5 winter hikes in metro Atlanta

Pickett’s Mill Battlefield State Historic Site offers history and 4 miles of wooded trails, perfect for a quiet winter hike. (Georgia State Parks)

Pickett’s Mill Battlefield State Historic Site offers history and 4 miles of wooded trails, perfect for a quiet winter hike. (Georgia State Parks)

Most of us tend to think of hiking as a warm weather activity. That’s unfortunate, because wintertime, with its long periods spent indoors under the mounting pressures of the holiday season, actually may be the time we need a getaway into the natural world the most.

The cold weather blahs do make their way this far south, but we’re lucky in Atlanta in that, even in the middle of winter, our climate offers opportunities to get outdoors and enjoy long walks. This season, on the next fine day, why not bundle up, pack a thermos and take some time away from the traffic for a hike in some of these underappreciated natural gems not far from the city.

Cooper’s Furnace

Bartow County once was known for its iron ore, and the site of Cooper’s Furnace on the Etowah River is one of the places where this is still evident. The railroad that connected the furnace to the small town of Etowah is now gone, and even the site of the former town itself is under Lake Allatoona, thanks to the 1949 dam. But the evocative ruin of the 1848 furnace is still present, and the surrounding area offers some fantastic, secluded walks. The furnace is immediately adjacent to the parking lot of the Cooper’s Furnace Day Use Area, so very little hiking is necessary to see it, but a short trail around it offers some interesting views, and easy trails also lead back into the woods and to a small beaver dam lake. Visitors also can stroll along the Etowah River, where there are picnic shelters, tables and benches. But, the most rewarding walk is a steep, invigorating climb uphill to the Allatoona Lake Visitor Center, where a small free museum run by the Army Corps of Engineers offers a history of the area and the dam project. Best of all is an overlook offering breathtaking views of the dam and out over the expanse of Lake Allatoona. The gate to Cooper’s Furnace Day Use Area closes in late winter, but hikers are still welcome to park outside and walk in to enjoy the park during daylight hours. Just don’t block the road or the gate with your car.

Cooper's Furnace Day Use Area, 1052 Old River Road S.E., Cartersville. 678-721-6700, recreation.gov/camping/coopers-furnace-day-use-area-ga/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=135891.

Pickett’s Mill Battlefield

Many of the visitors to Pickett’s Mill Battlefield are hard-core Civil War buffs who have exhaustively explored every square inch of the larger and more famous Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park nearby. But Pickett’s Mill nonetheless played its own smaller, but significant, role in the Civil War, and it’s well worth a wintertime visit. History aficionados love it because it’s one of the best preserved Civil War battlefields in the nation. The area, now a state historic site, is very much as it was in 1864, when the Confederate Army lay in wait for federal troops on their way to Atlanta. The untouched aspect of the park is also a reason that nature lovers will delight in its 4 miles of beautiful wooded trails. Even if you’re bored to tears by history, it’s a place that can seemingly take you far away from the modern world.

Pickett's Mill Battlefield Historic Site, 4432 Mount Tabor Church Road, Dallas. 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. $3-5.50. 770-443-7850, gastateparks.org/PickettsMillBattlefield.

Arabia Mountain

A number of trails — including a more than 30-mile PATH Foundation biking and walking trail that leads all the way to Stonecrest Mall and downtown Lithonia — wend their way through the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area. Especially recommended is parking at the Aware Wildlife Center and climbing the gentle, half-mile slope up the mountain itself. Dawn, when the rocky granite moonscape environment is at its most surreal, is a fantastic time to visit, and things are so still and quiet that you won’t quite believe the view from the top, which plainly shows how close the city of Atlanta really is.

Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area, 3787 Klondike Road, Lithonia. Free. 404-998-8384, arabiaalliance.org.

Cherokee Trail at Stone Mountain Park

Hikers at Stone Mountain understandably want to challenge themselves with the steep and rewarding climb up to the top, but have you ever considered walking around the mountain instead of up it? The easiest spot to begin the 5-mile circumference path known as the Cherokee Trail is Confederate Hall, where park employees can provide you with a map. Hikers also can choose a different starting point elsewhere along the trail, which is clearly marked with white blazes and red directional arrows. The path takes in some interesting sights as it circles the mountain, including a quaint, historic pine and cedar bridge brought to the park from Athens in 1969; a former granite quarry; a grist mill; and, best of all: some stunning unobstructed trailside views of the mountain’s uncarved face with no buildings, parking lots or tourist attractions in sight. It’s a reminder of what an awesome natural wonder the enormous granite outcropping truly is. A daily parking pass to Stone Mountain Park is $15, but hikers are welcome to walk into the park through the back gate near the city of Stone Mountain for free. Confederate Hall and the Cherokee Trail trailhead are a short jaunt from there.

Stone Mountain Park, 1000 Robert E. Lee Blvd., Stone Mountain. 1-800-401-2107, stonemountainpark.com.

High Falls State Park

Hikers and waterfall-seekers typically head to the hills of North Georgia on weekends, but this 1,050-acre state park just an hour south of Atlanta, not far from I-75, offers a number of hiking opportunities through the forest along the edge of the Towaliga River. Some of the trails have beautiful views of the tumbling cascades or of the park’s peaceful lake, and visitors also can see the crumbling remains of a hydroelectric power plant. Even on winter afternoons, there’s a lot to explore, and, for those who can’t be persuaded to leave, the park offers overnight stays in inexpensive, simply furnished lakeside yurts, each featuring a small deck with picnic table and outside grill, perfect for a cookout on a chilly night.

High Falls State Park, 76 High Falls Park Drive, Jackson. 478-993-305, gastateparks.org/HighFalls.