To help leaf peepers find the best scenery, Georgia's State Parks offers an online "Leaf Watch" travel planner, found at GeorgiaStateParks.org/leafwatch.
Leafwatch will track bursts of color throughout the state, focusing on about 10 state parks. The site offers weekly 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 with 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. Some of the most popular parks for leaf watching include Black Rock Mountain, Cloudland Canyon, Fort Mountain, Tallulah Gorge, Unicoi and Vogel. Since mountain parks are heavily visited on October weekends, leaf peepers are urged to explore lesser-known parks including F.D. Roosevelt State Park near Columbus, where vibrant hardwoods and mossy rock gardens shimmer in fall colors.
Kim Hatcher, a spokeswoman for Georgia State Parks, said they are encouraging visitors to tag their best fall photos #GaLeafWatch on Instagram, which can help foliage seekers find the very best color throughout fall.
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, Chattahoochee Bend and Unicoi are about a two-hour drive.
Here is a look at some top picks for fall color that include several Georgia state parks, a scenic view of the foliage by train, and a spot in North Carolina. (Note: All of the state parks offer free admission. Parking is $5 per vehicle.)
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,offering 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 U.S. 441 north to the park, stop by Tallulah Gorge State Park and quirky Goats on the Roof.
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.
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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. 190 is a pretty driving route.
There is no better way to see the leaves changing than the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, which makes a 26-mile round trip winding along the Toccoa River in vintage climate-controlled and open-air rail cars. The four-hour-long relaxing ride starts at the historic depot in downtown Blue Ridge; then stops for a two-hour layover in the quaint sister towns of McCaysville, Ga., and Copperhill, Tenn.
11 a.m. Sunday - Thursday; 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sept. 28-Nov. 12. Tickets: $35-$54, first-class tickets start at $80 (for passengers 18 and over and include premium seating, nonalcoholic drinks and snacks). brscenic.com
Known as the “Crown of the Blue Ridge,” the town of Blowing Rock offers gorgeous, sweeping vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This area is full of attractions and overlooks. Bass Lake and the miles of carriage trails at Cone Park are only a half-mile from Main Street. Even along Blowing Rock’s picturesque Main Street, you can find almost daily events and activities during fall. About four-and-a-half hours from Atlanta.
For a full listing of events, go to blowingrock.com/events. For hiking trails: blowingrock.com/hiking-trails/
Jackson County is the only place in the country to catch a glimpse of the fall phenomenon known as the “Shadow of the Bear.” From mid-October to mid-November, when the sun sets behind Whiteside Mountain, a shadow casts the perfect image of a black bear over the mountain’s colorful landscape. Only about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Atlanta, visitors can enjoy the shadow from a viewing spot at Rhodes Big View Overlook off Highway 64 between 5:30-6:00 p.m. Parking is free. There is a wide pull off area across the road from the overlook. Note: Visitors should be cautious when crossing the road since the overlook can’t accommodate a large number of viewers at once. Also, the bear won’t be visible on cloudy days.
Whiteside Mountain, is one of Jackson County's most recognizable peaks, with its sheer, vertical cliffs. You can scope out the fall foliage while taking a two-mile trail that crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, which will offer incredible views of the Appalachian Mountains shimmering with vibrant autumn shades. Parking is $2. Highway 64, Cashiers, NC 28717. discoverjacksonnc.com/attractions/shadow-of-the-bear/ The website also provides directions from any address. The closest accommodation is the High Hampton Resort, a cozy resort with spectacular views. highhamptonresort.com
Just 40 minutes north of Atlanta you'll find a variety of trails with nice fall colors. 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 that leads to a log cabin and blacksmith shed. gastateparks.org/RedTopMountain
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 yurt village at Sweetwater opened a couple years ago.
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.) gastateparks.org/Unicoi
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. Ga. 52 has beautiful mountain scenery and overlooks worth stopping for, if you can. gastateparks.org/FortMountain