One of the best times of the year is that magical moment in March when the calendar says winter has ended and spring is here at last. It’s outdoor time again, and one of the best ways to enjoy spring in Georgia is on a hiking trail.
New life is everywhere, from leafing trees to blooming wildflowers and nesting birds — and all you need to do to see it is get out there and look. Plus, stretching winter-weary muscles feels good.
I know you’re busy. We all are. But take a look at these spring hikes. I’ll bet at least one of them will be appealing. Make your choice – and then put on those hiking shoes and go.
Big Trees Preserve
(off Roswell Road in Sandy Springs)
Why do we always seem to overlook the treasures right under our noses? For me, one of those treasures is the hiking trail at the Big Trees Forest Preserve, located right in the middle of Sandy Springs about 4 miles north of I-285.
Big Trees is a 30-acre oasis of woods, water and hiking trails just east of Roswell Road.
The land once seemed destined to be the site of yet another automobile dealership. But then it came to the attention of conservationist John Ripley Forbes, who looked at the property and saw a gem of an urban forest. Eventually, through a partnership with Southeast Land Preservation Trust, Fulton County, the state of Georgia and private citizens, the site was acquired and the BigTrees Preserve was born.
There’s a surprising amount of hiking packed into that little parcel of urban wood. One highlight is the Backcountry Trail, a 0.75-mile loop that carries you around the back 20 acres of the site. The loop is easily hiked in either direction, with no steep grades or tricky stretches. That makes it a great trail to hike with the kids … or on which to limber up if your hiking chops have grown a little soft over the winter. Bring your dog if you wish, but signs remind you to keep the pup on leash.
What awaits you along that trail? Powers Branch flows through a gorge paralleled by a section of the trail, and the vistas up and down the branch are soothing to eyes made weary by too much urban sprawl. Trowbridge Branch, a smaller creek, flows here too. And of course, there are trees – hardwoods, dogwoods and more – as well as native azaleas, blueberries and sparkleberries.
There are wildflowers too – at times, lots of them. As one hiker put it, “During spring, the wildflowers will blow you away.”
There’s also history here. On the Trowbridge Branch side, for instance, are traces of the Bull Sluice Railroad. This forgotten rail line hauled construction materials in the early 1900s during the building of nearby Morgan Falls Dam on the Chattahoochee.
Elsewhere, the trail passes close to the site of the original “Roswell Road,” a wagon track dating from the 1800s.
And then there’s the Christmas tree. At one point, just off the trail, sharp-eyed hikers may spot a small evergreen decorated with a few red and green balls, a garland of tinsel and what appears to be a once-upon-a-time-white sock. I’m not sure what the official Big Trees stance is on decorated trees, but I hope this one will remain. It seems oddly appropriate – a sort of celebration of trees, if you will, and just what you might expect to find at a place called Big Trees.
Big Trees Forest Preserve is at 7645 Roswell Road in Sandy Springs, about 4 miles north of I-285. Find more info at bigtreesforest.com.
Palisades East Trail
(Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, near I-285 in Atlanta/Sandy Springs)
One of the area’s best spring hiking opportunities awaits you at the Palisades East Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, just a short distance from I-285 and Cumberland Mall. At Palisades East, a network of trails traverses terrain ranging from ridges and high ground to riverside floodplain. In places, the trail is just a few yards from the cold waters of the Chattahoochee River, providing natural air conditioning that will be increasingly welcome as temperatures rise toward summer.
One of the nice things about the East Palisades trail system is that you can craft a hike to suit your whims on any given day. Trail segments can be mixed and matched to provide just about any hiking experience you desire. Want a short-and-level walk along the river? Start at the Whitewater access point and follow the trail upstream. Prefer to climb hills instead? Check out the loop that starts at the Indian Trail parking area – or meander through the web of trails in the unit’s northern end.
If you hike far enough, there’s even a bamboo forest along the river near the unit’s northern boundary. Along the way you’ll find long, level stretches and steep climbs too – plus a spectacular overlook where the river unfolds far below. The shoals area that you’ll see is known as Devil’s Race Course; it was named by boatmen using the river in years gone by.
There’s something for everyone at Palisades East, and there are few better times to experience it all than spring.
Palisades East is located near U.S. 41 and Cumberland Mall, just a short distance inside I-285. A daily parking fee is required. Trail maps are available at www.nps.gov/chat/planyourvisit/maps.htm, and you’ll find detailed trail guides to this and other CRNRA trails in the book “Hiking the Hooch,” by Steve Hudson.
Haw Creek Park
(off Ga. 20 a few miles east of Ga. 400 in Cumming)
Haw Creek Park first caught my eye because the word “creek” is in its name. You know me – always looking for another place to fish. So one day a while back, I set out to check out Haw Creek.
But I never got to the water.
Instead, I got sidetracked by the giant roly-poly.
Yes, that’s right. A giant roly-poly. It was a good 3 feet long, and it was looking straight at me. I looked back – and behind it was (what else?) a patch of giant pink mushrooms. With white spots.
And near the mushrooms was a huge gray and red millipede curled up on a rock.
I blinked a couple of times to clear my eyes and looked again. That’s when I noticed the 3-foot-tall pinecone. Looking around some more, I spotted two giant acorns. Beyond them I saw bears – a big one and a couple of little ones. – All the while, the giant roly-poly was just sitting there…watching.
I promise you there were no mushrooms involved, pink-and-white or otherwise.
For an instant, it didn’t make sense. But then I realized what I’d found: a set of play areas (the county calls them “playground pods”) at Haw Creek Park, each done up in a woodland wildlife theme. How cool!
But we’re supposed to be talking hiking, aren’t we? Haw Creek Park offers just shy of 3.5 miles of multi-use trail (hiking as well as mountain biking, so watch for bikes if you’re exploring on foot) plus picnic facilities and a recently opened bike skills area. The park’s trail system features multiple segments that can be combined to create just about any sort of outing you want.
The spring wildflowers can be impressive, too, especially in the portion of the park west of the parking area off Echols Road. Keep an eye out for splashes of color as you go.
And watch out for the giant roly-poly!
Haw Creek Park is a Forsyth County park located off Ga. 20 at 2205 Echols Road, just a few miles east of Ga. 400. Find more info at parks.forsythco.com/Parks-and-Facilities/Parks/Haw-Creek-Park.
Learn about the hiking trails of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Steve Hudson’s book Hiking the Hooch. It’s available from local outfitters, from the park headquarters at Island Ford, and on Amazon. Signed copies are available direct from the author at www.chattahoocheemedia.com.