46 hidden gems at Georgia's state parks

Every year, millions of people explore Georgia state parks — from a cascading waterfall at Amicalola Falls State Park to a west rim loop with breathtaking views at Cloudland Canyon to the ruins of a Civil War-era mill (featured in the “Hunger Games” movie “Mockingjay — Part 1”) at Sweetwater Creek State Park.

But if you’ve ever wanted to know about park rangers’ favorite secret spots, you are in luck. This year, the Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites is celebrating its 85th anniversary with special hikes, canoe rides and other activities in what’s been coined “Hidden Gems of Georgia.”

They’re selected by those who know the parks best: Rangers will share some of their favorite little-known hikes and ponds, artifacts and historical features in 46 parks and 13 historic sites across Georgia. Few of these are mentioned online or in brochures. Check for a complete list of programs spotlighting these secrets.

“I think this is a fantastic way to get people to take a step deeper into their state parks and explore something they never knew existed,” said Lieren Forbes, a park ranger at Panola Mountain State Park in Stockbridge. “It’s also an opportunity for us to share our favorite parts of the park that are a little different, a little off the beaten path.”

MORE: Seven ways to enjoy Sweetwater State Park

Forbes said one of her favorite little-known treasures involve the whiskey stills, six of them discovered so far (Forbes said it’s possible there are more, yet to be discovered), which include a steel barrel, with ax marks, still on its side, near a creek in the western area of the park.

Special programs range from guided hikes to lake paddles. Many of the ranger-led events are taking place on weekends to encourage visitors to make a weekend out of exploring and staying (many parks offer a range of lodging from camping to yurts to rustic cottages).

Here is a look at hidden gems and some special events designed to help people discover some lesser-known wonders of Georgia state parks.

Chattahoochee Bend State Park, Newnan

At 2,910 acres, Chattahoochee Bend is one of Georgia’s largest state parks, protecting 5 miles of river frontage. A boat ramp provides easy access to the water, while more than 6 miles of wooded trails are open for hiking and nature photography. Along the banks of the southern portion of the Chattahoochee River, nature-spotters and paddlers can scope out a nest of America’s beloved bald eagle. At Chattahoochee Bend, the eagle’s nest has been there for more than two years. Currently, there are a mother and two eaglets. You can find the nest by hiking the Riverwalk trail. The ranger said it’s best to park in the day use area, and hike from Picnic Pavilion 2.

Upcoming event: “Lyrids Meteor Shower Backpacking Trip,” 11 a.m. April 22-2 p.m. April 23. A perfect weekend for backpacking; a full moon and meteor shower. This program is for beginners to backpacking. A 5 1/2-mile-long hike to North Platform Camp area, and a 5 1/2-mile-long return hike the next day. This is an overnight program that will guide you through all the necessities for overnight backpacking. For info, email $40 plus $5 parking. 770-254-7271.

425 Bobwhite Way, Newnan.

Panola Mountain State Park, Stockbridge

You may have heard about Panola Mountain’s unique ecology, but join an expert guide to head off the trail and explore hidden cemeteries and whiskey stills from the Prohibition era on a strenuous 6-mile hike. “Secrets of the Mountain Wilderness Hike,” 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sept. 10. (More of these hikes will be held on Oct. 8, Nov. 12 and Dec. 10.) You must register in advance. Ages 14 and older. Admission: $10. Parking fee: $5. To register, call 770-389-7801. Shorter, 3-mile-long hikes are also offered throughout the year but may not include as many hidden gems.

Panola Mountain State Park, 2620 Ga. 155 S.W., Stockbridge.

Roosevelt’s Little White House, Warm Springs

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was fond of model ships. See a replica of the Mayflower on display in his den, carved from the original 1620 ship’s timber. The model of the Mayflower was given to the Little White House as a gift from the Society of Friends (commonly referred to as Quakers) commemorating the signing of the Atlantic Charter that took place in 1941. Franklin Delano Roosevelt built the Little White House in 1932 while governor of New York, prior to being inaugurated as president in 1933. He first came to Warm Springs in 1924 hoping to find a cure for the infantile paralysis (polio) that had struck him in 1921. Visitors can tour FDR’s home, which has been carefully preserved very much as he left it, the servants and guest quarters, and the nearby pools complex that first brought the future president to Warm Springs. Guests can see the replica 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission: $7-$12. 401 Little White House Road, Warm Springs.

Sweetwater Creek State Park, Lithia Springs

This park highlights many of the ruins from the 19th century, including Alexander’s Mill Ruins and an old homestead. At Sweetwater Creek State Park, there are several little-known gems including Lake Louise, a small and lovely lake that is located in a rugged section of the park. Lake Louise is actually now named Jack’s Lake and is located right off the White Trail. It’s on the southwestern edge of the park. Another special place worth discovering is known as “Land of the Big Birds.” You can visit by foot or kayak an area of the park that’s home to great blue herons, bald eagles, and ospreys. They are located off the Orange Trail, which is on the eastern edge of the park opposite the New Manchester Mill ruins (the mill is seen in “Mockingjay — Part 1”). Hikers can access this only by taking the Yellow Trail.

Upcoming event: “Hidden Gem Kayak and Hike.” The hiking and kayaking will take explorers to little-visited areas showcasing the flora and fauna of the area. 7:30-9 p.m. June 26. $20 plus $5 parking. Includes both a paddle and a hike. (Tandem kayak and paddle included.) All participants must be at least 12 years old and able to swim. 770-732-5871.

Sweetwater Creek State Park, 1750 Mount Vernon Road, Lithia Springs.

Tallulah Gorge State Park, Tallulah Falls

Little-known treasures at Tallulah Gorge State Park include a rock in the formation of a witch’s head, an old jailhouse and a small cave along the gorge floor. (The cave, which could be easily missed, is located on a side of a cliff, and can’t be reached unless visitors are on a special guided tour.) Hikes every month this year allow people to explore the cave, see the jailhouse from the late 1800s or early 1900s, and take in gorgeous scenery dotted with wildflowers. Each month will offer a unique event ranging from easy hikes to strenuous ones to paddling on a lake.

Upcoming events include the Needle’s Eye Hike, noon-2:30 p.m. April 16. $10 per person plus $5 parking fee. Note: This is a strenuous hike, which includes hiking down 310 stairs to the suspension bridge, then getting on a rope to climb down just above Hurricane Falls to look at the Needle’s Eye. Children must be 12 or older. Meet at the Interpretive Center and bring water and lunch to eat on trail. To register, call 706-754-7981.

338 Jane Hurt Yarn Drive, Tallulah Falls.

Amicalola Falls State Park, Dawsonville

Many know the park for its famous cascading waterfall, but hidden on the trail to the falls is an old blue moonshine truck. While drivers were racing to get away from “revenuers,” this 1950s Ford model truck tumbled 200 feet down a steep incline to its current resting spot against a stand of poplar trees. Visitors can find the truck on their own by walking along the West Ridge Falls Access Trail.

418 Amicalola Falls Lodge Road, Dawsonville. $5 parking. 706-265-4703,

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