One of the waterfalls at Cloudland Canyon State Park during the fall.
“When will the leaves change?” is the question park rangers hear most often once cooler temperatures arrive. Only Mother Nature knows for sure, but peak color in Georgia is usually toward the end of October or early November. To help leaf peepers find the best scenery, Georgia’s State Parks offer an online “Leaf Watch” travel planner, found at www.GeorgiaStateParks.org/leafwatch.
Beginning in October, regular updates will keep travelers posted on how fall color is progressing across Georgia’s Blue Ridge. The website is filled with top trails and overlooks, mountain cabins and campsites, fall events, and safe hiking tips. Shutterbugs are encouraged to post their favorite shots to the Georgia State Parks Facebook page and Instagram.
Georgia’s top state parks for leaf watching include Amicalola Falls, Black Rock Mountain, Cloudland Canyon, F.D. Roosevelt, Fort Mountain, Moccasin Creek, Red Top Mountain, Smithgall Woods, Sweetwater Creek, Tallulah Gorge,Unicoi, Victoria Bryant and Vogel. For quieter getaways, visitors may want to explore parks further south, which can offer pretty autumn color as well. They key for most vibrant color is warm, sunny days and cool, crisp nights.
Georgia’s State Parks offer a variety of accommodations where leaf peepers can stay in the heart of autumn scenery. Park guests can choose from fully equipped cabins, modern campsites and even yurts – a “glamping” trend that is like a tent-cabin. Georgia State Parks’ most sought-after accommodations are often reserved 13 months in advance, and most fill up on weekends. Guests are encouraged to make plans as early as possible or visit during weekdays. Reservations can be made by calling 1-800-864-7275 or at GeorgiaStateParks.org/reservations.
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. The falls can be enjoyed from both easy and difficult trails. A short, flat path leads to a boardwalk offering the most spectacular views. There’s 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. Amicalola Falls gets very busy on pretty October weekends. Pumpkin farms and apple orchards are nearby.
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. If driving Hwy. 441 north to the park, stop by Tallulah Gorge State Park and quirky Goats on the Roof.
CLOUDLAND CANYON STATE PARK – Near Chattanooga
One of Georgia’s most beautiful parks offers easy-to-reach rim overlooks and challenging hiking trails. A favorite hike takes you down a long, steep 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. “Glamping” yurts are located off this trail.
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 see a life-size bronze sculpture of President F.D. Roosevelt and great views of the forested valley. 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 pretty, green 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 for.
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.
RED TOP MOUNTAIN STATE PARK – Lake Allatoona
Just 40 minutes north of Atlanta you’ll find a variety of trails with nice fall color. The easy, flat 4-mile Iron Hill Loop is open to bikes and foot traffic, offering great views of the lake and forest. Another good choice for lake views is the 5.5-mile Homestead Trail. Families with young children will like the paved walking path behind the park office. Be sure to explore the log cabin and blacksmith shed.
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. This park is near many wineries and Helen’s Oktoberfest.
SWEETWATER CREEK STATE PARK – Lithia Springs
Just west of Atlanta you’ll find 9 miles of hiking trails, a beautiful creek and small lake. For an easy walk, take the popular 1-mile Red Trail which follows the creek to the ruins of an old mill. For more of a workout, continue past the mill to the Blue Trail, where you’ll climb steep bluffs for outstanding creek views. Sign up for a guided hike to learn more about this park’s Civil War history. A new yurt village opened this September.
TALLULAH GORGE STATE PARK – Near Clayton
Tallulah is one of the most spectacular canyons in the Southeast, and you can choose from easy or difficult trails. Hike along the rim to several overlooks with waterfall views, or get a permit from the park office to trek all the way to the bottom. During November, you can watch expert kayakers as they enjoy the bi-annual “whitewater releases.” Be sure to see the park’s film because it includes heart-racing footage of kayakers and news clips from Karl Wallenda’s famous tightrope walk across the gorge.
UNICOI STATE PARK – Helen
Avoid Oktoberfest crowds in Helen by hiking a pretty 3-mile trail which leads from the park into town. You can enjoy lunch and window shopping before hiking back to the trailhead. Mountain bikers can zip past fall color on the park’s challenging 7.5-mile bike loop. If you’re up for a steep hike, take the 4.8-mile Smith Creek Trail up to Anna Ruby Falls. (To avoid having to hike back, leave a second car at the falls.)
VICTORIA BRYANT STATE PARK – Royston
Nestled in the rolling hills of Georgia’s upper Piedmont, this is one of northern Georgia’s best kept secrets. A beautiful stream flows through the park, providing the perfect setting for an after-picnic stroll. Hikers can follow either the short nature trail or the longer perimeter trail that travels through hardwoods and crosses creeks.
VOGEL STATE PARK – Blairsville
The 4-mile Bear Hair Gap Trail makes a nice day trip for experienced hikers, offering great mountain color and a birds-eye view of the park’s lake. For an easier walk, follow the Lake Loop to a small waterfall. The twisting roads around Vogel, particularly Wolf Pen Gap Road, offer some of north Georgia’s prettiest fall scenery.