As anyone who has taken in the view from the top of Stone Mountain can attest, metro Atlanta still has a lot of trees. Canopy can be seen spreading out from the neighborhoods near downtown to far outside the Perimeter. One of Atlanta’s older nicknames, in fact, is the City in a Forest. While that nickname may not apply so much today, Atlanta has more tree cover than most major American cities, meaning local leaf watchers don’t have far to travel for a great fall hike.
The rock: Stone Mountain
Shannon Byrne hikes Stone Mountain so often that on the social networking site Foursquare she’s known as “the mayor of the summit of Stone Mountain” because of her number of check-ins. “I work from home in East Atlanta, so I joke that my commute is going to Stone Mountain every day,” Byrne said. She recommends the six-mile Cherokee Trail around the base of the mountain for an up-close experience with the trees, to counterbalance the more exposed walk-up trail. “On the Cherokee Trail you get the sense of getting lost in the woods,” Byrne said. “You don’t even realize that you’re at Stone Mountain.” The Cherokee Trail and the walk-up trail intersect on the west side of the mountain near Confederate Hall. The much shorter and tranquil Nature Garden trail can be reached from a connecting trail near the parking lot.
A sweet spot: Sweetwater Creek State Park
Sweetwater Creek State Park to the west of Atlanta is just as rewarding as Stone Mountain for leaf-watching trail hounds. “The park has numerous hardwoods, so the reds and oranges are beautiful during autumn,” said Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who spends a lot of time on the park’s trails. “A popular hike is the Red Trail that takes you along the wide creek to the mill ruins — this is a fairly easy trail and good for families,” Hatcher said. If you’re interested in a longer trek, she recommends taking the Red Trail to the overlook of the rapids, then picking up the Blue Trail through the woods back to the parking lot.
The bluffs by the river: Palisades Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
Some of the densest and most scenic forest in Atlanta is near one of the city’s busiest freeway interchanges: the Palisades Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area adjacent to the I-75/I-285 interchange in Cobb County. Miles of trails make their way along the east and west sides of the river, with bluffs and switchbacks leading down to the riverbank and back up on loop trails. “You feel like you’re not inside the Perimeter at Palisades — I think it’s one of the best things about the city that people don’t know about,” said Hans Furman, a volunteer trip leader for the Atlanta chapter of Outdoor Club South. Furman said his preference is for the trails at East Palisades, “because it’s less crowded and there’s a great viewing platform near the Indian Creek parking area.”
A hidden gem: Deepdene Park
If you’ve driven along Ponce de Leon Avenue between Atlanta and Decatur, you’ve passed a section of Olmsted Linear Park known as Deepdene Park and probably didn’t even realize it. Deepdene Park has some old Piedmont forest, including a tree purported to be Atlanta’s tallest, though George Ickes, administrator of the Olmsted Park Alliance, admitted, “We’ve had several people say it is not the biggest tree in Atlanta.” Trees Atlanta does list the soaring tulip poplar as one of its many Champion Trees. Deepdene was deliberately left undeveloped in original plans by famed landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 19th century. Today, a small system of dirt and wood mulch trails winds through the park in a deep ravine below Ponce that many passersby have no idea is there. Nearby, the 65-acre Fernbank Forest currently is closed to self-guided tours, but the Fernbank Museum of Natural History will be conducting a guided tour Nov. 4. Call 404-929-6400 to make reservations.
Go “Big”: Big Creek Greenway
The Big Creek Greenway is a 14-mile linear park in two sections, one in Forsyth County, the other in Alpharetta and Roswell. This long, shady oasis seems unlikely in such a developed area, but it runs along Big Creek past North Point Mall and underneath such busy roadways as Old Milton Parkway and Georgia 400. “There are a lot of wonderful spots to see fall leaves on the greenway, but my personal favorite is just north of Majors Road on the Forsyth County section of the trail, where you’ll find an abundance of tall hardwoods,” said Jeff Gibeau, a regular on the greenway who administers a website devoted to it. The John Ripley Forbes Big Trees Forest Preserve in Sandy Springs is a few miles south of Big Creek Greenway on Roswell Road. This 30-acre preserve has a series of mulched footpaths snaking through hilly terrain, along creek banks and past rock outcroppings. Take the Back 20 Connector to the Backcountry Trail for the best canopy views.
Stone Mountain Park. Walk-up trail open dawn till dusk; gate hours vary. Vehicle entry fee $10; pedestrian entry free. U.S. 78 East, Exit 8, Stone Mountain. 770-498-5690, www.stonemountainpark.com.
Sweetwater Creek State Park. 7 a.m.-sunset. $5 entrance fee. 1750 Mount Vernon Road, Lithia Springs. 770-732-5871, www.gastateparks.org/sweetwatercreek.
Palisades Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Open dawn till dusk. Daily fee $3. For specific directions to the Cobb and Fulton county entrances, visit the website. 678-538-1200, www.nps.gov/chat.
Deepdene Park. Deepdene is the easternmost section of Olmsted Linear Park, located where East Lake Drive splits off Ponce de Leon Avenue. Open dawn till dusk; no fee.
Big Creek Greenway. Multiple access points. Visit the website for directions to official parking areas. Open during daylight hours; no fee. www.bigcreekgreenway.com.
Big Trees Forest Preserve. Located next to the North Fulton Annex Government Service Center at 7645 Roswell Road. Open sunrise to sunset; no fee. www.bigtreesforest.com.