Here near the Big City, we sometimes think that we have to go north to the mountains to find a mountain worth climbing. But if you’re looking for a summit hike that’s rewarding and just challenging enough, you may not need to look any farther than Kennesaw Mountain.
Kennesaw Mountain, with a summit elevation of 1,808 feet, is the centerpiece of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. The mountaintop, and the area around it, played a key role during the Civil War in the Battle for Atlanta in June of 1864, standing as one of the last real obstacles between the Union army and its target, Atlanta. The resulting confrontation between the Union forces (under the direction of Gen. William T. Sherman) and the Confederate defenders (led by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson) was intense and bloody – but in the end it did not keep Sherman from taking Atlanta.
As summits go, 1,808 feet may not sound like a lot. But the hike to the top of Kennesaw Mountain takes you from about 1,144 feet to 1,808 feet in roughly a mile of hiking. That’s an elevation change of almost 700 feet on a trail with an average uphill grade of about 15 percent -- more than enough to get the ol’ cardio rate up a bit, to be sure.
Most hikes to the Kennesaw Mountain summit begin at the park’s visitor center, where you can learn about the mountain and its role in Civil War history. That’s where I started mine on a hot, muggy afternoon just the other day.
The trail itself starts outside the visitor center, near an informational kiosk. If it’s a pretty weekend day, expect to have lots of company on your hike. There will be serious hikers with serious boots and serious walking sticks. There will be young parents with kids in tow – or maybe with babies in backpack carriers. There will be families with dogs, groups of scouts and those who just want to enjoy a little bit of outdoor recreation. If you get the sense that the trail to the summit might be crowded, then you will be right.
Then you begin the climb.
As the trail climbs ever upward, you’ll pass numerous markers pointing out significant historical locations.
At several points, gun emplacements give you an acute sense of the history of the place – and if you let your imagination go, it’s not hard to envision what the battle must have been like. How did the defenders lug cannon, heavy muskets, lead bullets and all the other things of war up the mountainside? How did they dig out earthworks and rifle trenches? How did they fell trees to create an all but impenetrable tangle on the hillside below?
That summer was a hot and rainy one, historians say, and the troops of both sides battled mud and heat as much as they battled each other.
While pondering such things, you may come to appreciate the many benches that have been placed along the route to the top. I know that I stopped at several of them…but only to make notes or check the camera, of course!
Eventually (and it really doesn’t take too long) you’ll reach the summit. There, overlooks give you an idea of what the troops saw. Looking out toward Atlanta, for example, you’re gazing at the reason for this battle – Atlanta, a few miles in the distance. The defenders were trying the protect it; the attackers were bound for it and found Kennesaw Mountain in their way.
The very summit of the mountain boasts a small observation area with unobstructed views. You’ll want to linger there for a while. If you’re lucky, there will be a breeze to cool you off from your exertions.
After summiting the mountain, most folks turn around and backtrack down the trail to return to where they began. However, others continue on. As it turns out, the summit trail is actually the first leg of a loop (with a length of roughly six miles) which carries you even further into history…first to Little Kennesaw Mountain’s summit (elevation 1,610), and then to Pigeon Hill (elevation 1,247) and then down toward Burnt Hickory Road. Some of this is tough hiking, resembling rock hopping and root jumping as much as anything as you make your way up or down across rough and tricky terrain. This is where your knees may ask you just what you had in mind when you started this grand adventure.
At the lower end of the loop, near Burnt Hickory Road, a connector trail descends to the road. Just across the road there’s a water fountain (the first water since you left the visitor’s center) where you can refill your water bottle.
Then, to complete the loop, hike back up the connector trail and pick up the Camp Brumby Trail, which follows an old gravel roadbed for not quite three miles to take you back to the visitor center.
This final leg is relatively easy, wrapping you in easy walking that rests the body and the mind. And if you listen, you might hear a distant rumble…thunder? Or perhaps it’s the long-reverberating sound of cannon fire? Wars are like that sometimes. The echoes tend to hang around for a long, long time.