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Get Outside Georgia

Opinion: It's leaf-looking time

I’m eating lunch with my buddy George today. We’ll go find some barbecue and sweet tea and solve a few of the world’s problems.

And we’ll talk about old times.

How did I get old enough to talk about old times? It just sort of happened, I guess. One day I’m all young and spry, bouncing from rock to rock on the trail and sprinting uphill. And then one day I’m not.

It must be that “aging” thing I keep hearing about.

George and I go way back, and we’ve shared a lot of trail time from the north Georgia mountains to the backcountry trails of Cumberland Island. But one adventure I’ll always remember was a day one fall at Raven Cliff Falls.

We’d gone north from Atlanta to photograph fall color. I remember that. I also remember that we got sidetracked at the Raven Cliff Falls trailhead. It’s the old “If you build it, they will come” thing. Somebody had built a trail, and we had to see where it went.

Where it went, of course, was to Raven Cliff Falls, a neat waterfall where the creek drops through a huge crevasse which was created when a massive piece of rock separated itself from the main mountain and moved a few feet. The creek really does fall through the crack, and it’s a neat place to see. I recommend it – especially this time of year when the leaves are starting to turn.

Anyway, on our way to the falls, we kept looking at the leaf-colored hillsides around us. I looked at them. George looked at them too. Leaf-covered hillsides? Natural slides in the making! And so up the slope we went, just a few yards at first, and then we sat down and slid back to the trail.

Then a few more yards and do it again. And again. It was like a waterslide made of leaves, and it was fun.

Could I do that now? Maybe not. The knees might balk at climbing the slope, and (how to put it) the rest of me might not like bouncing down the hillside. Alas, my days of leaf sliding are probably done.

But I still like to check out fall color. I still love to look for fall leaves.

This is the time to do it, too.

Where should you go?

There’s really no bad answer to that question. Sometimes I simply point the car north, drive till I spot a Forest Service dirt road, and then turn off the pavement to see where that gravel byway might take me. Pretty much every time I try that, I’m rewarded by spectacularly colorful vistas that I would otherwise never see.

You’ll find great fall color all over the place this time of year, but here’s a list of 10 top state parks that are prime leaf-watching destinations. Enjoy the leaf color, and say hello if you see me on the trails!

Amicalola Falls State Park (Dawsonville) – Besides being the site of the Southeast’s tallest waterfall cascade, this park offers numerous hiking opportunities to help you see fall leaves. A favorite is the staircase trail that takes you to spectacular viewing spots where you can see the falls framed in fall color. The staircase trail is challenging, but it’s worth every step.

Black Rock Mountain State Park (Clayton) – This park, Georgia’s highest with an elevation of 3,640 feet, offers roadside and summit overlooks which provide grand vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Also check out the Tennessee Rock Trail (a moderate 2.2-mile hike) or the James E. Edmonds Backcountry trail, an all-day hike of 7.2 miles.

Cloudland Canyon (Rising Fawn) – Unforgettable canyon rim overlooks give you a bird’s-eye perspective on fall color. Favorite hikes for leaf watchers include the staircase-and-footpath Waterfalls Trail, which carries you into the canyon (strenuous but worth it) and the moderately difficult 5-mile West Rim Loop Trail.

F.D. Roosevelt State Park (Pine Mountain) – Most folks think of going north to see fall leaves. But this park, located south of Atlanta, will take you into a kaleidoscope of fall color via the Wolf Den Loop trail, a 6.7-mile section of the much longer Pine Mountain Trail. The trail traverses rolling hills and hardwood forests that will soon make you forget you’re not in the mountains farther north.

Fort Mountain State Park (Chatsworth) – One big attraction here is the mysterious rock wall which snakes along near the summit of Fort Mountain; another is the many unforgettable fall vistas which await you along the park’s trails. Hikes range from a fairly easy 1.2-mile loop around the park’s lake to the challenging Gahuti Trail, an 8-mile all-day excursion.

Moccasin Creek State Park (Lake Burton) – This is Georgia’s smallest state park, but it boasts two noteworthy trails (the 2-mile-long Hemlock Falls Trail and the 1-mile Non-Game Trail) which are of interest to fans of fall foliage.

Smithgall Woods State Park (Helen) – Centered on the sparkling waters of Dukes Creek, Smithgall Woods offers a variety of great fall foliage hikes. It’s hard to pick a “best” trail in this park, for all can be spectacular. But be sure to explore the Martin’s Mine Trail, a fascinating trail which helps you understand some of the region’s gold mining history.

Tallulah Gorge State Park (Tallulah Falls) – The centerpiece here is spectacular Tallulah Gorge, and trails along the rim take you to many memorable overlooks. It’s great at any time but particularly when the leaves are changing. If you’re up to it, you can also take the staircase trail down to the suspension bridge over the gorge for some fantastic canyon photos from the middle of the span.

Unicoi State Park (Helen) – This popular park offers a wide range of fall hiking opportunities. A perpetual favorite is the Lake Loop Trail, an easy trail that takes you around the park’s lake and offers great opportunities for photos of fall color reflected in the mirror-like waters of the lake. For a more challenging adventure, tackle the 4.8-mile (one way) Smith Creek Trail which leads from the state park to Anna Ruby Falls.

Vogel State Park (Blairsville) – Seasoned hikers will appreciate the views from the 4-mile Bear Hair Gap Trail, while hikers looking for an easier adventure will want to check out the Lake Loop Trail. There is nothing more memorable than the sight of vivid orange and yellow and red leaves reflected by the lake’s surface.