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Possibly the strangest hike you’ll ever take

Atlanta (CNN) — You’re off for a ramble in the woods. The trail is narrow, the brush is thick. Everywhere you look — trees, bushes, greenery.

Then you spot it, half-hidden, nestled against a fallen, rotting log. You go up for a closer look to be sure that what you think you’re seeing is what you’re really seeing.

But there it is — a disembodied baby doll’s head! Set up as a little art display no less.

And then you see another. And another. Along with other discarded, weather-worn objects that are a veritable parade from the Island of Misfit Toys. Where on Earth are you?

Well, you’re mere miles from the world’s busiest airport and literally yards outside the city limits of Atlanta, Georgia.
Welcome to one of the strangest, most semi-disturbing/semi-delightful travels you may ever take — hiking on the Doll’s Head Trail.

Your odd journey to getting there

People walk along a smooth, wide trail that leads to the more narrow, rough Doll's Head Trail.

People walk along a smooth, wide trail that leads to the more narrow, rough Doll’s Head Trail.

Elijah Nouvelage for CNN

Even without the bodyless baby doll heads and other found objects set up as art pieces, this is a rather offbeat place.

Constitution Lakes Park, the scene of our tableaux, is a wild area jammed quite unexpectedly between a major industrial road, an active freight line, a small river and the infamous I-285 Perimeter. As you drive past 18-wheelers, body repair shops and acres of razor wire, a park complete with two lakes is the last thing you’d expect here.

But pull off at the sign, drive a short distance, park your car and enter another world.

Now cloaked in the thick woods, you can still hear the industrial hum of trucks and a city on the move. But you can also pick up vigorous bird calls cutting through the noise. Then, out of the blue, two grown deer bolt across the path, undisturbed by human intrusion.

The smooth, paved path kept shady by leafy trees eventually leads to a lake. (The two lakes here are old red clay excavation pits that filled up with water).

To my eye, the lake is more like a bog or swamp pond that you might find closer to the coast than the mountains. It feels very primordial here. But the best is yet to come as you head away from the lake.

A swampy, feverish Southern menagerie

Some of the heads come with a clever message.

Some of the heads come with a clever message.

Elijah Nouvelage for CNN

Nature is great, but it’s the bizarre folk art displays made with found objects in the park that take this place to the next level.

The disembodied doll heads you stumble upon often come with displays and messages.

One wears a captain’s hat with a sign that reads “O, CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!” Another head is placed inside a discarded fan blade with a nearby sign — “fan dance.” Yet another has a body but only sticks for legs. The displays manage to be creepy and charming all at once.

Can’t find a discarded doll? Anything will do: A toy dinosaur, a headless Superman, a bowling pin — all are set up in artistic displays along the narrow trail.

There’s even a little “public library” stand with books you can take or drop off. In late May, one of the books available was the oh-so-fitting “Little House in the Big Woods.”

How did this get started?

Joel Slaton was the trail's "first artist" and still maintains the displays years later.

Joel Slaton was the trail’s “first artist” and still maintains the displays years later.

Elijah Nouvelage for CNN

These creative displays made from trashed objects were the brainchild on Joel Slaton, an Atlanta area carpenter who found himself with some time on his hands in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

He started the trail back in February 2011. “During my hikes at Constitution Lakes, I began finding doll, bicycle, automobile and appliance parts. These became the original displays,” Slaton said.

“The trail started as sort of a joke for the few regulars who ventured that far back to stumble upon them. Subsequent South River clean-up projects turned up intact dolls. These activities, plus years of illegal dumping, are where most of the stuff comes from.”

Because of the easy access, this is not a fixed art exhibit like you’ll find at a museum.

“The trail is now public art, built by the public. The displays have changed a lot over time, mostly due to cherry-picking and vandalism,” Slaton said. “Luckily, a lot has been preserved online. Nothing protects the trail but the good will of the people visiting it and the fact that it’s a mile, almost, back in the woods.”

‘Rules’ and advice

Slaton's "rules" for visitors and would-be artists.

Slaton’s “rules” for visitors and would-be artists.

Elijah Nouvelage for CNN

Slaton and his small cadre of volunteer helpers ask the following of people who are inspired by what they see and wish to make their own artistic contributions to the trail:

— Use only park-found items

— Keep it family-friendly and kid-safe

— Respect what has already been assembled.

And his tips if you go?

“I would advise that it is a two-and-a-half-mile hike [full circle] over mostly level ground with wetlands nearby. It gets ‘buggy’ in summer. Keep hydrated,” Slaton said. Bring mosquito repellant.

So what is his current favorite? “A moss fairy house built by persons unknown a couple months ago. It looks like it’s been there for years.”

Slaton said he feels that “the perfect park has nature, history and art.”

With those criteria, score a Deep South trifecta for Doll’s Head Trail.

How to get there

Constitution Lakes Park is at 1305 S. River Industrial Blvd. SE, Atlanta, GA 30315, just off Moreland Avenue barely inside the I-285 Perimeter. In this area, it’s best to arrive by vehicle as this part of Moreland isn’t ideally suited for pedestrians. The park is technically in DeKalb County, just outside the city limits of Atlanta.

Get more detailed information on finding your way from the parking lot to the Doll’s Head Trail at AtlantaTrails.com.

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