Arabia Mountain moonscape

All photos: Catie Leary

The moon-like swath of granite you see above is known as Arabia Mountain. Located just a short drive from Atlanta, this massive "field" of stone is one of Georgia's most obscure natural treasures. Compared to the forested landscape surrounding it, taking a walk through this place is so surreal that you might wonder if you've been transported to a different planet!

Icy stone ground of Arabia Mountain

Located within the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve, the isolated mountain or monadnock is often compared to the state's famous and much larger Stone Mountain (located just 30 minutes north of Arabia), but their geological histories are quite different. The igneous granite batholith of Stone Mountain emerged from the ground about 350 million years after the formation of Arabia Mountain, which is made from a much older belt of metamorphic rock known as migmatitic gneiss.

Like Stone Mountain, Arabia Mountain was a quarry site for many years before the area was handed over to the DeKalb County parks system. You can still see evidence of the quarry activity on the trail in the form of structure ruins and excavation. Prior to western settlement and industry, the area was used for transportation, trading and as a buffer area between the local Creek and Cherokee tribes.

Because of its cultural, historical and natural significance, the preserve was declared a National Heritage Area in 2006.

Solution pool at Arabia Mountain

What makes this rare environment extra special are the solution pools — small depressions scattered across Arabia's desolate granite that teem with life. The solution pools are formed by erosion and other external forces (such as lichen) that weaken the rock. Sand, rainwater and decaying leaf matter gradually wash into these shallow pits, providing a fertile place for new plant life to take hold.

Diamorpha at Arabia Mountain

One of the most notable plants that makes its home in these stony hollows is Diamorpha smallii, also known as Small's stonecrop or elf orpine. Endemic to the Southeastern U.S. (mostly in Georgia), these tiny red succulents are seasonal — they begin their life cycle in late fall, grow through the winter and then finally bloom and die by early March. The image above shows what they look like in mid-January.

Rainbow solution pools of Arabia Mountain

Arabia Mountain is also home to black-spored quillwort (Isoetes melanospora) and little amphianthus (Gratiola amphiantha). These plants thrive in shallow granite outcrops alongside diamorpha, but they face an uncertain future. Due to quarrying, trash dumping and off-road vehicle use, both of these species, while protected, are listed as imperiled under state and federal law.

Moss and diamorpha at Arabia Mountain

Amazing geology and biology aside, Arabia Mountain is probably one of the most fascinating yet little-known places to go for a hike in Georgia. The park is separated into two chunks by Klondike Road. The southeast chunk contains the summit of Arabia Mountain and the Mountain Lake, while the northwest chunk features an expansive granite field, a forest and Arabia Lake.

Arabia Mountain stone trail markers

Since it's difficult blaze obvious trails in the solid rock, cemented cairns are situated all along the trails to guide hikers in the right direction.

Hiking on Arabia Mountain

You can explore the summit of Arabia Mountain by entering the preserve from the southeast Mountain Top trailhead. The summit is located 954 feet above sea level, but only 170 feet above the Arabia Lake reservoir. Depending on skill level, the incline might be a challenge for some, but it's certainly no Mount Everest! It may be called a mountain, but it's more like a very large stone hill.

Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve

To explore the northwest section of the preserve, there is a 2-mile-long hiking loop made up of the Rock Trail and the Forest Trail. The entrance is located just past the nature center on the opposite side of Klondike Road from the Mountain Top Trailhead. The loop is flatter than the Mountain Top Trail, but the uneven terrain and loose rocks require your attention.

Diamorpha at Arabia Mountain

If you ever find yourself in the Atlanta area, make time to visit this remarkable preserve. Not only is it gorgeous and fascinating — it's also one-of-a-kind. You won't find anything quite like it outside of Georgia!

Moss at Arabia Mountain

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Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.