Spectacular Sunflower Bloom, Tom Wilson, GNPA

Exploring the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve

By Tom Wilson

A Bee visiting a Porter’s Sunflower using a 150mm macro lens


The first time I took photos at Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve, I felt as though I’d somehow been transported out of Georgia. It was very difficult to believe that I was in the Atlanta metro area, only two miles from a major shopping mall, despite periodic reminders from the passenger jets flying overhead on their way to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. This is a remarkable area for geology and native plants, with almost limitless potential subjects. You could visit with just a macro lens, just a wide-angle lens or just a telephoto lens, and find plenty to photograph in each case. I choose to bring them all, however. 



Layers of Porter’s Sunflowers looking towards the top of Arabia Mountain


This month, a major bloom will be occurring that makes September a special time to visit. These flowers are a type of Sunflower (Helianthus porter) known by the common names Porter’s Sunflower, Stone Mountain Daisy and Confederate Daisy. It’s an annual flower that grows in the thinner soils along granite hillsides. On Arabia Mountain, you can find a multitude of blooms. The flowers typically reach their peak sometime in the third week of September but, as is the case with everything in nature, this varies from year to year.

Your first step in planning a visit should be an online search for “Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area” to find the latest information and trail maps. The specific map you should utilize is the one titled “Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve Trails.”


Wide Angle close up of a bee visiting a Porters Sunflower on Arabia Mountain


I typically park at the South Parking Lot adjacent to the AWARE Wildlife Center. All of the photographs included with this article were made along the “Mountain Top Trail,” which begins at that parking area. The trail is a half-mile long, and includes some moderate climbing along its cairn-marked path to the top of Arabia Mountain. Make sure to have outdoor essentials such as good walking shoes, sunscreen, water and a first-aid kit. It’s also a good idea to carry a cell phone and have a buddy with you for safety.


Icy Vernal Pool, by Tom Wilson GNPA

In order to protect delicate flora, you should also be very careful where you walk. Stay on the path as you travel, and avoid stepping on vegetation or in any sandy areas. Walking on these sandy soils can damage sensitive plant life, including some endangered ones. Even in winter, make sure all your footsteps land on rock surfaces that are free of vegetation. The trail map will include safe-visit guidelines that everyone should follow.

 As you may note from my accompanying photos, I try to visit the park on the edges of daylight, either early morning or late afternoon for the most dramatic lighting. I typically carry a fairly comprehensive camera bag including a tripod, polarizer, a full range of lenses, and light modifiers such as a speedlight, diffusers and graduated neutral density filters. Although I typically shoot landscapes at this location, I never venture there without a macro lens as well. 


This month’s spectacular sunflower bloom offers a great time to visit, but you’ll find terrific photo opportunities in other months as well. I typically visit in January and February on very cold mornings to take photographs of the frozen vernal pools on top of the mountain (I’ve included one such photo with this article). 



In March and April, I come to photograph Diamorpha smallii, (see accompanying image) an amazing red plant that grows in the solution pits on the mountain. The possibilities are almost endless, and the fact that this other-worldly realm exists within an urban area is truly special. 





Good luck and good shooting.  

Tom Wilson is a nature photographer working primarily in Georgia and the Southeast. He serves on the board of GNPA, is past chair of the Conservation Committee and current chair of the Communication Committee.