Ever watch the old movies with the giant ants created by nuclear radiation or set down to read a cold war thriller novel and wondered what it would have been like to live in the golden age, (euphemistically speaking), of nuclear testing? Well, Georgia has its own piece of Cold War heritage moldering away north of Atlanta, that I get to explore now that I’ve bred some more heat resistant goats.
Dawson Forest began life as the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Facility under Air Force supervision, operating from 1958-1971, testing the feasibility of nuclear powered aircraft as well as irradiating military equipment and the local forest to study the effects of nuclear war. The reactor portion of the site included pumping stations to pull water from the Etowah river, a water treatment plant to purify the water, a reactor, radioactive senors testing for radiation leaks, and seepage pits to dispose of radioactive waste water. The reactor, when not in use, was stored in a concrete pit surrounded by water. It was physically raised out of the water during operation, and run without shielding in the open air, (this was rather stupidly described as “air shielding” when “no shielding” would have been more accurate). This made it possible for the reactor to irradiate the test samples delivered to the reactor by the facility’s private rail system, but it also meant that the forest and land surrounding the reactor was irradiated and after a few uses, died off. Later tests of the effects of nuclear fallout, which included irradiating the surrounding woods for weeks at a time resulted in tree stunting up to a mile away from the reactor and the death of all significant wildlife in range.
During operation workers would retreat to underground bunkers and control rooms, some located more than 5 stories underground. These bunkers are still extant, but most are too flooded to explore as the pumps keeping them dry and the local water table out were shut off during decommissioning. Countless support buildings including a fire department, laboratories, an underground parking facility, and hot/cold cell buildings were also present at the facility, some of which are visited on this hike.
Outside of the standard history of the facility there’s plenty of conspiracy theorists who love this place and refer to it as Georgia’s own Area 51. It is certainly an unusually dense and rather unnerving forest to travel through, with numerous ruins looming suddenly out of the undergrowth, so if you want a bit of a summer night ghost story scare this might be the place to come check out and camp at.
(for more information about how to access the ruins, check out this guy’s nifty little page about the area: http://www.uer.ca/locations/show.asp?locid=29719)
(for more information on the history of the site, check out this cool archival youtube video showing an early progress report on the aircraft and nuclear testing facilities and be appropriately horrified at the low tech and open nuclear reactor these guys built and are without safety equipment manipulating https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urGYMs0-UcM)
Location: Dawson Forest City of Atlanta Tract (yes, that is the REAL name of this place…what a mouthful!) near Silver City in northern Georgia, about an hour and a half out from its namesake metropolitan area.
Is it goat approved? Probably. The park hosts a ton a horse back riders, allows overnight primitive camping anywhere on the property, and has biker/hiker/horse trails. I didn’t earn so much as a glance from the guys who saw me with a truck load of baby goat.
How you get there: Google it. Then know that Jewell Staton Rd. is closed to thru traffic. Instead, just stay straight on Hwy 9 and you will see signs and the crazy complicated intersection for Dawson Forest Rd. During your trip to the park be aware that Georgia refers to its rural highways by both a number (i.e. Hwy 369 E) and a name (i.e. Murray Hwy). What the road is called changes periodically, sometimes every other crossroads, so watch out for what number or name your road is called by to avoid getting lost if going without GPS. Remember that park closings and gate closings are common with this location, so check the website. Both sides of the gate you enter by may not be unlocked as well, requiring some negotiation. Roads inside the park are not big enough for two cars to pass comfortably at the same time. The best bit, though, is that the main parking area is actually on TOP of ruins! I parked my truck next to everybody else who parked on top of an old building foundation. Which is pretty freaking cool.
Time for hike: The distance for this hike is approximately 4.5 miles round trip as best I can tell from the map and utilizes the blue, blue/orange, and pink blaze trails as shown in the map below only.
Best season to do this hike: Except for the first week in August when the park is closed for maintenance, summer is probably the time to come. With park closings due to turkey season in the spring and deer season, (which devours the whole winter), summer is a blessedly park and gate closing free gap in the continual tasty carnage that occurs at this wildlife rich location.
Trails to Take
This hike does a loop utilizing the blue/orange trail to reach the pink trail to come back around on the blue blaze only trail to join back up with the blue/orange trail and back to the parking lot. It’s a nice mostly flat stretch of gravel based trails and roadways.
Starting off from the main parking lot which is just beyond the gate off Dawson Forest Road, (well marked with a brown sign that lists about a bajillion things you might want to do there), you go past the trail kiosk, with the building foundations I parked on directly behind you, (ignore the other two “trails” that seem to behind the trail kiosk or straight away from it), and towards the chain link fence. If you pass the primitive pit toliet your are headed the right way. On your way out, look to your right for a concrete ramp and building foundation. This is the remains of the warehouse that can be seen brand new in the video link in the introduction.
As you walk down the trail, which is blue/orange blaze, watch the chain link fence. This fence protects a large concrete bunker that might have been the hot cell of the facility but I’m not totally sure. For those interested in urban exploration, if you continue around the edge of the fence, (leaving the trail), the usual suspects have taken wire cutters to the fence and you can go in if you so choose.
Continuing on past the bunker thing takes you to a really impressive wildlife viewing station on a pond, but given that this trail was once “Reservoir Road” I am assuming this is the titular reservoir used by the facility, so maybe don’t go for a swim.
The trail continues, winding through ridiculously dense and overgrown forest where an abundance of wildlife signs, (deer tracks, turkey tracks, and live box turtles), are apparent and readily available for a baby goat to harass. Eventually after climbing up a bit you need to leave Reservoir Road, so look for two massive wooden arrows painted in orange and blue at the intersection with another large road. You want to turn down the road that runs into yours. After that, just keep following the blue blaze until you see a pink blaze going off to your right, then follow the pink blaze. Honestly, this whole section is a tangle of MULTIPLE blue blaze trails that go every which way and gets super confusing. The reason for this mess, (which is not included on the forest service map), seems to be to separate hikers/mountain bikers from the horse guys, probably to avoid erosion and confrontation. However, it makes it incredibly confusing, so look at each trail marker and make sure you are: 1. Following the right blaze color and 2. On a trail that allows hikers (as some of these are horse or mountain biker only marked).
The pink trail will dead end into an obvious road, but you are at this point only half way through the pink trail. If you go left, you continue on the loop on the pink trail. Go right, past the “no horses or bikes this way” sign, and you will reach the remains of one of the two rail bridges that crossed the Etowah carrying recently irradiated goods.
The pink trail just sort of “becomes” the blue trail at some point, and the blue trail spur that takes you back to the parking lot, while it says “Winston Road” on the map, is more like a windy foot trail that goes off unexpectedly on your left with the remains of once having been a real road visible around it. Since the rail road bridge area you have been walking on the bed of the original rail line, and as you pass the blue spur headed to the parking lot signs of this having really been a rail line will become more obvious, (rock blast patterns on the side of the road and rail road tie based water culverts). Eventually the blue trail dives off to your right off the road and heads down to the Etowah River ford.
This ford is a great place to teach goats to swim, but as mentioned in the Beware section, difficult to ford on foot. I just went down to teach Cherry what real deep water was like since it’s her first hike in the woods.
Heading back from the ford grab the blue trail spur you saw earlier and just follow it. Again you will enter the vipers nest of ridiculous trails that aren’t on the map and are all blazed the same color. Keep to the blue blaze and keep heading south no matter what! At one point you may reach a trail junction where your trail (blue blaze) dead ends into another trail. To your right will be a double pink blaze, (typically this means the pink trail turns, but in the context of this intersection that makes NO sense). Ignore this, and just go left heading south. About 1/4 mile after you go left you will see one lone blue blaze to reassure you you made the right decision, and eventually you’ll make it back down to Reservoir Road and can use the blue/orange blaze to guide you home.
- The main paved road is roughly maintained and SINGLE LANE. Be prepared for downed trees and branches that haven’t been moved, pot holes, locked gates that were open yesterday, and know if you meet someone coming towards you you may have to pull off the road to one side to let them pass. Of course, since this road is at the time of my hike almost 70 years old and we’re still driving around on it with little to no maintenance I’d still call that a win for the guys who built it.
- This place was used to test nuclear aircraft. If you didn’t invest a couple hundred in a geiger counter, (though I was tempted to get one…after all, there could be a nuclear apocalypse some day and then me and the goats would be prepared!), just because some idiots cut a hole in the fence and dug into the ruins I didn’t feel adequately prepared to follow them. I read some of their websites though, and not one actually took a geiger counter with them…which after several years of working with radiation in research I’m not too comfortable with. But hey, it’s your life and your mutations/cancer/keloids, so go swim in the retaining ponds and play in the bunkers to your heart’s content. I would recommend checking out some of their videos on youtube though, which are pretty cool.
- You are parking ON ruins, driving over 70 year old roads, and down gravel “roads”, (and they deserve the quotation marks). If you have high ground clearance vehicles or four wheel drive this is a place for them to really shine, so bring ’em along.
- Take the park trail map as a rough guide to getting around. There are many, many more trails than that map shows, and several trails running in similar directions will have the same blaze color, but will be designated for different things, (for instance, a trail junction where both trails leaving are marked blue but the left hand one is for bikes and hikers and the right hand one is horses only). I had to use a compass at one point to get back to the truck.
- Forget crossing the Etowah river if you are on foot, didn’t bring a rope, and are by yourself. It is deep, the current is fairly swift, and the water is murky so you can’t judge the depth. Also, the crossings over the Etowah are sandy bottomed and used by horses, which further increases the chances that the river will be dug out too deep to cross on foot. In fairness, I didn’t fully cross the Etowah, because less than two foot from the shore I accidentally shoved the goat off a ledge and into the channel and she immediately started swimming and acting like she couldn’t touch bottom even standing on her rear legs. I’ll be back later to test the depth with a buddy, a rope, and a hiking stick and may update this with actual channel depth mid-river. After heavy rains NONE of these crossing will be doable on foot or goat hoof.
- During my preliminary research for this trip I found a lot of postings about people disappearing in the forest, turning up dead, or hunters finding dead bodies, a la serial killer. This may be a nice hike to bring a friend for, and don’t do what we did in the mountains all the time – join up with people I didn’t know who are thru hiking.
- Hunting is BIG at this forest. They have deer (winter/fall) and turkey (spring) season gate closings and trail closings, including a few days were the entire park is closed to non-hunters. Plan accordingly.
- The park is closed the first week of August every year for maintenance.
- If you are a biker or horseback rider there is a $7 trail fee. Hikers, and maybe goat walkers but they didn’t list goats on the website, appear to be free.
- The park is very popular, especially with horse back riders. If you have the vacation days coming on a week day would be more fun than coming on the weekend.
- Come prepared for insects, including gnats, horse flies, deer flies, and some unique Georgia monstrosity that bites like a mother F.
- Watch out – the park service seems to only open one side of the main gate for some reason. If a truck is going through that side…you’ll have to wait your turn.
- I have the best cell plan short of owning a satellite phone and I lost service in the forest.
- In fairness, low levels of radiation below the amount considered harmful to humans are still present in areas of the forest. Radiation monitors are also in place to insure that visitors get a nice forest without a side helping of cancer.
In sum: Just moved to a state not three weeks ago and already found a giant tract of forest filled with radioactive ruins? That’s reason enough to add an “I Love Georgia” bumper sticker to the goat mobile.