Georgia state parks bring the outdoors to metro Atlantans

Kayaking at Sweetwater Creek is a popular activity. 
Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Kayaking at Sweetwater Creek is a popular activity. Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Delete screensavers of streams and trails, and visit the real deal: a state park.

Julie Davis Salisbury grew up in Rockdale County but never went to nearby Panola Mountain State Park.

“Before the pandemic, my husband Randy and I would walk around our [Brookhaven] neighborhood and then go home and have cocktails. But the pandemic inspired more interest in being outdoors, and I started walking with my friend Sherri, first around the neighborhood, then along the Eastside and Westside BeltLines. Then we looked for trails online and found Sweetwater Creek.” Now, the two go to a nearby state park, including Panola, for long walks and talks at least once a month.

“Georgia state parks are beautiful. People aren’t aware of these hidden gems,” she says.

Salisbury is not alone. Especially during the pandemic, Atlantans have rediscovered — or discovered — nearby state parks where they can get out of the house, breathe fresh air, exercise, have safe family time and just unwind.

There are 63 state parks and historic sites, several of which, like Sweetwater Creek State Park, Red Top Mountain State Park, and Chattahoochee Bend State Park, are within a 20 to 45-minute drive from Atlanta. Others, such as Don Carter State Park, Fort Yargo State Park, Hard Labor Creek State Park, Cloudland Canyon State Park and Amicalola Falls State Park are a bit farther out but still within an hour or so drive depending on where you live in the metro area.

After a bike ride, a family enjoys a picnic at Panola Mountain State Park. 
Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
After a bike ride, a family enjoys a picnic at Panola Mountain State Park. Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Most offer the same outdoor activities, hiking, fishing, camping, boating, picnicking while others, such as Hard Labor Creek State Park in Winder, may offer golf or special events such as lessons on tree climbing, sunset hikes or kayaking tours. Six parks (Cloudland Canyon, Red Top Mountain, High Falls, Fort Yargo, Tugaloo and Sweetwater Creek) offer yurts, a “glamping” experience where the tent has a deck, furniture, electrical outlets and door locks.

State parks definitely saw a jump in attendance last year. Sweetwater, in particular, is often at a capacity especially on weekends, says Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for the Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites. “The nice thing about Georgia state parks is that there are 84,000 acres open for everyone to explore and help your quality of life with needed outdoor activities.”

One way to start enjoying the state parks is to join other like-minded individuals. There are plenty of outdoor clubs dedicated to hiking, camping, kayaking and fishing. Kim Weiler used to enjoy the great outdoors by “driving to a state park, looking at an overlook and then driving away.” She moved to Georgia, sought a way to meet people, and discovered Trail Dames, a group of “curvy women” who enjoy hiking. “I had never hiked a day in my life. I never thought I would be able to. I’m middle age, eat too many cheeseburgers and have bad knees, but the Dames are people like me who aren’t perhaps the most physically fit. I tried it, and I loved it. Our motto is “No Dame left behind.”

ExploreAtlanta’s originals: Visit landmarks that are unique to our city

Today, Weiler, a resource manager for General Electric, is a co-head Dame with Pam de Graaf, who enjoyed state parks when her children were in scouts. “Being in the state parks with the Dames allows women who haven’t gone out on the trails or don’t want to do it by themselves discover that it’s OK to get out and see the beautiful landscape. You get to see little purple flowers that you don’t see on a treadmill in a gym. And, you have great conversations on the trail.” de Graaf’s favorite park is Fort Yargo, “a hidden gem where you have a beautiful lake to kayak, wonderful campgrounds and a great six-mile trail.”

Having great conversations is one of the favorite benefits of hiking that Sherri Daye Scott, SVP of marketing for Public Broadcasting Atlanta,, enjoys with her 13-year-old son, Jonah, as well as Salisbury. During the pandemic, she went to the state parks with Jonah to get out in the sun and “get him away from the screens. It’s easier to talk with him when we’re out. It’s fun for me to watch him be reminded of the wonders of the world. We can’t travel now, but his curiosity is up when we’re hiking, and he’ll point things out for me.”

Hiking definitely strengthened the women’s friendship. “Julie and I knew each other professionally and would meet for lunch, but when we hike it reminds us of being a kid, and that’s fun. We can talk on the phone or text, but the hour and a half we hike a month is so precious to us. We do it in the rain, cold, whatever,” she says.

Julie Davis Salisbury (L) and Sherri Daye Scott are all smiles after a hike at Panola Mountain State Park. 
Courtesy of Julie Davis Salisbury.
Julie Davis Salisbury (L) and Sherri Daye Scott are all smiles after a hike at Panola Mountain State Park. Courtesy of Julie Davis Salisbury.

Credit: Julie Davis Salisbury

Credit: Julie Davis Salisbury

Salisbury agrees. “If you go to a restaurant with a friend, your conversation is more structured. But Sherri and I have really gotten to know each other so well, and it’s deepened our friendship, partly because the spaces around us are so beautiful.”

Daye Scott intends to go camping and fishing in the state parks with her son; that’s a hard no for Salisbury. “I hike, go to brunch and then go home. That’s it.”

Davis Adams and his partner, Baron Smith, are avid outdoorsmen. “We love the state parks and, if you live in Atlanta, there are a number of parks immediately around the city. On the Southside, I really love Chattahoochee Bend State Park. It’s bucolic. I love that it’s a pine forest, and the Chattahoochee is really wide and slow-moving. Then if you go to Sweetwater Creek, it’s perfect for Instagram pictures with the old mill on the creek. We love hiking there.” They also have rented a cabin at Red Top Mountain. “The vistas are gorgeous and, especially in the past year, we have sought to reprioritize our lives, focus on each other away from bars and work, and recenter our lives.”

There are plenty of hiking trails at Red Top Mountain State Park. 
Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
There are plenty of hiking trails at Red Top Mountain State Park. Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

To Adams, who often brings his dog, Hero, along, being at a state park is “100% therapeutic. You feel the stress and how it has worn on your soul. You get close to the forest or a body of water, creek or lake, and it’s good for your heart — literally and figuratively. The state does such a good job of keeping the parks beautiful, clean and safe. The state invests in the park system, and it’s one of the reasons why we love Georgia.”

Baron Smith (L) and Davis Adams enjoy a roaring waterfall at a Tullulah Gorge State Park.
Courtesy of Davis Adams.
Baron Smith (L) and Davis Adams enjoy a roaring waterfall at a Tullulah Gorge State Park. Courtesy of Davis Adams.

Credit: Davis Adams

Credit: Davis Adams

Weiler enjoys the fact that while on a hike, she’s disconnected from electronics and can enjoy Georgia’s stunning scenery. “There are so many beautiful things, and you can’t pay attention to them when you’re on the phone. I fell in love with Red Top because they have trails for all fitness levels. I love to kayak.”

She even goes on solo hikes. “I know if I have a problem there are services to help me. It’s not like hiking the Appalachian Trail where you really are alone. I don’t fear for my safety. I’ve never seen a bear. Of course, you have to be conscious of the people around you, but I feel safer in a state park than the Mall of Georgia. I always check in with the wonderful rangers and get a feel from them about bears, snakes and any other advice.”

Adding, “Going to a state park and hiking is an inexpensive hobby. You can get a parking pass for $40 for a year.”

Tom Johnson, president of the board for Friends of Georgia State Park, says there is something for anyone in a state park. “There’s golfing, frisbee golf, fishing, camping, education programs, hiking — all within an hour or maybe an hour-and-a-half from Atlanta. And, just beautiful scenery and fresh air. Honestly, if you can’t find something to do in a state park, well, I don’t have another suggestion.”

WHERE TO GO

Sweetwater Creek State Park. 7 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. Free. 1750 Mt. Vernon Road, Lithia Springs. 770-732-5871, gastateparks.org/sweetwatercreek..

Panola Mountain State Park. 8 a.m. – 7 p.m. Free. 2620 Georgia 155 SW, Stockbridge. 770.389-7801, gastateparks.org/panolamountain.

Red Top Mountain State Park. 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Free. 50 Lodge Road, SE, Acworth. 770-975-4226, gastateparks.org/redtopmountain.

Chattahoochee Bend State Park. 7 a.m. – 10 p.m., Free. 425 Bobwhite Way, Newnan. 770-254-7271, gastateparks.org/chattahoocheebend.

Fort Yargo State Park. 7 a.m. – 10 p.m., Free, 210 S. Broad St. Winder. 770-867-3489, gastateparks.org/fortyargo.

Trail Dames. traildames.com/Georgia.

In Other News