Heavenly outdoor places and spaces to explore outside metro Atlanta.
Nature lovers have plenty of spots to enjoy in the Atlanta area, whether it’s trekking to the top of Stone Mountain or tubing down the Chattahoochee, but the rest of Georgia is equally equipped when it comes to the great outdoors. Among these natural treasures are Georgia’s 49 state parks, from northernmost Black Rock Mountain to intracoastal Crooked River. Offering a diversity of landscapes, they attract visitors looking to experience all of the bounty the state has to offer, whether you’re heading north, south, east or west.
Julie Davis, co-owner of Spa Sydell, with locations in Buckhead and Perimeter Place, has been to almost half of the state parks. “The great thing about the outdoors in Georgia is there’s something for all ages and stages,” she says. “My husband and I have hiked with babies in tow, then with teenagers and now as empty nesters. We love to explore new places and try to venture out of the city for a long hike every weekend.”
Best of all, you can go exploring pretty much year-round. “We love seeing how much each trail differs with the change of the seasons,” says Davis. “It’s like a whole new adventure from summer to winter.” For all of you fellow outdoor enthusiasts, we’ve compiled a list of 10 of Georgia’s lesser-known riches outside metro Atlanta. So grab your water bottle and load up your backpack for an epic wilderness quest.
When many people think of Tallulah Gorge State Park, they picture the suspension bridge poised 80 feet above the gorge floor that’s accessed by climbing down (and then back up) more than 300 steps. But several of the Tallulah Falls’ park’s other unique features are only accessible on guided hikes or paddles. A ranger will guide you, for instance, to the rock formation that looks suspiciously like a witch’s head, the small cave hidden at the base of the gorge and a secret spot noted as the best place in the park to watch the sun go down.
As you hike the 2.5-mile loop on the Lake Trail at Unicoi State Park in Helen, be on the lookout for a large formation of mica and quartz that marks a fault line that goes through the park.
Cloudland Canyon State Park in far-north Rising Fawn has plentiful hiking trails that range from easy to strenuous and is well-known for the series of 600 stairs that lead down to a pair of gorgeous sandstone waterfalls. It’s only been since 2011, though, that parkgoers can mountain bike along 30 miles of wooded singletrack and out-and-back trails. (Bike rentals are available if you don’t have your own.) If you prefer hooves to handlebars, check out the 16 miles of equestrian trails.
OK, this one’s a bit of a cheat since it’s just over the state line in Ocoee, Tennessee, and it’s in a national forest rather than a state park, but we couldn’t help but mention that just two-plus hours north of Atlanta, you can go snorkeling in one of the most biologically diverse sections of river in North America. More than 70 species of fish make their home in the Conasauga River Snorkeling Hole, and some of them can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. We’ll warn you: Even in the summer, the water can be pretty chilly.
In addition to its unique rock formations, Panola Mountain State Park has cemeteries and old whiskey stills hidden just off the trail. But did you know you can also bivouac overnight in a “treeboat”? Using a set of pulleys and ropes, you can scale one of the Stockbridge park’s towering red oak or willow trees and crash in a canvas hammock perched dozens of feet off the ground, with only a sky full of stars above you.
The state’s bald eagle population is declining, but bird lovers visiting Chattahoochee Bend State Park in Newnan have the opportunity to observe a rare bald eagle nest. Binoculars are a must.
Exactly 80 years ago, the Civilian Conservation Corps opened the 533,000-gallon Liberty Bell Pool at F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Pine Mountain, and visitors still swim in its refreshing spring-fed waters. Ninety miles to the east in Floville is Indian Springs State Park, where the mineral-rich spring water is said to possess healing powers. Bring a few empty bottles and take some of it home with you.
Because of its unique geography, Lumpkin’s Providence Canyon State Park has earned the nickname “Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon.” Most visitors go for the day to hike the rim of the canyon and soak up its picturesque, panoramic views, but those willing to rough it a little bit can overnight at a primitive campsite along the Backcountry Trail that follows an old logging road through a forest of river birch trees.
When walking the 7-mile trail at George L. Smith State Park in Twin City, keep your eyes peeled for gopher tortoise burrows. The area’s loose soil makes an ideal habitat for Georgia’s state reptile.
For more information on Georgia’s state parks, visit gastateparks.org. Please note that some parks experience large crowds on weekends, so staff may temporarily limit access to day-users until there’s available capacity.
Award-winning writer and editor who has penned stories for CNN, Woman's Day, Good Housekeeping, and dozens of other outlets.