Don Carter State Park in North Hall has been open five years as of July 15, but James and Amber Smith of Gillsville only discovered it last month.
Ever since, though, they’ve been as hooked as the fish they enjoy catching at their favorite spot at the park overlooking the Chattahoochee River arm of Lake Lanier.
“We’re usually out here almost every other day,” Amber said, enjoying the shade during a visit last week with her husband and five of their eight children, all with fishing lines in the water.
The reason they’re so faithful is simple.
“It’s quiet and peaceful,” James Smith said.
Fishing is just one of several attractions at the 1,316-acre park, which became Hall County’s and Lake Lanier’s first state park when it opened in 2013.
Don Carter also offers eight cottages, 44 tent, trailer and RV campsites, four picnic shelters, boat ramps, docks, a playground, outdoor fitness equipment and a beach/swimming area, according to the state’s website.
Also, visitors can explore a gift shop at the visitor center near the entrance at 5000 North Browning Bridge Road. North Browning Bridge Road juts off Clarks Bridge Road, which runs between Gainesville and Clermont.
The park is hoping soon to open hiking and horse trails that will finger throughout 1,100 acres, adding to 3½ miles of paved and unpaved hiking trails now in place.
And starting in September, campers will be able to rent specific sites.
“I think (the park) offers the community something outside the normal,” said Cliff Ainsworth, who has managed the park since May 2017. “You have all these (area) parks … for people to swim and do stuff, but we offer the camping and the cottages, kayak and boat rentals and the beach.
“It’s all in a relatively secure area with two rangers living in the park keeping an eye on things.”
Affirming what the Smiths said about their park experience, Ainsworth said, “There are still people who live 5-10 miles down the road who have never heard of this place.
“We’re kind of a hidden gem for Hall County.”
Work is expected to start this week on improvements to day-use fields, including new grass, Ainsworth said.
“It’s a complete rehabilitation,” said Will Hicks, president of Friends of Don Carter State Park.
Hicks has led the volunteer group, which helps support the park with various efforts, since the park’s founding.
“Coming into this without any expectations, I’ve been blown away by the amount of traffic the park’s getting and the usage of it,” Hicks said. “Everybody I talk with who goes out there raves about it. There are times it’s at full capacity.”
Hicks believes usage should go up when the horse trails open.
Visitors to Don Carter State Park
Data provided by Park Manager Cliff Ainsworth for fiscal years, July 1-June 30.
Ainsworth speculated the dropping numbers may be due to weather.
In February 2016, Georgia was slipping into what would become a crushing drought for the state and Lake Lanier. The lake’s water level finally hit the winter full pool of 1,070 feet above sea level in February 2018.
Also, in September 2017, the area was smacked by Hurricane Irma, which “shut us down,” Ainsworth said.
The state park project dates to 1994, when the state began buying property there, retired Georgia Department of Natural Resource Commissioner Lonice Barrett said in 2013.
“We always felt like since there was no other traditional state park on Lake Lanier ... this would be a really good and popular park,” he said at the time.
In 2002, Barrett announced the naming of the park for Gainesville real estate executive Don Carter during a DNR board meeting at Lake Lanier Islands. Carter was stepping down from the board after 29 years.
Looking to the future, Hicks said, “We’re hoping to continue to grow the park and get some more funding from the state to add some more campsites.”
The Friends group “is starting to push for a more formal, long-term master plan for the park,” he said.
“A bathroom/shower area in the primitive campsite area is probably the first priority. Following that would be group campsites,” Hicks said.
“Long run, if we can keep the occupancy up in the cabins, the infrastructure is there already for more cabins,” he said. “We’d love to put in another eight cabins or so, but that’s all dependent on funding.”