Pack a picnic, fill a cooler, throw in a quilt or blanket and you’ve got the ideal fall mini-cation. Add in the more than a half-dozen Georgia State Parks less than an hour or so away, and you’ve a formula for a relaxing and colorful day trip.
“Fall is by far the most popular time for people to come to Northeast Georgia to see the changing of the seasons,” says Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division. ”For people who live here, it’s the perfect time to plan a day trip, picnic or hike to see the fall color.” The Georgia State Parks website lists the Top 10 Georgia Parks for fall color, and the majority of them are in our back yards. From Black Rock Mountain to Smithgall Woods, state parks offer easy to difficult hikes, expansive mountain vistas, gently babbling brooks and crashing waterfalls. The Department of Natural Resources also has a seasonal Leaf Watch website at gastateparks.org/leafwatch with updates about the best places to see fall color.
Here’s a selection of parks to visit in our area from the Top 10 list:
Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge: The Southeast’s tallest cascading waterfall is easy to reach via a short path to a boardwalk. At the top you can view the falls, or take the challenging route from the bottom using the staircase.
Black Rock Mountain State Park: The highest state park at more than 3600 feet, you can enjoy roadside overlooks or trail hikes. The Visitor Center is perched on a ridge and provides a grand view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. For a short hike that’s not too difficult, try the 2.2-mile Tennessee Rock Trail; or plan a day to hike the 7.2-mile James E. Edmonds Backcountry trail.
Moccasin Creek State Park: Located at Lake Burton, this is Georgia’s smallest state park. At 32 acres, its flat terrain makes is easy to navigate for people in wheelchairs or youngsters on their bikes. Take the 1-mile Non-Game Trail to view wildlife or the 2-mile Hemlock Falls Trail for great views.
Smithgall Woods State Park: At 6,000 acres, Helen’s Smithgall Woods State Park is home to Dukes Creek and Dukes Creek Falls. Take the 1.6-mile loop to Laurel Ridge; when the trees are bare you can see all the way to Mt. Yonah. Dukes Creek Falls is often photographed for its gentle cascades.
Tallulah Gorge State Park: With 20 miles of trails from easy to very difficult, Tallulah Gorge State Park offers a wide variety of experiences. The park’s 3-mile Shortline Trail follows an old railroad bed. It’s paved and accessible from Terrora Circle Road. Most of the other trails there are rated moderate to difficult and require some skills. Water regularly flows through the gorge, but twice a year, the first two weekends in April and the first two weekends in November, water is released from the dam into the gorge to allow kayakers to run the rapids. Spectators can view the boaters from The North Rim’s Overlook No. 1 or Inspiration Point.
Don Carter State Park: On the north end of Lake Lanier, this park offers good fall color nearby. “As one of our newer state parks, it’s still under the radar for leaf-watching, so it’s less crowded,” Hatcher says. “It’s also a great place to kayak because it’s on a narrower park of the Chattahoochee, so there’s less powerboat traffic.”
Although not a state park, Anna Ruby Falls in the Chattahoochee National Forest in White County north of Helen has long been a popular waterfall hike at any time of year. Accessible through Unicoi State Park, Anna Ruby’s paved trail of less than a half-mile leads to the bottom on an easy to moderate 30-minute hike. Experienced hikers usually take the 4.6-mile Smith Creek Trail from the bottom of the waterfall to Unicoi State Park.
The recently opened Helen to Hardman Heritage Trail skirts the banks of the Chattahoochee River and connects downtown Alpine Helen to the Historic Hardman Farm. The hike is about one mile, is ADA accessible and includes interpretive stops along the way.
Georgia State Parks has created four clubs to encourage more people to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Membership is $20 per person per club and you’ll receive a club T-shirt and a digital checklist to track your adventures. For more information, visit gastateparks.org/parkclubs. “If you like the outdoors, consider joining one of our park clubs,” Hatcher says. “Not only will you be able to keep track of your journeys, you might also meet other people with interests similar to yours. It’s a great way to learn more about the great outdoors in our state. And what better time of year than fall to start your quest?”