Panola Mountain State Park is a Georgia State Park about 30 minutes east of Atlanta, GA.
Panola Mountain State Park focuses on programming, activities, and conservation. They have everything from archery to tree climbing to fishing to biking. Unlike Vogel and Fort Mountain, Panola Mountain does not have many overnight accommodations.
But – Panola Mountain does have 5 walk-in primitive campsites. They are a real hidden gem for Atlantans looking to get outdoors.
I had been looking for the right time and place to take my son on his first overnight camping trip. My brothers and I usually camp in the backcountry, especially along the Appalachian Trail.
And unlike my first overnight trip, I had zero desire to have a bear walk into my son’s first camping trip.
That brings me to Panola Mountain.
Panola Mountain’s campsites are amazing for a kid’s first time camping trip –
- It’s not too far of a drive from Atlanta, so there’s low time commitment and easy to bail in case of a bad experience.
- The campsites are 1/2 mile from the parking lot. It’s not backcountry, but it’s also not in the middle of a parking lot.
- The 1/2 mile hike forces a limit on packing, but it also allows for some luxuries.
- The sites have vault toilets (so no digging catholes or packing out toilet paper).
- The sites have tent pads, picnic tables, and a firepit w/ grill grate. This minimizes the need for campsite creativity.
- There is a water supply back at the parking lot. This minimizes that persistent backcountry worry.
- The rangers are super-hospitable and love having overnight visitors. They know and love their park and can help make your stay successful.
There’s a ton of stuff to do right around the campsite –
- bonfire firepit for a massive, safe fire
- lovely little pond with small but catchable fish (e.g., brim)
- bird conservation area with tons of wildlife
- a washed out bridge extending out into the slow moving South River
- a large lake nearby for boating, fishing, and swimming
- a large open grassland area (great for epic “battles”)
- hiking trails
- paved bike path
And that’s only the activities right at the campsite. Panola Mountain State Park has even more activities around the park. Other activities include ranger-led hikes, archery range and a tree-climbing course.
Panola Mountain does not have a “first time camper program” that is available at other State Parks. But we had our own equipment, and wanted a good overnight experience.
We were able to enjoy basic camping joys. We were able to test out equipment. We did not have to worry about water, campsite selection, packing out waste, etc.
The big tradeoff with Panola Mountain is that it’s not surrounded by wilderness. The park is right amongst Atlanta’s suburban sprawl. The campground is immediately under the flight path of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Light pollution is very bad. We could hear late night house parties across the river. Between 6pm and 10pm, every single red eye flight headed out West or to Europe banked around 2,000 ft right overhead (as confirmed with FlightRadar24).
My brothers, my son, and myself are all aviation geeks, and every flight was a Heavy – right overhead. It was super-cool on one hand.
But…777s, 767s, and A-330s banking every 30 seconds for 4 hours could definitely drive someone crazy after a while. Be aware and enjoy the contrast.
That said – all the downsides are due to the fact that the park is very accessible from Atlanta.
The campground has 5 sites around Scout Lake. However, it is arranged as 2 double sites and a single site.
In other words, Sites #1 and #2 are right together and share the bonfire pit. Sites #3 and #4 are across the lake close together and Site #5 is off by itself. The night we stayed, there were 3 groups including us. That was about right for us. If there had been another group, we would have been up in each other’s business.
However, we went on a holiday weekend. I can’t see the campground getting crowded ever – maybe on Labor Day or Columbus Day if the weather is nice.
Here’s a few pictures.
This picture shows how close Site #1 and #2 are together. #1 is straight ahead with #2 just to the right of the frame.
This picture shows our site through the trees. There were plenty of options for our hammocks.
The bonfire pit is excellent. It’s shared between Sites #1 and #2. The wood was pretty wet the night we stayed though. The park does not have wood for sale and you also can’t bring your own firewood. You are free to gather any downed wood from the forest (there’s plenty).
The vault toilet was a bit behind the bonfire pit. It wasn’t too bad for a composting toilet. There were plenty of flies, as expected. It had plenty of toilet paper and some ventilation.
Here’s our setup before putting up the tent. The 1/2 mile walk from the parking lot allowed us to bring a couple coolers and plenty of water…without getting too crazy. For my brothers and me – we joked that it was bordering on glamping. But to have a 6 year old in tow – it was nice to have plenty of food and equipment options.
Picnic tables also beat wet logs and mud any day – glamping or not.
Here’s our sleeping setup. We were a hammock short, so I brought our 4 person Kelty tent for myself (again, the weight over a 1/2 mile wasn’t bad). We had good tree options for hammocks and rain flys.
The firepit had an open fire or a grill grate option. You can’t beat french fries and hotdogs over an open flame.
There’s a path behind the vault toilet headed down to the South River.
The river had an old farm bridge extending into the water. It had washed out years ago, but made a really fun, relaxing spot.
The subtle beauty of the Georgia Piedmont in the summer.
The Power of Flight bird conservation area had a wide trail providing some access. The ranger-led tours allow for better viewing opportunities. But we saw tons of herons, chickadees, cardinals – and a sunbathing tortoise on our short walk.
The trip was a massive success. Panola Mountain’s small but well-placed campground is a real hidden gem for Atlantans. It was perfect for a first overnight for kids. And it’s perfect for a nice weekend outdoors without the hassle, planning and travel of a backcountry trip. There’s tons to do and see and you can’t beat the accessibility from Atlanta.
Thanks to this successful trip – we’re ready to head to some of Georgia’s wilderness areas, and maybe a nearby National Park like Congaree or the Smokies.