Knees-friendly hiking along the Chattahoochee

Nearby trail offers great hiking…with no sore knees at the end!

The back portion of the Cochran Shoals Loop offers more easy hiking on a wide and level trail.
The Cochran Shoals Loop Trail is wide and level, a great place for low-impact hiking.
Interstate North Parkway trailhead for Cochran Shoals Loop Trail.
By Steve Hudson

Columns Drive trailhead from I-285: Take Exit 24 (Riverside Drive) and go north for about 2.2 miles to Johnson Ferry Road. Turn left onto Johnson Ferry Road. You’ll soon cross the Chattahoochee. Immediately across the river, turn left onto Columns drive. Follow Columns Drive for roughly 2.6 miles. Columns Drive will end at the Columns Drive parking area.

Interstate North Parkway trailhead from I-285 westbound: Take Exit 22 (Northside Drive/New Northside Drive/Powers Ferry Road) and continue onto Interstate North Parkway. The parking area is on the right off Interstate North Parkway just west of the river.

I do dearly love to hike. It’s always fun, though (depending on the trail I choose) my knees may remind me the next day that they’re not as young as they used to be.

Darn those knees. Truth be told, there are some days when I have to listen to them. Some days they remind me that what I want is not an epic adventure in the Georgia equivalent of the Andes Mountains but, instead, some sort of kinder, gentler, more knee-friendly hike.

I was talking with a lady in the grocery store (her name turned out to be Emily) about that very topic just the other day. We were waiting in the checkout line with other customers in front of us, so we had a moment to chat as people in grocery store lines often do. We made small talk as the line inched forward, first discussing grandkids, but then she looked at me for a long second and asked, “Aren’t you the guy who writes about the outdoors?”

Writers love to be asked that kind of thing “Well, yes, I guess I am,” I said.
“I thought so,” she said. “And now I’ve got a question for you. Where’s a good place to hike? Not for the grandkids, but for me, you know. I like to hike, but I’m not as young as I used to be and those mountain trails just get me these days.

Where would you recommend?”

Now that’s a great question. Where is a good place for a bit of knee-friendly hiking fun? I thought about that for a second, mentally running through a list of essential qualifications (good trail surface, easy access, safe environment, and so on) and one place jumped immediately to mind.

“I think,” I said, in most considered writer-type voice, “that I know the perfect trail for you.”

And so here’s a look at one of my favorite knee-friendly trails in the north Atlanta area – the Cochran Shoals Fitness Loop Trail in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, right off I-285.

The three-mile Cochran Shoals Fitness Loop Trail is one of the most heavily used CRNRA trails, and it’s easy to see why. It takes the form of a long loop which stretches along the Chattahoochee River between Interstate North Parkway near I-285 and Columns Drive. One leg follows the river; the other follows a parallel course several hundred yards inland. A cut-through connector near the downstream end of the loop allows you turn it into a sort of figure-8 should you desire.

However you choose to parse your hike, you’ll find that the hiking is easy and knee-friendly. It’s no surprise that this trail is popular with joggers, walkers, cyclists and even parents pushing strollers – and with seniors who have discovered that it’s a great place to enjoy hiking near the river without the rigors of serious mountain terrain.

What about access? Two parking areas – one at the end of Columns Drive on the loop’s upstream end and one just off Interstate North Parkway near the south end – provide easy access to the fitness trail. Because this area is so popular, these parking areas may fill up on weekends or weekday afternoons with cars waiting for a space to open up. But even during the busy times you usually don’t have to wait too long.

And what’s the trail like? Here’s a quick guide, starting at the parking area off Interstate North Parkway and going counterclockwise.

From the parking area, a wide gravel connector leads upriver to the loop itself. As you traverse the connector, you’ll see picnic tables on your left and, behind them, a rocky bluff where overhanging rock ledges form rock shelters which were used by Native Americans in centuries past. Side trails allow you to approach them for a better look.

Soon, you’ll cross a bridge over a feeder stream. Beyond that bridge is the loop itself. We’ll hike the loop counterclockwise, so continue straight ahead.

This portion of the loop follows the Chattahoochee upstream, crossing several feeder streams as you go. The largest of these is Terrell Mill Creek, and just beyond it you’ll see the cross-loop connector turning off to your left. The connector makes it easy to enjoy a much shorter hike, if you wish. Since it carries you through some wetlands, it’s a great place to look for wildlife.

But I digress. For now, stay on the main loop and continue upriver. Eventually, the trail will start to swing left. Soon thereafter you’ll come to the Columns Drive parking area (off to your right if you’re hiking counterclockwise), but go left to continue the loop.

Still level and smooth, the loop now begins its downstream leg. As you go, you’ll spot several smaller trails turning off the main loop to connect with more rugged parts of the Cochran Shoals trail network. The main loop, however, continues straight ahead and remains level and easy to follow.

Soon, you’ll come to the other end of the cut-across connector trail. Beyond that intersection, the trail again crosses Terrell Mill Creek. Once across, the route swings left and takes you back to the Interstate North parking area connector trail. You can call it day and return to your car…or you can stay on the loop and hike it again, perhaps exploring the cross-loop trail too.

Since the line was moving slowly, I had time to tell Emily pretty much all of this.
“It sounds like the kind of trail I’m looking for,” she said. “Would the grandkids enjoy it too?

“I think they would,” I answered. “I’ll bet they’ll have a blast. And nobody’s knees will be protesting in the end.”

“Amen to that!” she said. ■


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