Not yet open a year, the state-operated Don Carter State Park in North Hall County is planning to expand its recreational offerings and accommodations.
The plan, stretching over the next five-plus years, involves new trails, campsites and possibly cottages filling the 1,316-acre park at the end of North Browning Bridge Road and overlooking the Chattahoochee River arm of Lake Lanier.
The park, also near Clarks Bridge Road, features camping, boat ramps, fishing, picnicking, playgrounds, hiking and a large swimming beach, as well as eight rental cabins.
First up, likely this summer, are kayak rentals, with a boat storage building under construction on the shoreline, park manager Will Wagner said last week during a driving tour of the park.
A kayak trail along the banks of the river could be finished next summer, followed by the development of campsites reachable only by kayak.
Another attraction park visitors could see this summer is a three-quarter-mile nature trail hugging the shores of a peninsula the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which operates the state parks, leases from the Army Corps of Engineers, Wagner said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of interest from local colleges that want to help out” with the trail’s development, he said.
The trail will be the shortest of three hiking/walking paths the park plans to build, with the others 2 and 8 miles in length.
The 8-mile trail would meander through the park’s southern side, which has 300-400 acres.
The trailhead would be near what is now a gravel parking lot at the park entrance. The lot also would serve people who want to explore a planned 12-15 miles of horse trails in an area making up about 600 acres.
Visitors there would be “entering our largest area of undeveloped property,” Wagner said. “We have no intentions to build up there, other than bridges and minor (projects).
“It’s a beautiful piece of property, with steep ridges, vantage points that will allow you to look at two and three ridges in either direction ... and rocky bluffs on the Chattahoochee River covered in mountain laurel.”
Officials are walking potential trails now, as well as meeting with horse enthusiasts to get their input on the trails’ development, Wagner said.
The trails could be in place by summer 2015.
The park has another 1«-mile paved trail with 12 primitive campsites.
“We have some good interest from Boy Scouts in building some more sites, something (the DNR’s) engineering branch will have to oversee,” Wagner said.
Park officials also are looking at a pioneer campground that could be used by groups, such as Boy Scouts. The campground could have three-sided lean-tos, fire rings and picnic tables.
“It could be two to five years before we start the planning phase for that,” Wagner said.
Also planned is a “tent-friendly campground” near the RV campground.
That’s been a frequent outcry by people blogging about the park.
“We listen to what people say,” Wagner said. “We check online forums, TripAdvisor (travel website) and have our online comment card system. We accumulate all that to see what people want and what visitors are asking for.”
The state “had plans to build (the campground) but didn’t have money to build it from the get-go,” he added.
Still, the 25-site campground could be in the works for several years before it’s developed.
“We’re researching the possibilities,” Wagner said.
The park also plans to study its numbers on overnight accommodations.
“The question is what’s more popular, camping or cottages?” Wagner said. “We’ll research that after a year or two of the park being open and check our occupancy numbers.”
In the mix is the possibility of more lakefront cottages — up to eight of them near the ones in place now and in an area already with a road and utilities.
“We want to prove the popularity of the current cottages,” before building more, Wagner said.
“They are pretty popular so far,” he added. “We’re still looking for other opportunities (to fill them). Our slowest months are January and February, so we’re trying to reach out to all the college athletes that use the Lake Lanier rowing venue to stay here for their accommodations.”
Otherwise, visitation at the park, which opened in July, has been strong, surpassing 100,000, Wagner said.
And the busy season has yet to come. Officials expect numbers to hit about 250,000 annually, as the park takes a few years to get established.
“I still get people coming in here who have never seen, never heard of the park,” Wagner said. “It was just brown highway signs that brought them in.”