“When will the leaves change?” That’s the most common question park rangers hear when autumn rolls around. Only Mother Nature knows, of course, but peak color in Georgia is usually at the end of October or early November. For many people, the perfect autumn weekend includes cozy campfires and gooey s’mores surrounded by fiery-hued forests. To help leaf peepers plan their fall escapes, Georgia State Parks has launched “Leaf Watch 2019” to track fall color as it moves across the Peach State.
Found at GaStateParks.org/LeafWatch, the travel planner is filled with top trails and overlooks, mountain cabins and campsites, fall events and safe hiking tips. Shutterbugs are encouraged to share their favorite shots on Facebook and Instagram, tagging #GaLeafWatch and @GaStateParks. Rangers will also post updates on how fall color is progressing in their parks.
Northern Georgia includes part of the Blue Ridge Mountain range, which is part of the Appalachian Mountains. Typically, Georgia’s section peaks toward the end of October; however, meteorologists predict color will be pushed back this year. The culprit is September’s hot, dry weather. The key for a vibrant autumn is warm sunny days coupled with very cool – but not freezing – nights. Still, vacationers will find beautiful forests no matter what time they travel.
Some of the most popular parks for leaf watching and mountain scenery include Amicalola Falls, Tallulah Gorge, Vogel and Cloudland Canyon. Since these parks are heavily visited on October weekends, travelers may want to visit mid-week or explore lesser-known destinations such as Fort Mountain, Black Rock Mountain or Smithgall Woods.
From cabins to campsites, Georgia’s State Parks offer a variety of accommodations where leaf peepers can stay in the heart of autumn scenery. Guests can even choose from lodge rooms or yurts – a “glamping” adventure that is like a combination tent-cabin. Park officials advise visitors to make reservations as soon as possible, even for October 2020, since it is not uncommon for mountain cottages to be filled more than a year in advance. Reservations can be made by calling 1-800-864-7275 or at GaStateParks.org.
Park rangers have also planned numerous events throughout autumn, including guided hikes and kayak tours, fall festivals, Halloween hayrides and campground trick-or-treating. A list of events can be found at GaStateParks.org.
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Ten Top Georgia State Parks for Fall Color
Amicalola Falls State Park – Dawsonville
Just an hour north of Atlanta you’ll find the Southeast’s tallest cascading waterfall. A short, flat path leads to a boardwalk offering the most spectacular views. There is also an easy-to-reach overlook at the top. For a tougher challenge, start from the bottom of the falls and hike up the steep staircase.
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 offer 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.
Cloudland Canyon State Park – Near Chattanooga
One of Georgia’s most beautiful parks offers easy-to-reach rim overlooks and challenging trails. A favorite hike takes you down a 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.
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 grab a selfie with the life-size sculpture of President F.D. Roosevelt. Ga. Hwy. 190 is a pretty driving route.
Fort Mountain State Park – Chatsworth
This park is best known for a mysterious rock wall along the mountain top, plus a variety of trails. For the easiest walk, take the 1.2-mile loop around the park’s small lake. For a challenging, all-day hike, choose the 8-mile Gahuti Trail. Mountain bikers have more than 14 miles to explore. Hwy. 52 has beautiful mountain scenery and overlooks worth stopping to see.
Moccasin Creek State Park – Lake Burton
Georgia’s smallest state park sits on the shore of a gorgeous deep-green lake. Guests can choose from the 2-mile Hemlock Falls Trail or 1-mile Non-Game Trail with a wildlife observation tower. Hwy. 197 is a particularly pretty road, passing Mark of the Potter and other popular attractions.
Smithgall Woods State Park – Helen
Protecting more than 6,000 acres around Dukes Creek, this is the perfect spot for fly fishing while enjoying fall color. Day visitors can picnic near the creek, and overnight guests can hike a private trail to Dukes Creek Falls. A 1.6-mile loop climbs to Laurel Ridge and provides a view of Mt. Yonah once most leaves are off the trees. Smithgall Woods has some of the park system’s most sought-after cabins and is near wineries and Helen’s Oktoberfest.
Tallulah Gorge State Park – Near Clayton
Tallulah Gorge is one of the most spectacular canyons in the Southeast, and you can choose from easy or difficult trails. Hike along the rim to overlooks with waterfall views, or get a permit from the park office to trek all the way to the bottom. (Permits run out early on weekend mornings.) During November, you can watch expert kayakers as they enjoy “whitewater releases.”
Unicoi State Park – Helen
Ziplines take you high above the forest canopy for a unique view of leaves. If you’re up for a steep hike, take the 4.8-mile Smith Creek Trail up to Anna Ruby Falls. Unicoi offers a lodge and restaurant.
Vogel State Park – Blairsville
The 4-mile Bear Hair Gap Trail makes a nice day trip for experienced hikers, offering a birds-eye view of the park’s lake. For an easier walk, follow the Lake Loop to a small waterfall below the dam. The twisting roads around Vogel, particularly Wolf Pen Gap Road, offer some of north Georgia’s prettiest fall scenery.
Safe Hiking Tips
Georgia Department of Natural Resources rangers offer these tips for safe hiking:
- Avoid hiking alone.
- Tell someone where you are going and when you will return. Remember to let them know when you are back.
- Stay on marked trails. As you hike, pay attention to trail blazes and landmarks. A double blaze indicates a change in trail direction or intersection, so be sure to follow the correct trail.
- Never climb on waterfalls or wet rocks. This applies to pets as well.
- Do not cross barrier fences.
- Keep pets on leash. Even dogs have become lost in the woods.
- Always carry quality rain gear, even if weather looks good. Turn back in bad weather.
- Dress in layers and avoid cotton.
- All hikers should carry a whistle (especially children), which can be heard far away and uses less energy than yelling.
- Carry plenty of drinking water for everyone in your group, including pets.
- Don’t count on cell phones to work in the wilderness, but if they do, be able to give details about your location.
- Don’t rely on a GPS to prevent you from getting lost. Batteries can die or equipment can become damaged or lost.
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Leaf Peepers, find the top Georgia State Parks for fall color on the “Leaf Watch” travel planner. You’ll find the best trails, fall events, cabins, campsites and hiking tips. Shutterbugs can share their favorite shots on Facebook and Instagram, tagging #GaLeafWatch and @GaStateParks. GaStateParks.org/LeafWatch