Looking for a summertime adventure that’s really out there? Here’s a thought: check out what may be the mother of all waterslides — Sliding Rock in northeast Georgia’s Tallulah Gorge State Park. It’s definitely not your everyday low-effort adventure, but it is worth the effort it takes to get there.
Tallulah Gorge — you must experience it firsthand to fully understand just how impressive it is. With a length of about 2 miles and a depth of as much as 1,000 feet (that’s almost two-tenths of a mile), the gorge is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the eastern United States.
Hyperbole? Not at all.
Tallulah Gorge is also the centerpiece of Tallulah Gorge State Park. This 2,700-acre park offers a variety of recreational opportunities, including hiking, camping, a sand beach (open seasonally), playgrounds and more.
Thanks to a great system of hiking trails, visitors have the opportunity to experience much of the gorge on foot. Many stick to the “open-access” trails — that is, to the trails that require no permit. These include the North Rim and South Rim trails, which together offer about 2.5 miles of great hiking with unforgettable views.
But other hikers want more. They’re drawn by the lure of another set of trails — the more challenging and more strenuous routes that carry visitors deep into the heart of the gorge.
One of those routes is the Sliding Rock Trail, which eventually leads you to Sliding Rock at Bridal Veil Falls. To call parts of it (especially the lower part of it) a “trail” is really not accurate; it’s more of a rocky route along the water.
With a round-trip distance of a bit more than 3 miles and topography that would challenge even a determined mountain goat, the Sliding Rock Trail is by any definition a tough hike. Make no mistake about that.
“We tell folks that the round-trip hike averages about four hours, including about one hour to play at Sliding Rock,” said park ranger West Malenke.
From the park’s visitor center , the trail descends into the gorge via a route that challenges you with what eventually seems like about 900,000 stairsteps; though in reality, it’s not quite that many. Just don’t forget that any descent (where gravity is your friend) must eventually be balanced by an ascent when it’s time to head for home. Darn that gravity sometimes!
Because of all the steps you have to climb along the way, dogs are not allowed on this trail. When I broke that news to Ellie, the resident miniature Schnauzer, she took it well (and possibly with a sigh of relief).
One of the neatest things you’ll encounter on the way to Sliding Rock is a swinging footbridge, which at one point carries you across the river. It soars about 80 feet above the canyon floor, bouncing and swaying with every step as you float through the air and across the river far below. Thank goodness for those thin steel cables that support everything like gossamer strands of optimism in an uncertain world.
Some folks, especially those with a touch of acrophobia, don’t particularly like the bridge. I confess that even I, ruggedly seasoned outdoor adventurer and tamer of wilderness that I am, get a little touch of vertigo every time I peer over its edge. But it draws me anyway.
It’s a heady thing, making that crossing, but you’ve gotta do it if you’re bound for Sliding Rock.
So you cross the bridge. What then? First, you face some rugged, rocky trail.
Then, you have to wade across the river. There’s no bridge to help you this time.
Safely ensconced on the river’s far bank, you must make a downstream trek along what some have described as a “boulder-strewn route” on the side of the river. Others optimistically call it a “primitive path.” Whatever you call it, you’ll find that it certainly stretches muscles you didn’t know you had.
Eventually, you come to Bridal Veil Falls.
If you check out a map, you’ll see that Bridal Veil Falls is quite a ways down the length of the gorge. By that point, the river has dropped a good bit, and much of the thunder is gone — used up in those upriver falls with names like Hurricane and Oceana. At Bridal Veil, things have softened a little bit, and one result of that moderation of topography is Sliding Rock.
The slide itself, with a vertical drop of more than 15 feet and length of about 30 yards, offers the opportunity for a fast ride down a smooth rock face and into a cool, refreshing swimming hole (which is, in fact, the only place that the park allows you to swim in the river). At the bottom of the slide, you climb out of the pool (an experience that can be challenging on the slick rocks) and will probably want to climb back up the slope to enjoy the ride again … and again … and again! Just remember, there are no lifeguards. This is the backcountry, and you are on your own.
Eventually, you’ll have to bid adieu to the canyon floor and make the long, long climb out of the gorge and back to higher ground and your car. Some adventurers choose to backtrack and follow the same route they came in on.
“But you can also make a loop out of it,” said Malenke.
To do so, he said, you’ll need to cross to the south side of the river at Sliding Rock and then ascend the Sliding Rock Trail from the gorge floor to the canyon’s south rim.
“That trail is only a quarter-mile long, but it climbs through 800 feet of elevation — and there are no stairs,” he said.
Like I said, it’s a long way from your basic urban adventure!
Still want to give it a go? Note that hiking down into the gorge requires a free permit, and only 100 permits are issued each day. On good-weather days (especially weekends), those permits go fast; so get there early to be sure you get one. They can’t be reserved in advance. Note too that at times, depending on weather or river conditions, access to the floor of the gorge may be restricted. Hiking in the gorge is also not allowed during “aesthetic water releases” or during whitewater boating weekends. Check the park’s website for specific dates for 2018, and remember that it’s not a bad idea to call before you go just to be sure.
Particularly during the summertime, when it’s hot, be sure that you carry plenty of water. Wear good shoes, too. As the park’s web page says, “no flip-flops or Crocs.”
One more thing to keep in mind is that the hike to Bridal Veil Falls/Sliding Rock is definitely in the strenuous category. It’s not a good hike for young kids. In any case, don’t wear yourself out playing on the slide. Remember that you still must climb out of the gorge, and no matter what route you take, it’s a long way back to your car.
Tallulah Gorge State Park is located in Tallulah Falls (338 Jane Hurt Yarn Dr.) in northeast Georgia’s Rabun County. For more info, visit gastateparks.org/TallulahGorge or call 706-754-7981.