Every year, Georgia’s leaves turn dramatic shades of yellow, burnt orange, deep magenta, even crimson.
It’s that time of year.
“When will the leaves change?” is the question park rangers hear most often once cooler temperatures arrive.
Peak color in Georgia usually takes place sometime between mid-to-late October and early November. To help leaf peepers find the best scenery, Georgia’s State Parks offers an online “Leaf Watch” travel planner, found at www.GeorgiaStateParks.org/leafwatch.
Starting Oct. 1, Leafwatch will track bursts of color throughout the state, focusing on 13 state parks. The site offers color updates from park rangers, recommendations for day hiking trips, calendar listings and availability for lodging for last-minute getaways. On the website you can even learn why leaves change color. (It has to do chemical processes in the plant as the weather cools and season changes.)
Whether traveling to the Appalachian Mountains for hiking, or heading south for paddling, Leaf Watch will keep an eye on the changing foliage.
Traditionally, some of the most popular spots for leaf watching include Amicalola Falls, Black Rock Mountain, Cloudland Canyon, Tallulah Gorge and Unicoi State Park.
Phil Delestrez, a resource manager for Georgia State Parks in the northern region, said tulip poplar trees are already showing bursts of yellow, a change in color sped up by current drought conditions. Meanwhile, the unusually warm temperatures in September may slow down the coloring process in other trees, including hickory and oak trees, Delestrez said.
Georgia’s State Parks offer a variety of accommodations where leaf peepers can stay in the heart of autumn scenery. Park guests can choose from fully equipped cabins, modern campsites and even yurts – a “glamping” trend that is like a tent-cabin combination. With some of Georgia State Parks’ most sought-after accommodations reserved 13 months in advance including Amicalola Falls State Park and Vogel State Park, and most filling up on weekends, people are encouraged to make plans as early as possible or visit during weekdays. Reservations can be made by calling 1-800-864-7275 or online at GeorgiaStateParks.org/reservations.
The website, which has been offered every fall for the past several years, will be updated weekly, most likely in the middle of the week so foliage seekers can make their weekend plans accordingly.
And while you may see bits of color in metro Atlanta, you won’t have to travel far to see dynamic fall colors. Panola Mountain State Park in Stockbridge and Sweetwater Creek State Park in Lithia Springs are about a 30-minute drive from Atlanta. And several parks, including Amicalola Falls, Unicoi and Chattahoochee Bend are about a two-hour drive.
Here is a look at some of Georgia State Parks’ top picks for fall color (Note: all of these parks are free. Parking is $5 per vehicle).
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. (Brasstown Bald is the state’s highest peak.) 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, stop by Tallulah Gorge State Park and 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. “Glamping” 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 life-size 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 mountaintop, 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. Hwy. 52 has beautiful mountain scenery and overlooks worth stopping for.
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.
Sweetwater Creek State Park – Lithia Springs
Just west of Atlanta you’ll find 9 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. Or take a paddling tour, exploring the perimeter of George H. Sparks Reservoir, then loop around to the north banks to land near a picnic area for a post-paddle meal. Another way to enjoy the myriad of oranges, reds and golds in the crisp autumn air is to stay in a yurt. A new yurt village at Sweetwater opened last September.
Unicoi State Park — Helen
Avoid Oktoberfest crowds in Helen by hiking a pretty 3-mile trail that 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.)