The Best Spots for “Leaf Peepers”

Fall foliage on Lake Lanier ~~ Photograph by Robert Sutherland
Fall foliage on Lake Lanier ~~ Photograph by Robert Sutherland

Northeast Georgia becomes even more beautiful when trees gloriously shed their leaves in autumn.

That’s nature’s way of taking our minds off the fact that winter is approaching.

Here’s your big chance to let you-know-how while away his hours watching football so you can go for a drive with your friends conferrin’ with the flowers and consulting with the trees in all their glory.

Our washed out summer around Lake Lanier could provide vibrant autumn color, if we have:

  • Little rain
  • Sunny & warm days
  • Cool but not freezing nights.

To help leaf peepers find the best spots to visit, Georgia’s State Parks offer their “Leaf Watch” website to plan your travels.

State officials recently announced Georgia’s top 15 state parks for leaf watching, which includes Amicalola Falls, Black Rock Mountain, Cloudland Canyon, Don Carter, F.D. Roosevelt, Fort Mountain, Hard Labor Creek, Moccasin Creek, James H. Sloppy Floyd, Red Top Mountain, Smithgall Woods, Sweetwater Creek, Tallulah Gorge, Unicoi and Vogel.

Regular updates will keep travelers posted on how fall color is progressing across Georgia’s Blue Ridge, with top trails and overlooks, mountain cabins and campsites, fall events and hiking tips.

Whether hiking around a lake or simply driving country roads, travelers can check Leaf Watch 2013 for expert advice on leaf watching.  A link to Georgia Forestry Commission’s website will highlight regular blog posts and photos from foresters.

Shutterbugs can post their favorite shots to the Georgia State Parks Facebook page for a chance to win prizes.

Typically, northern Georgia peaks in late October; however, color can be seen as early as September and as late as mid-November.  Some parks in southern Georgia put on a pretty display during late autumn as well, particularly those with cypress trees and tea-colored lakes, such as George L. Smith State Park.

Top 15 Georgia State Parks for Fall Color

Don Carter State Park – Lake Lanier

  • Georgia’s newest state park opened this summer on Lake Lanier, protecting a beautiful hardwood forest and many miles of shoreline.  If you have a boat, this would be a great park to enjoy fall color from the water.  A 1.5-mile paved (and quite hilly) trail is open to bikes and foot traffic.  Another 2-mile trail is open to hikers only.

Amicalola Falls State Park – Dawsonville

  • Just an hour north of Atlanta you’ll find the Southeast’s tallest cascading waterfall.  The falls can be enjoyed from both easy and difficult trails.  A short, flat path leads to a boardwalk offering the most spectacular views.  There’s also an easy-to-reach overlook at the top.  For a tougher challenge, start from the bottom of the falls and hike up the steep staircase.  Amicalola Falls gets very busy on pretty October weekends.  Pumpkin farms and apple orchards are nearby.

Black Rock Mountain State Park – Clayton

  • At an altitude of 3,640 feet, Black Rock Mountain is Georgia’s highest state park.  Roadside overlooks and the summit Visitor Center offer sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The 2.2-mile Tennessee Rock Trail is a good choice for a short, moderate hike.  For an all-day challenge, take the 7.2-mile James E. Edmonds Backcountry Trail.  If driving Hwy. 441 north to the park, you can also stop by Tallulah Gorge State Park and the quirky Goats on the Roof.

Cloudland Canyon State Park – Near Chattanooga

  • One of Georgia’s most beautiful parks offers easy-to-reach rim overlooks and challenging hiking trails.  A favorite hike takes you down a long, steep staircase to the bottom of the canyon, where you’ll find two waterfalls.  (Remember, you have to hike back up, but it’s worth it.)  The 5-mile West Rim Loop is moderately difficult and offers great views of the canyon.  New yurts are located off this trail.

F. D. Roosevelt State Park – Pine Mountain

  • Many people are surprised to find hardwood forests and rolling mountains south of Atlanta.  The 6.7-mile Wolf Den Loop is a favorite section of the longer Pine Mountain Trail.  For a touch of history, drive to Dowdell’s Knob to see a lifesize bronze sculpture of President F.D. Roosevelt and great views of the forested valley.  Ga. Hwy. 190 is a pretty driving route.

Fort Mountain State Park – Chatsworth

  • This park is best known for a mysterious rock wall along the mountain top, plus a variety of trails. For the easiest walk, take the 1.2-mile loop around the park’s pretty, green lake.  For a challenging, all-day hike, choose the 8-mile Gahuti Trail.  Mountain bikers have more than 14 miles to explore, and horseback rides are available as well.  Hwy. 52 has beautiful mountain scenery and overlooks that are worth stopping for.

Hard Labor Creek State Park – Rutledge

  • Kayak tours of this park’s lake let you enjoy autumn color from a different perspective.  Sign up for a ranger-led paddle or rent a canoe to explore on your own.  Mountain bikers can explore 10 miles of trails ranging from beginner to experienced.  This park is easily reached from I-20, exit 105.

James H. (Sloppy) Floyd State Park – Summerville

  • This park near Rome is a good choice for families with young children.  An easy walk circles a fishing lake.  Kids will enjoy feeding fish from the boardwalk.  Older children will like the Marble Mine Trail which leads to a small waterfall with a pretty blue-green tint.  Serious hikers can explore the nearby 330-mile Pinhoti Trail.

Moccasin Creek State Park – Lake Burton

  • Georgia’s smallest state park sits on the shore of a gorgeous deep-green lake.  Guests can choose from the 2-mile Hemlock Falls Trail or 1-mile Non-Game Trail with a wildlife observation tower.  Hwy. 197 is a particularly pretty road, passing Mark of the Potter and other popular attractions.

Red Top Mountain State Park – Lake Allatoona

  • Just 40 minutes north of Atlanta you’ll find a variety of trails with nice fall color.  The easy, flat 4-mile Iron Hill Loop is open to bikes and foot traffic, offering great views of the lake and forest.  Another good choice for lake views is the 5.5-mile Homestead Trail.  Families with young children will like the paved walking path behind the park office.  Be sure to explore the log cabin and blacksmith shed.

Smithgall Woods State Park – Helen

  • Protecting more than 6,000 acres around Dukes Creek, this is the perfect spot for fly fishing while enjoying fall color.  Day visitors can picnic near the creek and overnight guests can hike a private trail to Dukes Creek Falls.  A 1.6-mile loop climbs to Laurel Ridge and provides a view of Mt. Yonah, once most leaves are off the trees.  This park is near many wineries and Helen’s Oktoberfest.

Sweetwater Creek State Park – Lithia Springs

  • Just west of Atlanta you’ll find nine miles of hiking trails, a beautiful creek and small lake.  For an easy walk, take the popular 1-mile Red Trail which follows the creek to the ruins of an old mill.  For more of a workout, continue past the mill to the Blue Trail, where you’ll climb steep bluffs for outstanding creek views.  Sign up for a guided hike to learn more about this park’s Civil War history.

Tallulah Gorge State Park – Near Clayton

  • Tallulah is one of the most spectacular canyons in the Southeast, and you can choose from easy or difficult trails.  Hike along the rim to several overlooks with waterfall views, or get a permit from the park office to trek all the way to the bottom.  During November, you can watch expert kayakers as they enjoy the bi-annual “whitewater releases.”  Be sure to see the park’s film because it includes heart-racing footage of kayakers and news clips from Wallenda’s famous tightrope walk across the gorge.

Unicoi State Park – Helen

  • Avoid Oktoberfest crowds in Helen by hiking a pretty 3-mile trail which leads from the park into town.  You can enjoy lunch and window shopping before hiking back to the trailhead.  Mountain bikers can zip past fall color on the park’s challenging 7.5-mile bike loop.  If you’re up for a steep hike, take the 4.8-mile Smith Creek Trail up to Anna Ruby Falls.  (To avoid having to hike back, leave a second car at the falls.)
  • Click Here for Helen’s Oktoberfest

Vogel State Park – Blairsville

The 4-mile Bear Hair Gap Trail makes a nice day trip for experienced hikers, offering great mountain color and a birds-eye view of the park’s lake.  For an easier walk, follow the Lake Loop to a small waterfall.  The twisting roads around Vogel, particularly Wolf Pen Gap Road, offer some of north Georgia’s prettiest fall scenery.

Georgia’s State Parks offer a variety of accommodations where leaf peepers can stay right in the heart of autumn scenery.  Rates range from around $22 for modern campsites with hot showers to around $150 for fully equipped cabins.  “Glamping” yurts are usually $70, with new ones at Cloudland Canyon and Tugaloo state parks. Park rangers advise guests to make reservations as soon as possible.  It is not uncommon for the most sought-after accommodations to be reserved 13 months in advance, and many campgrounds fill up early on weekends.
Reservations can be made by calling 1-800-864-7275 or Click Here.

About Author

Robert J. Sutherland is a travel writer enjoying life in Gainesville, GA.
Robert has two adult daughters, seven practically perfect grandchildren and a zippy Kawasaki. Contact Robert at [email protected].

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