This article appears in the September issue of 400 Life Magazine.
Even if you’ve yet to climb Sawnee Mountain, simply driving through Forsyth ensures you’ve seen the green grandeur that draws the eye from just about anywhere in the county. Today the landmark harbors residential developments, surprisingly strenuous hiking trails, and a visitor’s center; but its expansive views, rich history, and the stories behind both are a treasure that will leave you replenished in both body and soul — whether you find gold or not.
There’s a reason not many houses were built on Sawnee Mountain. At 1,960 feet with less than a thousand acres to its footprint, it’s a steep climb. Plus, it’s prone to wildfires — and ghost stories inspired by them — it’s riddled with caves and mines from gold rushers, and it’s been all but stripped of its original timber resource, and by default, its original name: Pine Mountain.
“Very few settlers chose to live on the mountain,” said Martha McConnell, the Forsyth County Historical Society’s co-president and lifetime local resident. “The higher you go, the steeper it gets. Before Tower Road was built in the 1950s, there was no easy way to get to the top.”
Ralph Hayes knew that. A brand new employee of Ingram Funeral Home at the time, Hayes found out first-hand just how steep a climb it was during a middle-of-the-night mission to recover the pilot’s body from a plane crash on the south face of the mountain.
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“Ralph Hayes had taken a new job at Ingram Funeral Home. His boss, Royston Ingram, called him just about the time he was ready to get in bed for the night,” recounts George Pirkle, historian for the Forsyth County Historical Society. “The burning wreckage gave them a clear beacon to the location, but it didn’t make it any easier for them to wrestle a wicker body basket through the woods, straight up the side of the mountain. And nothing was easy about hauling the body down the side of the mountain in the dark.”
By this time it was already known by its current name, one to honor a Cherokee Native American named Sawnee. According to legend, when the Cherokees were forced out of this region, Sawnee didn’t want to leave. But along with many, he moved to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
“The story goes that in appreciation for his work and in tribute to his friendly, welcoming nature, the citizens of the newly formed city and county named the mountain after him,” says Pirkle. “It has carried his name ever since. It’s easy to imagine that a large part of his spirit still resides there, watching over the lands he knew and loved.”
Maybe Sawnee’s spirit has a little to do with why gold miners eventually had to move on. In the late 1800s, the mines and caves they dug all over the mountain played out, and they packed up to head west, leaving behind nothing but their handiwork.
Other handiwork is thanks to natural disasters and the timber industry, both making it almost impossible to regrow what was lost. But now that the land is preserved as a county park, phase two growth makes it an outdoor destination for hikers and history buffs alike.
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Since the 1990s Sawnee Mountain Preserve has seen three phases of development to benefit a community itching to explore. The Preserve includes 821 acres of hiking trails, Indian Seats, abandoned gold mines, a tree canopy classroom, playground, two picnic pavilions, climbing area, 140-seat amphitheater and interactive visitors center. Families can play outside, attend nature camps and spend Saturdays crafting and learning. The trails are open 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., through October, and close at 7 p.m., starting in November — perfect timing to race the sunset.
“The draw of Sawnee Mountain has grown exponentially as people desire to get outdoors and explore local hiking trails,” says Michelle Daniels, director of tourism for the Forsyth County Chamber. “As the healthiest county in the state of Georgia for the last seven years, visitors utilize Forsyth County’s fantastic park system to continue building healthy habits while exploring the great outdoors.”
Visitors can trek short, easy walks or longer, more difficult trails. They experience a touch of history as they navigate the trails, and can dig deeper into the history at the visitors center. Whatever the skill and interest level, now more than ever, outdoor adventures offer ways to social distance amidst fresh air and fun. And of course, ghost stories still haunt conversation today.
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“I always love hearing from visitors who share their adventures after they visit for the first time,” says Daniels. “Often we hear about the spectacular sunset views experienced on the top of Sawnee Mountain, or that visitors had no idea about the immersive visitor center located at the Sawnee Mountain Preserve. Especially during the fall, the colors of the sky paint a radiant canvas for visitors to enjoy while venturing through the 11 miles of trails available to explore.”
“My grandson told me that it is taught in local schools that Sawnee Mountain is four feet short of being a ‘real’ mountain,” McConnell adds. “I have not checked the facts, but we will call it a mountain if we want to. At one time the mountain had those additional four feet, and then some. Natural erosion has accounted for some loss of height over the last several centuries. Anybody who doesn’t think it’s a mountain needs to hike up one of the steeper trails on a hot summer afternoon.”
These days, the heat is surprisingly tolerable when the alternative is sitting at home, quarantined from friends and family. Hundreds of social media posts tagged atop Sawnee Mountain prove this is the best way to feel like we’re still all together. In fact, thanks to Sawnee’s spirit, even if you hike it alone, you may not be all by yourself.
Trail Access Points:
-4075 Spot Road
-2500 Bettis-Tribble Gap Road
-2505 Bettis-Tribble Gap Road
-6 a.m. to 7 p.m., November to February
-6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., March to October
For more information, visit:
Story by Jennifer Colosimo for 400 Life Magazine.