Below is a list of Arabia Mountain PATH trailheads along the three main trails (South River Trail, Arabia Mountain Trail, and Rockdale River Trail). The informal rankings are intended specifically for those who might wish to avoid shared concrete bicycle-pedestrian pathways when possible, and/or for those who prefer to explore on their own.
1. Arabia Mountain Trailhead/South Parking Lot/AWARE Wildlife Center—to Mountain Top Trail (Cairns), Mountain Loop Trail (unmarked), and the Lake Trail (Blue). This trailhead is closest to the two main attractions, Bradley and Arabia Mountains, and opens straight onto the outcrop, where there are unmarked trails and surprises. But the South Parking Lot is undersized and can present hazards when merging into Klondike Road traffic or when attempting to park on the shoulder on busy weekends. The alternative is to take the boardwalk from the Nature Center to the South Parking Lot, or to cut across Klondike near the start of the Mile Rock Trail to the unmarked Mountain Loop Trail that begins on the other side of the blue swinging gate.
2. Evans Mill Trailhead—to Cascade Trail and Wilburn Farm Trail (both Orange). This is the most accessible of all the trails, leading straight down from the parking lot to a hiker’s mecca. While there is very little to see of the mill ruins, the Cascade Trail pays dividends right away by passing along river shoals. Along the combined trail route are wooded hills, farmland, outcrop, a pond, and striking ruins of the barn and farmhouse. It is easy to extend the walk by connecting via the Boomerang Trail (Red) to the Laurel Creek Trail (White) just down the bike path. The only negative is that the noise from the nearby police shooting range can be constant on some weekday afternoons.
3. Vaughters’ Farm Trailhead—to Pasture Loop and Woodland (X) Trail (Pink). Most visitors cross the road to the barn, where the Loop trail begins, and are content to circle the pasture. And this is the best short trail for walking a dog. But extended hikes are also possible if one picks up the Woodland Trail on the far side of the Loop. The Woodland Trail and House Ruin Spur offer tree-covered hills, although both become rocky in places, and both (if the Woodland Trail is followed all the way around the pond) end up in someone’s back yard. But if you can find your way to them, the forest, outcrop, brook, and pond are among the most pristine in the area.
4. Parker House Trailhead/Panola Mountain State Park (East)—to Alexander Lake, Flat Bridge Trail, and the Power of Flight Area. This is a State Park entrance, so the $5 parking fee applies. It has recently gone unused while the area surrounding Alexander Lake was closed for construction and the Upper Lake was drained. It is now possible to walk from the parking lot to an unmarked trail that circles Lower Alexander Lake (which is actually the north half), crosses over Flat Bridge Trail (leading to the South River), passes Scout Lake (a tiny pond) and then merges into the Power of Flight Area, which is an open grassland with bird and butterfly trails and secluded beaches along the South River. Technically, this is a DNR Restricted area, so it is best to check in with the rangers first. But the Nature Center is on the far end of the park, so if you entered at Parker House, they are forgiving.
5. Arabia Mountain Nature Center Trailhead/North Parking Lot—to the Forest (Orange, leading to Arabia Lake), Mile Rock Trail (Cairns), and Mary Wade Spur. Parking is ample and the trails are easy-access, not too difficult, and popular with families. But this site can also be a hub for beginning longer treks, to the mountains (see #1), to the Evans Mill trails (this requires walking on a stretch of concrete; off-trail is the shooting range), or even to the Vaughters’ Farm trails (this requires more boldness and tact (walking along a shared driveway to cross Rockland Road at the bridge).
6. South Rockdale Community Park Trailhead—to Ken Miller Loop—South River. This is a popular destination for mountain bikers (easy/hard) and horses. Hikers start off on concrete, but it is not far to the Ken Miller Loop, which winds and connects back to the path near the Suspension Bridge and South River. Challenging hikes are possible along the South River, where an Eagle Scout trail built in 1999 is broken, but still serviceable, and leads to some secluded spots along the water’s edge. Due to overgrowth, it can become difficult to navigate this narrow trail in summer and spring.
7. Panola Mountain Park Nature Center Trailhead—to Rock Outcrop and Watershed Trails.
The Nature Center is the best option for families with young kids because the hiking trails are
easy loops. But what makes this stop well worth the $5 parking fee for anyone is the short walk
from the Center to the Rock Outcrop observation deck, which offers striking views of both Stone
and Panola Mountains. Unfortunately, it’s as close to the latter (off-limits for self-guided tours)
as most will ever get. If you don’t mind hiking around the park on the shared bike-pedestrian
path and are up for a more challenging hike, you can check in with a ranger at the Nature Center
to get a one-day permit (free) for the Boulder Trail, which begins at a DNR-restricted sign across
from the Power of Flight Area. (If you’ve reached the South River Bridge, you’ve gone too far.)
8. DeCastro Trailhead/Daniels Bridge Road—to Serpentine Bridge, Alexander Lake. This tiny
trailhead can be intimidating. It’s hard to spot the entrance amid the speeding traffic on Union
Church Road, and there are No Parking signs along the gravel road as it winds to the trailhead.
If you walk south, it’s a long walk on concrete past fences and Beware of Dog signs before you
eventually get to the South River. Walking north from Daniels Bridge, however, takes you over
the Serpentine Bridge and then on to Alexander Lake in Panola Park. Daniel’s Bridge is just as
close to the lake as the main entrance to the park, although not as close as the Parker House
Trailhead, which is just off the lake and charges the $5 state parking fee.
9. Polebridge Creek/Murphey Candler School Trailheads—to Laurel Creek (White) Trail.
The Polebridge trailhead requires a fair amount of walking on concrete to get to the hiking trail,
and the Horace King Commemorative Bridge and Farming Terraces along the way strike some
as underwhelming (the latter can’t be seen from the trail). The wetland area also runs dry. But
the Laurel Trail is picturesque and underused, and connects to the best Evans Mill trails (see #2).
The Candler trailhead provides closer access to Laurel Creek but is only open on weekends.
10. Panola Shoals/MLK School Trailheads—to Lyon’s Farm, South River Bridge. There is a
short stretch of boardwalk by the South River on the MLK School side of Snapfinger Road, but
otherwise, this is a long stroll on a shared bike path, along a neighborhood route that gets littered.
But a variety of wild species grow just off the pathway, and deer are common in fall. It is also
possible, in places, to climb down to the river. This path leads past several picturesque sites—
starting off at Panola Shoals, then on to a view of Panola Mountain from Lyon Farm (by a bench), then over the South River Bridge, and ultimately, through the north entrance to Panola Park.
11. Lorraine Park/Monastery of the Holy Spirit Trailheads. These two trailheads may be
linked because they only lead to each other. It is a long walk on a shared bike-pedestrian path,
but has the feeling of a pilgrimage if you begin at Lorraine. The best time to do this is in March-
April, when the magnolias are in bloom to greet your arrival at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
And the Monastery is an attraction all its own, with its cloister and abbey church, bookstore and
bonsai greenhouse. Lorraine Park offers a fleeting, high-angle view of the South River. It also
may have the best-maintained restrooms on the trail.
12. Historic Lithonia/Stonecrest Mall Trailheads/Stonecrest Library Spur. This is truly more of a widened city sidewalk than a pathway, but I was surprised to find it deserted on a Sunday (except around the entrance to the mall). There are fleeting glimpses of nature along the way, although the I-20 underpass is certainly the least lovely part of the PATH network. At the Lithonia end, the break onto Johnson Street requires circling a few blocks to get to the Women’s Club, so it’s debatable where the Arabia Mountain Trail technically begins. But because that detour can loop left-right through historic downtown Lithonia, the overall trade-off is not bad.