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Outdoor experts unearth the beauty of the mountains
Several trails for hikers to explore are just steps away in Northeast Georgia
hiking1
Claudia Williams of Gainesville points out the beautiful natural landscape seen through woods to Wayne Wilson of Flowery Branch. Both were on a historical hike conducted by Elachee Nature Science Center. - photo by J.K. Devine

Leave No Trace Principles of sustainability

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

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Fall leads to football tailgating, weekend barbecues, boots and festivals. But the greatest change is the color as it sweeps across the North Georgia Mountains. And it is one development best seen up close.

With the beginning of the world’s largest continuous hiking trail, miles of rivers and more than 10 hike-worthy waterfalls, the North Georgia mountains draw visitors from far and wide every time the season changes. Most particularly invade the parks twice a year: in the fall for the color change and in the spring for the blooming plants.

To experience either season firsthand, hiking is ideal. By taking just a few responsible and well-prepared steps, the whole of the North Georgia mountain region is literally at your feet.

Local favorites

“Probably the prime time (to hike our trails) is in fall and spring,” said Peter Gordon, education director at Elachee Nature and Science Center in Gainesville.

In addition to hosting camps and educating the public on the importance of environmental preservation, Elachee sits on the edge of the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve. It is a 1,400-acre, biologically diverse swath of land located between Gainesville and Oakwood.

Elachee offers 10 miles of trails of varying difficulty for free to those who want to appreciate the outdoors any time of year.

“We have quite a wildflower display in the springtime, but during the fall with the change in light and the fact that leaves on the trees are starting to change, it really is some very beautiful woods,” Gordon said. “I was walking across the preserve with students last week, and it was a splendid display with the light and lay of the land that makes it a very magical, enjoyable experience. It will only get more spectacular as the leaves begin to change.”

About 15 North Georgians are enjoying the 4.5-mile hike across the Chicopee Preserve during Elachee’s historical hikes program every Thursday in October.

Fred and Micky Irvin drove up from Hoschton to walk through the sun and shade Thursday afternoon. Both were carrying trekking poles.

“I need them because I had knee replacement surgery and they keep me from losing my balance or falling,” Fred Irvin said.

In fact, those with mobility restrictions can enjoy Elachee’s beauty, too. A half-mile paved trail meets the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“That’s a nice, easy trail for folks pushing strollers with little ones or older individuals in their golden years who want a simpler hike,” Gordon said.

One alluring aspect of hiking in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve is the presence of the Brevard Fault Line, a low-lying part of the Blue Ridge mountain range that extends into North Georgia.

“There’s a lot of topography here, a lot of relief in the woods, that would make somebody think they’re in the mountains,” Gordon said.

Popular destinations

According to James Hamilton, a resource manager with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and 25-year veteran employee of the State Parks system, Unicoi National Park is the most popular spot for visitors in the fall. In terms of trails, Unicoi offers something for all ambitions and levels of expertise including an easy loop around Unicoi Lake, a 3-mile trail to Helen and a more challenging trek to nearby Anna Ruby Falls.

For an adventure in Hall County, Hamilton recommends Don Carter State Park.

Located on Browning Bridge Road, Don Carter State Park became Georgia’s newest state park when it opened in July 2013. Amenities include a 1-mile hiking trail and a 1.5-mile paved hiking trail.

Another popular area is Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest point. With an elevation of 4,784 feet above sea level, the trail to Brasstown Bald is recommended for experienced hikers, while bus service is available to ferry inexperienced hikers who still wish to take in the sights.

One of Hamilton’s favorite spots, however, isn’t a far drive from Hall County. Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth boasts a stunning 14 miles of trail for anyone’s fall viewing pleasure, he said.

“I started my career (there), and that remains one of my favorite places to visit, especially this time of year,” Hamilton said.

Preparation

Hamilton pointed out fall can present certain problems for some hikers who don’t factor in certain aspects of the changing season. Many hikers who start late in the day underestimate the distance they walk.

“Late in the afternoon, as it gets darker earlier, it’s not uncommon that we have to go out looking for a hiker that is out after dark,” Hamilton said. “We really try to avoid that.”

As a precaution, Hamilton advises hikers maintain the ability to call for help.

“Make sure (you) have the phone number for the park office,” Hamilton said. “Make sure (your) cellphone is charged up so that (you) can call the park office for assistance, so (you) can reach 911 for assistance.”

For a longer trail hike, Hamilton recommends embarking no later than midafternoon.

Several other precautions to ensure a good experience include wearing the proper footwear and packing water and snacks, especially if undertaking a longer journey.

“A lot of times people will get out on a trail 5 miles long and underestimate the terrain or how long it will take,” Hamilton said. “And you do want to make sure that you have something to drink or snack on to keep that energy up.”

Sustainability

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about visiting any trail or park is minimizing the effect on the environment.

“When you look at the environment, the more and more people using that resource, the harder it is on the resource,” said Jay Dement, an official with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. “People need to become more responsible visitors to the environment.”

The Leave No Trace principles, established by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, outline what responsible hikers should and should not do when interacting with any natural environment. The seven principles emphasize virtues such as not straying from established trails and paths, respecting wildlife and planning ahead.

While Gordon said environmental disturbance on the part of hikers is not a huge problem at Elachee, staff members still try to educate visitors as much as possible.

“With every complimentary trail map we give out, there’s a list of do’s and don’ts,” Gordon said.

Don’ts include setting fires, letting pets off their leashes, leaving marked trails or disturbing native wildlife.

“You would expect folks to already have an understanding of that, but that doesn’t mean people don’t see a box turtle and want to take it home as a pet for a while or pick a plant they want to take home,” Gordon said.

Hamilton said littering isn’t a huge problem in most state parks. Often it is simply the result of not being aware of the surroundings.

“We really don’t have too much trouble,” Hamilton said. “I think in some cases when you have a lot of children, it’s important to keep track of what the children are carrying and making sure that comes back out as well.”

Being good stewards of nature ensures not only the resources will be around for a long time, but other hikers can have an equally enjoyable experience.

“We ask folks just to basically step back and enjoy the Preserve for what it is, and make sure the experience they have is one that can be replicated by the next person to come through,” Gordon said.

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