Get Back to Nature at Five Great State Parks
by Hope S. Philbrick
There’s no better way to offset the stress of a big move than bygetting back to nature. Push those yet-to-be-unpacked boxes to the back of your mind and get to know your new home state with a visit to a state park in the North Georgia Mountains. The drive from Atlanta isn’t far (and the view along the way is typically awe inspiring). What’s more, a state park weekend getaway can cost cents on the dollar compared to other vacation options. Best of all, there are several parks to choose from, each with multiple recreational and lodging options. Whether you crave a day trip or an overnight stay, an adrenaline boost or a romantic jolt, adventure awaits.
Amicalola Falls State ParkThe main attraction at Amicalola Falls is the 729-foot waterfall that lends the park its name; the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeast tumbles down rocks nearly five times the height of Niagara Falls. View the spectacle from a flat, 1,250-foot path made of recycled tires—an easy stroll that’s also wheelchair accessible—or join the Canyon Climbers Club and ascend steep staircases from the base to the top of the falls. Either way, be sure to bring a camera.
Twelve miles of trails weave through the park’s 829 acres, providing for varied hiking routes. During a recent visit, my husband and I set a challenging goal: Hike to the summit of Springer Mountain, the southern end of the famous 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail. There are a number of different routes to reach that pinnacle. But for a weekend trip for infrequent hikers, two options are most amenable. You might opt for the challenging 8.5-mile trail from the park to Springer Mountain. At the summit, snap a few photos by the commemorative plaque. You can start back down right away, camp overnight and descend the next day, or hike 4.4 miles to the Len Foote Hike Inn and tackle the final five miles out the following day.
Alternately, you can hike five miles from the park to the Hike Inn, spend the night and tackle the 4.4-mile Approach Trail to the top of Springer Mountain. Camp at the summit or head back to the Hike Inn. (It’s a long haul, but my husband and I, both non-athletes, managed to complete the 8.8-mile round trip in one day.)
Hiking isn’t your only option at Amicalola Falls State Park. Other activities include geocaching (a treasure-hunting game utilizing GPS), trout fishing (in season), bicycling, participating in ranger-led workshops, playing Frisbee or just enjoying a relaxing picnic.
One visit is all you’ll need to understand why Amicalola Falls is one of Georgia’s most popular state parks.
Day trips to the park from Atlanta are feasible, but maximize the visit with an overnight stay or two. Lodging options include campsites, cottages and the Lodge & Conference Center at Amicalola Falls State Park. Perched at the top of the mountains, the Lodge offers breathtaking views and hotel comforts—everything you really need from a hotel, without such extras as pretention and fussiness. Operated by Coral Hospitality, the 56-room facility is also home to the Maple Restaurant, which offers convenient, all-American buffet meals at reasonable prices.
Another option is the rustic Len Foote Hike Inn. This true backcountry experience offers such amenities as a bathhouse with hot showers, a dining room for breakfasts and dinners served family-style, a game room and guest rooms outfitted with bunk beds. “Some people think that our inn is just for hardcore hikers, but that’s not the case,” says Hike Inn Executive Director Eric Graves. “We’ve had visitors as young as 3 and as old as 84. The trail isn’t particularly difficult, and visitors can take their time hiking.”
For an authentic taste of the Appalachian Trail, opt for the five-mile hike through Amicalola Falls State Park and the Chattahoochee National Forest to reach the inn. The hike, which is rated “moderate,” weaves through trees and over creeks and takes an average of three hours to complete—but can take longer if you grow enamored with the native plants, wild flowers and colorful mushrooms growing along the stony path. One visit is all you’ll need to understand why Amicalola Falls is one of Georgia’s most popular state parks.
Four More Great OptionsBlack Rock Mountain State Park is Georgia’s highest state park. At an altitude of 3,640 feet, it boasts spectacular 80-mile vistas from roadside overlooks and four hiking trails. Fish the small lake, sniff wildflowers and photograph small waterfalls. Campsites and cottages are available to overnight guests.
Straddling a deep gorge on the western edge of Lookout Mountain, Cloudland Canyon State Park boasts two waterfalls, several caves and exceptional hiking. Mountain bikers and equestrians can also explore several miles of the Cloudland Connector Trail. Spend the night in new yurts, cottages or one of the walk-in tent campsites.
One of the most spectacular canyons in the Eastern United States, Tallulah Gorge State Park’s eponymous ravine is two miles long and nearly 1,000 feet deep. For breathtaking views of the river and waterfalls, brave the suspension bridge swaying 80 feet above the rocky bottom. Mountain bikers can challenge their skills on a rugged 10-mile trail.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Unicoi State Park and Lodge offers several scenic hiking and mountain-bike trails. The park borders U.S. Forest Service land, and you can walk a short, paved path to the base of the spectacular Anna Ruby Falls. The hotel-style lodge at Unicoi is undergoing renovations and will re-open in fall 2013; all other park facilities remain available.
For More Information
Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge
Lodge and Cottages: 800-573-9656
Camping and Shelters: 800-864-7275
Len Foote Hike Inn
Advance reservations strongly recommended for overnight accommodations.
Black Rock Mountain State Park
Cloudland Canyon State Park
Tallulah Gorge State Park
Unicoi State Park and Lodge