Photos Andy Calvert
Big Texas Valley Road winds through undulating pasture land, its pastoral scenes dancing through time with grand plantation manors juxtaposed against faded grey Appalachian cabins at each bend. It’s easy to feel secluded in these back woods; the thought of town just fifteen minutes away is hard to commit to mind.
There is barely time for the kids to get restless in the back seat before we pull up to the entrance gate for the Rocky Mountain Recreation Campground. The welcome placard instructs us to pay for our stay and hosts half a dozen complimentary maps and materials for all the activities the park has to offer.
Our plan is to spend the weekend, heralding in the first days of spring with adventure in mind. Overpacked as always, the truck is stuffed with enough gear for a week. I doubt in two days’ time we will see all there is, but Lord knows, we will give it a go.
It’s History, Baby… A Colossal Undertaking
Last year, the Oglethorpe Power Company (OPC) celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain Pumped-Storage Hydroelectric Plant going online. This area is now unrecognizable from its beginnings in 1978. Initially, the project to construct a power plant capable of sustaining the communities of Rome and Floyd County during peak periods began under the ownership of Georgia Power. By 1988, Georgia Power had already invested $125 million into the project and was nearing only 15% completion.
This set the stage for Oglethorpe Power to take possession of what would be their largest construction and operation project. During its development, nearly 23 million cubic yards of earth were excavated for the plant, amounting to approximately 2 million dump truck loads. Looking at the natural beauty of the area, it is incredible to envision that thirteen of the sixteen stories of the power house are under the water, like a mechanical iceberg pumping 6,000 cubic feet of water per second to provide more than 50,000 homes with a clean and renewable energy source.
OPC completed the pumped-storage hydroelectric plant ahead of schedule in 1995. A short two years later, with close coordination with the fisheries division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, OPC opened the on-site recreation area. Complete with camping sites, swimming areas, boat launches, fishing jetties, hiking and mountain biking trails, and picnic areas for local residents to enjoy under their FERC licensing, the area promises outdoor fun for everyone.
With our tent poised at the water’s edge near a cove in Antioch West Lake, our small peninsula is sure to deliver breathtaking views of both the sunrise and sunset on this trip. The chipping away of woodpeckers and playful chickadee calls entertain us as we manage a quick picnic and a few last-minute tweaks to our campsite. I head to the truck to grab our map of the area so we can chart a course for mountain biking, and I notice a DNR truck blocking the path.
A tall man with a broad smile steps out, “You must be our mountain bikers!” he exclaims. “I’m Shawn Lewis, I’ve been working hard to get the trails ready this season. We are so glad to have y’all.” Lewis is the Assistant Park Manager/Resource Manager. With several trails to choose from, he points us in the right direction to start off easy. Rusty after a long winter, we need some practice to break in our balance and coordination. Historical fact: the first ride of the season tends to require a few Band-Aids.
From the campground we hop on West Antioch trail, an easy 3.4 miles toward the visitor’s pavilion at the first entrance to the park. So far so good. There, the kids take the lead with their newfound confidence—no bumps or bruises yet—and take us on the Antioch Trail, another 3.1-mile loop. This trail is also beginner rated, though our route required a bit of conditioning and a few young complaints to make it over a pretty big climb and the mileage back to camp. At the camp, we were eager to give our sore saddles a rest by a campfire.
There is something primal and mystic about welcoming twilight around a fire. The sounds of the nearby campers are drowned out by a symphony of frogs, and the lake’s surface stills to black glass as the stars open to us from above. Our silent reflective moments are punctuated by great conversation, the giggles of some girls in a nearby site, and the crackling of the fire. Again, I forget that Berry College’s property is just over the hill and I am ten minutes from home.
Present Impacts… Escaping a Pandemic
On average, about 305,352 people visit Rocky Mountain Recreation annually; campers and day visitors peak during the spring and summer. Located across the street is The Big Texas Valley Trading Post, where everyone gets their bait and the scoop on the lake’s honey holes by proprietor, Jerry Buffington. He says, “What folks don’t know is, fall is the prettiest time of all to visit our here. The colors blow you away.”
COVID-19 has surely impacted the way Americans vacation. It seems that last year, everyone was hunting for bikes, paddle boards, and kayaks in a desperate search to get out of our quarantined bubbles and into some fresh air. Changes were evident at the recreation area as well.
“With the swimming beach closed due to the pandemic, people changed the way they utilized the park. We saw a major increase in the number of campers and boaters visiting the park, and there was a time we had to limit access to the boat ramp areas. Research showed a tremendous increase in the number of camper and boat sales due to the pandemic. It has had an astonishing impact on our property and will have long-range effects for the need for recreational opportunities across the country, I am certain,” explains Dennis Shiley, Park Manager.
Dawn is cold. The damp morning air clings heavily to everything, and my fingers burn as I fumble to get the fire started quickly. The coals are out, but I’ve learned a few tricks over the years, and within minutes the fire pit is ablaze. The welcoming heat urges the children from the tent, and we watch the mist roil over the placid water. It’s time to throw in some lines. Buffington at the trading post supplied us well yesterday with some fat juicy nightcrawlers, and he did not steer us wrong.
It was a short ten minutes before we had our first bite. My efforts to hush the children’s excitement—in consideration of the other campers—were in vain, because as soon as that bass broke the surface of the water in a splashing fury, it seemed all hell broke loose. I was telling my son to keep the rod tip up and the line tight, but as my daughter ran to get a front row view she got twisted into some underbrush and fell into the water.
I dashed across the camp to help and bumped against the grill knobs, knocking our breakfast of sizzling bacon into the fire. All the while, Broc is hollering, “Fish on! Fish on! Fish on! Fish…..off.” Wet, hungry, and with a slack line we fell into ridiculous laughter.
Looking to the Future
The staff at Rocky Mountain Recreation looks forward to a time when the park will open all its amenities to the public once again. The swimming beach has always been a favorite spot when the heat of summer grips us. “Once COVID leaves, we hope to be back into having paddle events and movie nights,” Shiley says. Things are shaping up nicely this spring, and just about everyone is adventure bound. The area is open daily for public use between sunrise and sunset. Hunters, anglers, campers, hikers, and all those seeking a quick getaway for a breath of fresh air, your next outing is just minutes away.