By Michelle Hiskey
Having grown up in the nation’s capital, I know what it’s like to live around can’t-miss destinations and never get around to actually visiting them. For at least a decade as an adult in Atlanta, I wanted to hike Stone Mountain for sunrise on Easter Sunday, and finally that happened a year ago at the park’s 70th sunrise service.
It takes some planning and discomfort, but it is a spectacular annual event unique to our city. If it’s on your bucket list, read on for tips on how to chalk it up this weekend—and why it’s so memorable.
So close, but never on Easter
Barbara Myers lived in metro Atlanta for more than 50 years before hiking Stone Mountain for the Easter sunrise service in 2012 and 2014. Living in nearby Snellville, she was well acquainted with the park: she usually buys an annual pass because she likes to hike, kayak, and bike there.
But she didn’t go on Easter until a family friend asked her to join the tradition, along with a German exchange student who was going for the first time. Her daughters Ang and Allie Myers went too.
Myers’ Christian faith motivates her to celebrate Easter as Jesus’ resurrection. “I thought it would be a very moving experience to hike up the mountain in the dark and to see the sunrise at the same time we were celebrating Jesus’ victory over death,” Myers said.
That’s how I have felt, and for years have tried to get some or all of my family to go. They always passed until last year when our older daughter surprised me and said yes. She typically isn’t enthusiastic about attending church and she loves to sleep in.
But true to her word, she woke up at 4:45 am, pulled on layers including fleece pants, and piled in the car for the dark, quiet ride out Highway 78 to the mountain. It felt like we were on a spy mission.
Before you hike
Stone Mountain Park is located off U.S. 78 East, exit 8. On Easter, gates open at 4 am, and the Summit Skyride cable car begins operating at that time for those who want to ride to the top ($9 round-trip for adults, $7 for children under 12 and $5.50 one way).
Entrance to the park is $15 per vehicle, or $40 for an annual permit; church vans and buses enter free. We avoided fees by parking at a friend’s house in the village of Stone Mountain and walking down East Mountain Street through the park’s East Gate, near the Walk-Up Trail. (Pedestrians enter the park for free, and there is no charge for the hiking trail).
We packed a blanket, extra layers, snacks and water. The uneven terrain made me glad that I had skipped the rainy, damp Easters; the mountain is slippery when wet. Bring a flashlight; even better is a headlamp, which the Myers family suggests.
A steady stream of hikers was ahead of us when we set out, and the flow increased behind us as we climbed up the mile. As the trail grew steeper, our fellow hikers came in a range of ages and appearances . We saw parents carrying little kids, and older adults getting a hand up. We didn’t see any dogs, because pets are not allowed on the Walk-Up Trail.
A faint glow traced the horizon when we got to the top. We had plenty of time before the 7 am service, and this is where we encountered an unavoidable element: the wind.
On an outcropping of granite 1,686 feet above sea level, there was no escaping the gusts. The wind was whipping so much that the park operators suspended cable car rides. After warming ourselves a bit with coffee and hot chocolate at the Top of the Mountain Center, we spread out our blanket, huddled close and tried to doze. (This photo gallery captured the scene and atmosphere. Our only comparable experience of chilly, outdoor, sleep-deprived togetherness was our predawn trek from the Maryland suburbs to President Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009.
Atop Stone Mountain, the area around us became more crowded. Thousands of people make the trek each year for Easter; up to 8000 have attended services at the top or the base, where a simultaneous service is held (and where a cross will be featured for the first time this year). In 2014, we were among a reported 5000 at the top of the mountain.
“The number of people who attended the service surprised me,” Barbara Myers said. Her strongest memories: “The chilly temperatures and the wind last year.”
And the sunrise.
The thread of light across the horizon had begun to thicken as the interdenominational service got under way with a welcome by Frank Ashbaugh of Stone Mountain First United Methodist Church. First United is the home church of the Stone Mountain Sunrise Association, which has sponsored the sunrise services since 2011. Other clergy and musicians represented For Eternity Christ Church, Chestnut Grove Baptist Church, Mountain Park United Methodist Church and Westside Baptist Church.
As they moved through the service, the light began to overcome the darkness, and I was struck by how puny human words and sentiments appear in the presence of natural majesty. Singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” or “He Arose” was a thin serenade for the magnificence stretching across the sky.
Spring of 2014 would continue to be a challenging one for many reasons, but seeing the sunrise—or the Sonrise, as some call it—imbued me with hope, that nature has a persistence and so do we, even when we don’t feel it, even when we don’t call it a higher power. The sun will and does always rise.
Like running the Peachtree Road Race, hiking to the Easter sunrise service at Stone Mountain is a tradition for many in Atlanta. The Myers family plans to go again this year. They can fit it in before their longer-held traditions like getting together with other family members for holiday breakfast and a later meal.
This Easter, sunrise is expected at 7:18 am.