Heading out of the city for a nature-rich adventure is hardly a hassle. Within a half-hour drive of Atlanta are incredible parks. You’ll find thick forests and serene, rocky creeks that are sure to ease the tensions of the big city. Whether it's a stress-busting hike to a rewarding mountaintop view, a calming ride by canoe or powering along the ridges of a scenic lake on a stand-up paddleboard, an outdoor excursion that feels worlds away from the city is actually only minutes from Downtown.
The four parks we've highlighted below require little travel time, so you can get a lot of action in without making a full day of your visit. They've each got loads of outdoor experiences to offer, and they're all incredibly close to the city -- you can come back anytime.
1. Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield
It takes a bit of climbing, but Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield offers some spectacular views of the region. (Alan Cressler, flickr)
Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield, a national park spanning nearly 3,000 acres, features more than 22 miles of trails, all rich in history and lush in natural beauty. The park's best adventure is its 11-mile eponymous trail loop, which is the best fit for skilled hikers prepared for a day-long trek. From the visitor center, ascending switchbacks guide you through a forest rife with wildflowers, ferns and rocks, with plenty opportunity to spot wildlife -- deer, birds and more. A sweeping view of the miles of green and the Atlanta skyline emerges early on as you reach the summit at 1.1 miles; as you descend, you'll get a nice glimpse of the small-but-mighty Little Kennesaw Mountain nearby. After looping through to Pigeon Hill, you'll eventually cross the bridge over Noses Creek before ultimately reaching the expansive meadow of Cheatham Hill, the Illinois Monument and a Civil War-era church at 7.9 miles.
A beginner-ready Environmental Trail is great for spotting wildlife, especially from one of the relaxation-ready benches along the boulder-lined creek. And for mid-level hikers and runners, the Big Mountain Trail offers a quicker, though still challenging, trip up to the striking summit vista.
2. Sweetwater Creek State Park The remains of an historic textile mill can be found in Sweetwater Creek State Park. (Alan Cressler, flickr)
Seasonal blooms dotting a dense forest, the ruins of an historic textile mill and rocky bluffs above gushing rapids: This is the stuff of Sweetwater Creek State Park. There’s a lot to love at this 2,549-acre preserve in Lithia Springs, located just west of Atlanta and less than half an hour from Downtown. Serenity-seekers will find rugged respite, but with its many outdoor challenges, adrenaline lovers won't be disappointed, either.
At the George Sparks Reservoir, you can fish for channel catfish and large-mouth bass or hop on a stand-up paddleboard and push through its glassy surface. Throughout the park, there are shaded picnic spots for midday lounging, plus campsites and yurts available for overnight stays. The whitewater community considers Sweetwater Creek one of the top spots for kayaking in Georgia, and hikers, of course, will fall head over boots for its exceptionally scenic trails: The Yellow (East Side) Trail boasts an elevation gain of 350 feet, the White Trail features remote sections full of wildlife and an undisturbed patchworks of plants. The Red (History) Trail follows the rush of the whitewater rapids to the ruins of the five-story New Manchester Mill.
3. Panola Mountain State Park Cyclists will find a lot to love at Panola Mountain State Park. (Basheer Tome, flickr)
With a 100-acre, mint-condition granite monadnock as its centerpiece, Panola Mountain State Park is another of the state’s gems. Part of the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area, the park is located in Stockbridge, just 15 minutes outside the city. You’ll find a series of open, public trails that wind around the mountain, giving you a wide variety of options.
There's a stellar view on the short but rewarding Outcrop Trail, and the Watershed Trail highlights two creeks that drain into the Piedmont uplands. Along the paved Panola Mountain and Alexander Lake PATH Trails, clocking in at about 5 miles altogether, skaters, bikers, runners and dog-walkers get elevated views of the lake below after breezing through a deciduous forest lined with rocky outcrops and carpeted by bright lichen moss.
To get to the mountaintop, though, you'll need a guide. Snag a trip with an expert park ranger to see the perfectly preserved summit -- try a sunset hike for an especially memorable experience. Panola Mountain State Park also offers archery lessons and tree-climbing expeditions (including an overnight stay in a treetop), all of which can be easily organized by making a reservation.
4. Stone Mountain Park
You can take the Summit SkyRide to the top of Stone Mountain or you can challenge yourself and make the climb via a scenic hiking trail. (Bradley Huchteman, flickr)
The Walk-Up Trail to the summit at Stone Mountain has to be one of Georgia's most traveled, and for good reason: The view on a clear day is absolutely unbeatable. Climbing to 1,686 feet above sea level earns hikers and runners a far-reaching view that includes both the downtown Atlanta skyline and the impressive North Georgia Mountains. There is, of course, the option to travel in relaxation via the Summit SkyRide, but you'd miss out on the challenge of rocky terrain, the intensity of elevation gains and the swaths of sun-drenched grass and, in the springtime, the eye-catching crimson blooms of rare succulent plants.
While the sights atop the 600-foot granite dome are easily the park's biggest draw, there's even more to explore -- the landmark park covers a healthy 3,200 acres, after all. Various trails, ranging from lengthier treks with steep drops to leisurely jaunts of less than a mile, circle the base of the mountain. Stone Mountain Lake, a steadily calm 300-acre oasis, is perfect for stand-up paddleboarding, canoeing and kayaking -- fishing, too. On the paved designated roadways, cyclists can hit new speeds, and the sidewalks alongside them are ideal for runners.
Originally written by RootsRated Media for Atlanta CVB.