Urban forest with big trees creates hidden sanctuary

Credit: Karen Huppertz for the AJC

Credit: Karen Huppertz for the AJC

Tucked away in an unexpected corner of Sandy Springs is the John Ripley Forbes Big Trees Forest Preserve. One can easily miss this 30-acre sanctuary tucked away alongside one of the city’s major thoroughfares at 7645 Roswell Road. It might even be fair to say visitors to the North Fulton County Government Services Center right next door may have never noticed this peaceful wooded sanctuary that shares a parking lot with the preserve.

Big Trees Founder, John Ripley Forbes, known for his development and organization of 24 natural science centers and 15 tree, plant and wildlife sanctuaries for youth, organized and established the Outdoor Activity Center and the Chattahoochee Nature Center. He founded the nonprofit Southeast Land Preservation Trust to preserve Atlanta’s natural spaces, maintain conservation easements and promote community involvement in nature education.

According to the preserve’s website, Forbes “first learned of a beautiful forest in Sandy Springs about to be marketed as land suitable for a car dealership. Upon visiting the property, he was awed by the beauty of the forest and felt it should be saved for use as an urban forest education center.”

The John Ripley Forbes Big Trees Forest Preserve and the Southeast Land Preservation Trust, jointly hold the conservation easement and are responsible for management of the forest.

Easier said than done. The park is lovingly maintained by a volunteer board of directors, a youth nonprofit called the Pebble Tossers, Leadership Sandy Springs and countless volunteers.

“We want to protect the forest for future generations,” said Sam Hale, BTFP board president who has volunteered with the organization for about 20 years.

Sandy Springs built the restrooms and helps provide tools, but most of the funding to support the park’s safe and well-managed trails comes from community donations.

The youth development nonprofit, Pebble Tossers, commits the second Saturday of each month to Big Trees and you can find an Eagle Scout from time to time helping build benches, split-rail fences or addressing an erosion area along one of the pathways.

“Our adult volunteers come out three to four times a year,” said Hale. “The events are well organized with wheelbarrows and pitchforks ready so volunteers can focus on providing the labor.”

Visitors to the park can escape the hustle of the city and enjoy the fresh air only a forest can provide along the Backcountry Trail System. Its three trails total slightly less than one mile and are all easy to walk with no steep grades.

Among the preserve’s scenic features is a cliff above the cascading Powers Branch gorge and the fern-lined banks of the Trowbridge Branch. The trail is fully canopied with a wide variety of hardwood and softwood trees and an understory of dogwoods, sourwoods, native azaleas, blueberries, sparkleberries and various wildflowers.

The trails pass near two historical features, the long-abandoned Bull Sluice Railroad bed used for only two years exclusively for hauling material to construct the Morgan Falls hydroelectric dam and the former Roswell Road wagon trail used in the 1800s before the present Roswell Road was built.

Learn more, volunteer or plan a peaceful visit at www.bigtreesforest.com.