stone, because Panola was not as useful to humans. The rock in Panola Mountain is flakier than that of the other area monadnocks, making it unsuitable for building material and saving the rock from quarrying.
On her hikes, Forbes spins this geological trivia into puns: "It's a gneiss rock! You shouldn't take it for granite!"
Instead of being divvied up for commercial purposes, the land on which Panola sits was passed between various private hands until the 1960s, when it was given to the state. According to Forbes, "Panola" is actually a Creek term for "cotton," referring to the cotton farms that once surrounded the base of the mountain. Because the mountain itself could not be profitably farmed or chipped away, today the view of the mountain from the rock outcrop remains a forested bump in the horizon – uncarved and untouched.
“It’s honestly kept itself a secret fairly well. I can only think of a few places where you can look, and it looks like a mountain," Forbes says.
Panola Mountain takes up only a small portion of the park that bears its name. The rest of the 1,635-acre park that is not set aside for conservation comprises hiking trails, multiple fishing lakes and primitive campsites, which host activities from archery to kayaking to geocaching. But if visitors want to play "Stay On The Gray," or view the entire southeast Atlanta region from the summit of the mountain, they must contact the park department.