I finally decided to just write the recommendations I have been giving to everyone into their own blog post. There are a TON of places you can go online if you google “great hikes atlanta”, but I found I was spending too much time trying to find worthwhile hikes for my family to spend a Sunday.
Here’s the thing – a 1 mile waterfall hike isn’t a good use of our Sunday. So here are my qualifications for a good hike:
- Approximately 4-6 miles long
- Ideally a loop, but out-and backs are also fine
- 2-3 hours of total hiking time (30 mins/mile average hiking speed)
- Interesting terrain and not just a wide dirt trail
- Nice to have at least 1 cool visual/landmark
- Within a 90 minute drive of NE Atlanta, 2 hours max
All of that being said, Joel Avrunin’s recommendations will be for families who have active kids who are used to hiking (or a good hiking backpack for the smaller ones). I’ll write a separate blog post later about hiking with kids. But here are my recommendations (in order of when you should do them):
20 minute drive, 5-6 miles, Easy, $20 daily/$40 annual parking
There I said it! Once you have lived here a long time, Stone Mountain will likely become your backup hike for days you don’t have time to do anything else. It’s not the most remote hike, but it is classic Atlanta and really close. Do yourself a favor and spring for the $40 parking pass – it’s good for the year (and parking costs $20 otherwise). You will want to hike up to the top and back at least once. But if you are in reasonable shape, you will get back to your car and think, “Was that it?” We almost never hike to the top anymore, but you will want to do it once so you can say you did it.
So what’s my recommendation for a “real hike”? Park by the Nature Garden Trail. Get on the trail and turn right. Follow the Nature Garden Trail to the “Connecting Trail” that goes to the Cherokee Trail. Continue towards Venable Lake and the Marriott. You can actually go on the North or South side of Venable Lake – it doesn’t matter, but it’s easier to just stay on the North so you can continue to loop around the Mountain. The first half of the hike feels like real hiking – woods and rocks and trees and water. If you think there’s more gas in the tank, add an additional mile to loop the Kings Trail on Indian Island (you cross a bridge, circle the island, and then come back to the Cherokee trail).
The back half of this hike feels more like Disneyland than the Georgia Wilderness. You’ll pass an old grist mill, and then find yourself approaching the carving, dipping dots stands, passing various amusements, etc. If you are getting tired, you can take the Orange connecting trail back around to the Parking lot. However, the Cherokee Trail continues up the mountain a bit, and is quite a nice way to finish the hike.
Sweetwater Creek State Park
40 minute drive, 4-5 miles, Moderate, $5 daily/$50 annual parking
I love this park. Most people come here, walk about a mile to see the ruins of a Civil War era mill (that was featured in The Hunger Games), and then go back to their car. But this park has just SO MUCH. Our go-to hike is to park at the Visitor Center, and then start by taking the White Trail counter-clockwise. Yes – do NOT follow the hoards to the mill ruins. I always prefer to end with a cool site, not begin with one.
The White trail goes all the way down to Jack’s Lake on Jack’s Branch. It is a picturesque hike on a wide and easy to traverse trail. There are some beautiful fields with wildflowers, but as the hike goes down towards Jack’s Lake, the path gets more narrow and interesting. As the trail turns up by Sweetwater Crrek, you get amazing views of the rapids, and you get to scramble along rocks, often having to use your hands to stabilize yourself. The section of the trail from the intersection with Jack’s Branch up to the ruins is so much fun – really great hiking.
By the time you get to the ruins, the kids might be hot. Mine always kick off their shoes and wade into the creek. It’s a blast, but careful of the slippery rocks especially if the water is high. We moved here during a drought when things were really low.
Next time you come back, don’t go to the ruins at all. Take the Yellow Trail instead and cross the river at the bridge. If you are hiking in the winter, you may be able to see the skyline of Atlanta from the peak of the Orange Trail. Or you can just enjoy the climb of the yellow trail. The Blue Trail is also interesting if you have time. Between these 3 trails across the river, you can build some nice other hikes.
East Palisades Trail
25 minute drive, 4-5 mile, Easy, $5 daily, $40 annual parking
Okay – I’m sorry to do this to you, but this one is a different park system – it’s a National Recreation Area, so your GA State Park pass won’t work here. But it’s the only substantial hike inside the 285 perimeter (apart from some smaller urban trails which is a totally different blog post), so I need to mention it.