Braving Atlanta's urban forests with author Jonah McDonald

Come brave Atlanta's hidden woods


Ever heard of Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve? I hadn't until last week, when writer Jonah McDonald led me on a tour of the secluded DeKalb County woods, one of several local walks the Memphis native profiles in his recently released book, Hiking Atlanta's Hidden Forests, a Bible for Atlanta's urban trekkers.

Jonah, who moved to Atlanta 12 years ago after hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, pulled up on a green Stella scooter, hands shaking from the wind, but in good spirits for a late-morning hike. We pass by painted tents - part of the set for the play "TERMINUS" - and step over wires as he tells me that he wrote the book to connect people to unknown trails within 30 miles of Atlanta.

As we walk, McDonald tells me about a night-hike he took and how nothing could be heard over the sound of bullfrog croaks, crickets, and chirping birds - a rustic experience in the heart of the city. (He also doesn't recommend going on night hikes in some areas.) We ran into bird-watchers from the Audubon Society who ask about upcoming signings and where to buy his book, which also has a decent amount of info for novice bird-watchers and premature dendrologists.

What are things that hold people back from coming out hiking to these trails?

I would say the first thing is time. Most people when they think of hiking, they think, 'I need to get myself to the Appalachian Trail, I need to get myself up to Amicalola Falls State Park,' and they start thinking, "How can I really build hiking into my life?" These hikes are things you can do after work one day. This little park, you can come to whenever you feel like it because it's so close to your house. Now, there are some hikes in here, if you want to do a full-day hike, many of them are not so long that you can spend a morning or afternoon and you're not spending a half day in the car to do a half day of hiking. You can do a half-day of hiking after fifteen minutes in the car.

No. 2 is information. There's not enough information, all in one place, of what the intown green spaces are. That's the big reason I wrote this book, was to collate it all in one place. You can find information about these parks on the web if you know where to search. This is the first place that takes all of them and packs it into one book.

The third is guidance. Not everybody is very comfortable going out into the woods on their own and just going walking without any information of where the trail might lead you.

Do you think Atlantans need a guide?

Not everybody. I'm somebody who likes walking around and getting lost in the woods, but I think people who are newer to walking would like to know where this trail is going to lead them and how far it's going to be, how long is it going to take me, how difficult is it, can I bring my dog, what about my kids, will they be able to do this? I hope this book helps them feel confident about the situation as opposed to nervous. I don't think it's passion that's stopping them. Everybody I talk to says, 'I would love to go walking more often.'

A lot of people stick to what they know, that's why Piedmont Park and Stone Mountain are often super crowded. At places like Clyde Shepherd, you get a more individualized experience.

One of the things that's been interesting is sometimes I'll talk to somebody who's been really passionate about say, Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve. And I'll tell them, 'I'm bringing this book out and for the first time ever you're going to have published information about this nature preserve that you love so much,' and they first get excited and then they say, 'Does that mean there's going to be lots of people that come to my favorite spot?' I thought a lot about that because, in some ways, I want to be selfish. I want these parks to be only mine, but then when I think a little further: 'You know what, how much more joy was it to meet that group of Audubon people out there,' and you see other people enjoying this. I think that in some ways just adds another level of excitement when you not only are in this forest, with these birds chirping, and the sun shining and this blue sky day, but you also know that there are other people out there enjoying it too.

What about other activities like swimming or fishing? How accessible are those things?

I try to mention those things in the book, I've tried to identify hikes with special features so there is a separate one for hikes with interpretative centers, with art, with historic structures, hikes with waterfalls or cascades. There are also hikes with good places to cool off in the water. One of the places that many Atlantans know is the West Palisades unit of the Chattahoochee Natural Recreation Area. They jump off that big rock into the water and I mention that, if you see other people doing it, you might want to join. I find there are a lot of places where the creeks just are so inviting to dip your feet in. There are also a couple places that have murals or interesting graffiti. There are a couple that have interesting sculptures that are just out in the woods. I'm glad my publisher included that in my index, so I can get to those things if they're particularly interested in waterfalls. I'm not a fisherman, but most of these places that have waterways or ponds, people do go and fish. I don't know how official that is, but you will very, very regularly see fishermen on the Chattahoochee River. I know that's illegal though, you shouldn't eat those fish. But even places like Constitution Lakes Park you'll always see fishermen out there on the dock.

People are really recognizing their history, and the importance of maintaining it. What I really like about your book is that it includes so many perspectives. If you're a sculptor or an artist, this leads them to more art.
And maybe to introduce people who aren't artists to the art or maybe introduce people who aren't walkers to the artistry part and get this cross-pollination through our forests. It's something I think Atlantans are really proud of. Atlantans are proud of our trees, our green spaces, and we need things to be proud of right? We can use these as places to bring ourselves together from many different walks of life.

You're very aware of your tree and plant species.

I don't have a degree as a naturalist. I have a degree in History. But I love to learn about nature and so I'm kind of a self-taught naturalist. I don't know much about birds but I'm learning because Audubon Society is teaching me. I'm not the person who knows the most about trees, but I'm learning from Eli Dickerson and the folks from Trees Atlanta. I love soaking up that kind of information and passing it onto other people.
I'm a history major too but I've never looked as history from a naturalist point of view, that's great.
I'm definitely not into the science, but there's so much history particularly in the trees. There's one tree in Deepdene Park. They measured about 240 rings in the tree and that was about five years ago. When you think about the history there, it's kind of incredible. That tree predates the Civil War, predates Atlanta itself, that tree was growing before our city. It gives you that temporal perspective that we history majors love when we see a ruin or something from the past. And I think it's those images and objects that can jog our memories into the stories of history. When you pass the old Decatur Waterworks, that gives you the perspective of, 'wow, that's not as old as that tree but this is how the City of Decatur used to get its water, from this creek.' Nowadays, there's a ton of pollution and you do not want to get your water from this creek.

Now I have another place to bring my dog.

Lio, my Australian cattle dog, has been on every one of my hikes with me. He's been my biggest hiking companion. One of the things I felt really strongly about is that Atlantans really love their dogs. There are only about three or four parks where dogs aren't allowed. Either it's a major birding area and dogs can scare away the birds or for a place like Stone Mountain dogs aren't allowed because it's stone, I mean, you don't want dog poop everywhere. And there are so many people, it'd be difficult to have dogs up there. Almost every chapter, you'll see leash dogs allowed, so definitely bring your dog.

What do you do outside of this? You told earlier me you have a summer camp, your adventure trail company...

I really like having lots of different jobs that I can all do in a part-time fashion. I work for a church as an administrator and director of youth programs. I also run SureFoot Adventures an outdoor guide service. And I founded a camp called Peacebuilders Camp at Koinonea Farm that is a camp for middle schoolkids that teaches them about peace. I'm also a professional story-teller so you can find me in elementary schools telling folktales and other stories with the kids. Sometimes I tell them a story about something that happened on the Appalachian Trail.

What's the best way for kids to get the most out of nature and trails like these?

There are some that are more challenging and they're listed as moderate or difficult, this would be considered an easy hike. But this would be one people could bring their kids to every day, each season kids would see the changes in the woods. They'd see when the trillium starts blooming, they'd see leaves start changing colors and then in the wintertime, it opens up a whole new realm because you have views that you wouldn't have in the summertime. And then when the spring comes, the dogwoods start blooming, it becomes a new trail, a new season. Instead of there being just 60 hikes in this book, you can really think of it as 240 hikes because every season the trail will look differently. I think with every season, that's something kids will appreciate too.

How should I prepare as an Atlantan who loves being outside hiking, but wants to try something more challenging. How do I level up?

The first thing you're going have to know is about your own physical fitness, and that's something you have to find out. In terms of gear, I know R.E.I and other outfitters want you to come and spend lots of money on the most technical, high-tech clothing. I don't want people to have to break the bank to go hiking because one of the barriers is people feel that they don't have the right things. I'm hiking in New Balance tennis shoes, and I hiked the whole Appalachian Trail in tennis shoes like these.