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Hiking the Track Rock archaeological zone in Georgia

The Track Rock archaeological zone covers over a half square mile.
The Track Rock archaeological zone covers over a half square mile.
Richard Thornton

The December 21, 2012 premier of the History Channel’s America Unearthed continues to be one of the most popular shows ever broadcast by that network. It can be watched on America Unearthed’s web site, purchased as a DVD from Amazon.com and usually seen on YouTube. Many copies of the program were formerly on YouTube, but the History Channel apparently is removing them because of copyright infringements.

Readers frequently write me to request information on hiking this fascinating archaeological zone. Because of my involvement in several high profile research projects into America’s history, the quantity of emails have grown to the point where I can’t afford the time to respond with the full courtesy that these sincere letters deserve. The following article answers those questions.

What you will see

The People of One Fire research alliance has now identified 23 Native American stone architecture and/or terrace complexes in Northern Georgia. The most recent discovery was made on the Oconee River in Jackson County, GA on March 8, 2014. The most accessible terrace complex is in the northeastern quadrant of Sandy Creek Park, also in Jackson County. The entrance gate of this park is in Clarke County on US Hwy.129. These ruins have a large paved parking lot and moderate, well traveled trails. Jackson County hopes to develop its stone architecture ruins into a major national tourist destination in the near future.

There is also another extremely large stone architecture site in Union County, GA, seven miles from Track Rock Gap, known as Fort Mountain. It was discovered by archaeologist, Robert Wauchope, in 1939. It is also in the Chattahoochee National Forest, but not the same archaeological zone that is now known as Fort Mountain State Park in Murray County, GA. Unfortunately, at the present time, there is no place for visitors to park their vehicles near Union County’s Fort Mountain.

Do not expect to see at Track Rock, a fully restored Classic Maya city such as Palenque or Chichen Itza. However, it is a spectacular archeological zone that rises 800 feet from its base and covers a half square mile. In the winter, one has views from the Track Rock acropolis to other mountain ranges.

All of the Maya sites that are tourist attractions today were piles of rock in the mid-20th century, just like Track Rock today. After these towns were thoroughly studied by archaeologists, historic preservation architects directed the careful restoration of major buildings to something approaching their original form so that tourists could appreciate the genius of Classic Maya architecture.

The Track Rock Terrace Complex is virtually identical to the terrace complexes built by illiterate Itza Maya farmers in Chiapas State, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize between around 300 AD and 900 AD. It is also similar to some terrace complexes in northern Colombia. However, it is larger than most. You will see well over a hundred agricultural terraces formed by stacked stone walls, earthen terraces with no walls, stone cairns, stone effigies, plazas, a ball court, hydrological structures such as dams and channels, plus the ruins of several rectangular and round buildings.

Around 800 AD a massive volcanic eruption depopulated the city of Palenque and caused the abandonment of the Chiapas Highlands. University of Minnesota scientists, hired by the History Channel proved that attapulgite mined in Georgia was used in the Maya Blue stucco of Palenque. We think that the volcanic catastrophe is what propelled bands of Itza and Chontal Maya refugees to travel northward to Georgia to start their lives anew. The mountains around Track Rock have the same “feeling” as those in Chiapas.

Evidently because the intense terrace farming enriched the soil, the vegetation on the Track Rock ruins is extremely dense like the virgin Maya sites in Mesoamerica. In many locations you cannot see the stone walls until within 20 feet during the summer. After about June 1, the vegetation is so dense in some places that it is impossible to pass through. During its 70+ year stewardship of the site, the USFS has allowed trees and vines to grow up through the stone ruins, so the feeling is like discovering a previously unknown Maya city.

Hiking Map

In March of 2012, a group of Harvard professors emailed me from their I-phones that the USFS Visitors Center in Blairsville, GA had refused to give them directions to the Track Rock ruins. At the time, I was still living in the office of an abandoned chicken house near the ruins, so I churned out a high resolution full color map for them. I then took a copy of the map to the USFS Visitors Center along with a letter that released my copyright on the map for the public good. The manager took the map, but said that he probably would not be able to hand it out, since it was not produced by a USFS employee. This was the first hint that something weird was going on within the Georgia offices of the USFS.

I will provide this high resolution map of the Track Rock Archaeological Zone, if you send me a request to NativeQuestion@aol.com. Please forgive the fact that I must make a living, and providing detailed instructions for each reader eats away at my potential professional income. I am still digging out from being homeless in 2010 and 2011. You will probably just get the map.

Location

The Track Rock Archaeological Zone (Site # 9UN367) is located in Union County, GA within the Chattahoochee National Forest. It is about five miles south of GA-NC state line and due north of Atlanta. The county seat of Union is Blairsville. The archaeological zone is located about five miles east of Blairsville on Track Rock Gap Rd. This road begins on US Hwy. 76. Follow the signs for the Track Rock Archaeological Zone from that turn off.

The USFS has constructed a small gravel parking lot on the west side of Track Rock Gap Road. Its coordinates are Latitude: 34°52'55"N ~ Longitude: 83°52'40"W. The famous Track Rock petroglyphs are located immediately north of the parking lot. The entrance to the Arkaqua Trail is located immediately across Track Rock Gap Rd. from the petroglyphs.

Access Trail

The Track Rock Ruins are accessed by a 19th century wagon trail that climbs diagonally up the slopes in a southeasterly direction. There are only a few short sections of the trail that are relatively steep. The grade of the ruins can be 45 degrees or more, so direct climbing up the slope is very strenuous and also dangerous. A deep, slippery bed of leaves on some off trail areas, plus exposed rocks can cause injuries, if one is not careful.

Readers often ask about the difficulty of the Track Rock access trail. The hiking is not difficult at any particular location, but the 800 feet climb and sheer scale of the archaeological zone means that you must be in fairly good physical condition. Even those in the best of physical condition will sleep well that night.

The Terrace Complex access trail veers off to the right, about 70 feet east of the beginning of the Arkaqua Trail. There is a USFS sign for the entrance to the Arkaqua Trail. However, in May of 2012, just prior to a scheduled hike by Sierra Club members, USFS employees cut down an elm tree over the entrance to the Terrace Complex Trail. Look for an ancient road bed that veers off to the south from the Arkaqua Trail. You will also have to step over and around the other 100+ trees that the USFS employees sawed down.

You will enter the ruins and begin seeing stone walls about ¼ mile up the access trail. The first ones will be simple walls of stacked rocks. By far, the most sophisticated stone work and large plazas will be seen at the elevations from 2600 feet to 3000 feet above sea level.

Think “The Waltons,” not “Deliverance

The “old time” families of the Southern Highlands are the salt of the earth. The late 20th century TV series, “The Waltons” was based on a real Appalachian family. The book and movie, “Deliverance” was pure fiction. The families, whose ancestors settled Union, Jackson, Lumpkin, Dawson, White, Bartow, Habersham, Pickens, Whitfield and Murray Counties in Georgia, where these ancient stone architecture sites are located, are extremely proud of their heritage. They had nothing to do with the attempts to keep visitors to their region from enjoying this heritage.

All the “weird stuff” that has occurred in association with the Track Rock ruins during the past two years can be directly traced to newcomers to the region, who made their money off of illegal drugs, and don’t want strangers coming around. The same USFS office that created the “Maya myth busting in the mountains” political campaign was not too long before hand embroiled in a major scandal. Its bureaucrats required companies, wishing to do business with the USFS or log timber, to make major political contributions to politicians controlled by the drug lords.

By enjoying visits to these enigmatic ruins in the Southern Highlands, you will help community leaders protect them, make the sites more accessible to the public and encourage scientific research. Maya refugees did come to Georgia. However, they were neither the first nor the last people to contribute to the Southern Appalachians’ cultural heritage. The full story has yet to be told.