Nature and Human History Abound Along Chattahoochee

To catch the last of autumn’s colors, we took a walk last weekend with one of my most favorite naturalists, Jerry Hightower, in one of my most favorite wild places -- the East Palisades unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

Only a few minutes from Buckhead, the unit harbors a mature hardwood forest, spectacular rock formations and breathtaking views of the Chattahoochee. Few other people know the area better than Jerry, who grew up near Powers Island (where I-285 crosses the river) and spent much of his boyhood roaming the woods and streams. For most of his working life, he has been a ranger with the recreation area.

So, a walk with Jerry can be a lesson in both natural and human history. Here are excerpts of field notes from the walk:

“To reach the trail head from the parking lot, we cross a foot bridge over Long Island Creek ... unfortunately, the creek is one of the most degraded areas of the park ... more asphalt and concrete from upstream development is causing greater torrents of water to rush down the creek when it rains ... the torrential pulses cause severe erosion ... Jerry says it’s only a matter of time before several 80-foot-tall water oaks and other trees along the creek topple over from the erosion ...

“A short time later, though, we come to Charlie’s Trapping Creek, one of the park’s most pristine streams ... Jerry says that most people think the creek got its name from a grizzled old fur trapper centuries ago ... actually, it was named for the late Dr. Charles Wharton, Georgia State University’s famed naturalist, who trapped insects, salamanders and other creatures along the creek in the 1970s for scientific studies ... ‘We started calling it Charlie’s Trapping Creek and the name stuck,' Jerry says.

“We climb up a steep slope to a huge rock overhang that looks more like a small cave ... it’s the biggest rock overhang in the recreation area and one of 180 archeological sites in the park ... prehistoric Indians used the overhangs for shelter, Jerry says.

“Nearby, in a spot on the river’s flat floodplain, Jerry asks us to imagine the prehistoric Indian town that occupied the site perhaps 500 years ago ... there would have been circular huts, garden plots and people engaged in various activities such as weaving baskets and using fire to hollow out tulip poplar trees for dugout canoes ...

“Even though it’s late November, lingering fall colors are still beautiful ... some asters are still in bloom ... and a surprise: we find some blue gentians still blooming along the river ...

“But fellow hiker Patti Locke makes the day’s best find -- a tiny, abandoned, lichen-covered ruby throated hummingbird nest ... we're amazed that she spied such a small, well-camouflaged object.”

In the sky: The moon, now in new phase, will be a thin crescent low in the west just after dark on Sunday, said David Dundee, astronomer with Tellus Science Museum. Venus is low in the west at dusk. Mars rises about four hours before dawn. Jupiter rises out of the east at about sunset. Saturn rises out of the east about two hours before sunrise.

East Palisades Unit, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area

If You Go

The East Palisades unit features several miles of easy to moderately strenuous loop trails along the Chattahoochee and through a dense hardwood forest. A prominent overlook offers a spectacular view of the river.

Two entrances: Indian Trail and Whitewater Creek. On I-285, take exit 22 and go south on Northside Drive. Indian Trail entrance: travel 1.2 miles on Northside to Indian Trail and turn right. Continue on the paved portion of Indian Trail for 0.4 miles. The road becomes a gravel road and continues for .3 miles to parking lot. Whitewater Creek entrance: go 1.6 miles south on Northside Drive to Harris Trail. Turn right on Harris Trail and go .9 miles to Whitewater Creek Road. No restroom facilities. $3 parking fee.

National park visitors center is located at Island Ford Unit, 1978 Island Ford Parkway, Sandy Springs. 678-538-1200, /index.htm.