Visitors to Atlanta usually aren’t surprised at the number of restaurants, shopping areas, entertainment options, sports facilities and historical sights -- all the urban trappings of the region’s biggest metro area. But what they may not expect is the ease at which they can escape it all on a variety of scenic hiking trails. Not only is a day hike in Atlanta a possibility, but outdoor lovers will find a huge variety of terrain to cover while exploring the area’s natural side. Here are 10 day hikes for exploring the scenic landscapes in and around the city.
1. The Palisades (North Atlanta/Marietta)
The bamboo forests on the East Palisades Trail are an impressive sight within the city limits of Atlanta. (Bradley Huchteman, flickr)
Rambling along the banks of the Chattahoochee River just 11 miles from the heart of downtown, the Palisades Trails are a scenic escape from the hustle and bustle of Atlanta without ever leaving city limits. The trails are broken up into East and West sections.
The West Palisades feature easier hikes with few gains along four miles of mostly paved trails. It’s not a loop hike, but follows Rottenwood Creek with multiple bridge crossings and is a good bet for families and trail runners.
Hiking East Palisades is more strenuous and usually less crowded. If you’re up for the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with stellar overlooks of the river and a stroll through a tall bamboo forest. More than six miles of unpaved trails intersect at various places allowing for a variety of loop hikes and options.
2. Morningside Nature Preserve (Northeast Atlanta)
Morningside Nature Preserve features easy hiking trails through a rugged natural landscape. (Jim Hodgson, flickr)
Located seven miles northeast of downtown in the upscale Morningside neighborhood, this preserve has long been one of Atlanta’s best-kept secrets. The tucked-away retreat with 30 acres of easy walking trails and babbling creeks where kids and dogs splash during summer is a natural oasis in the city. Don’t expect manicured lawns and picnic gazebos -- the charm here is authentic Southern wildland captured in the heart of the city.
The two and a half miles of narrow walking paths are easy and mostly unmarked. A large swing bridge spans South Peachtree Creek. It’s not uncommon for the paths to be overhung with thick grass and other vegetation during warm summer months.
3. Sweetwater Creek State Park (west of the city in Lithia Springs)
You can see the ruins of the Manchester Manufacturing Company textile mill at Sweetwater Creek State Park. (Alexa Lampasona)
Boasting the title of the closest state park to Atlanta, Sweetwater Creek has 15 miles of loop trails that follow the river banks through rolling hills and history. A popular and easy-to-reach destination along the Red Trail is the ruins of Manchester Manufacturing Company textile mill that burned during the Civil War. Trails range from easy to moderate, with the hardest climbs coming up Taz Hill on the Yellow Trail and the westside leg of the White Trail.
The 215-acre George Sparks Reservoir is popular among anglers and kayakers, with rentals available from the seasonal bait shop. It’s located 19 miles west of Atlanta, just south of I-20.
4. Cascade Springs Nature Preserve (Southwest Atlanta)
Earthworks from a Civil War battle along Utoy Creek are still visible in Cascade Springs Nature Preserve. The 120-acre green space is just seven miles from downtown in Southwest Atlanta. A nearly two-mile loop trail is easy enough to navigate, following the creek through fern-dotted forests to a waterfall before gaining ground to an overlook. Atlanta isn’t exactly known for its waterfalls, but maybe it should be.
5. Arabia Mountain (east of Atlanta in Lithonia)
Arabia Mountain offers an unworldly hiking experience. (Lee Coursey, flickr)
Its landscape is as exotic as its name. Arabia Mountain is unworldly, showcasing Georgia’s rich biodiversity and geology. The summit of this granite monadnock is potted with dimples that fill with water after heavy rain and reflect the sun. Eight miles of trails meander around the mountain, part of the 2,500-acre Davidson Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve.
All the trails are easy, with the shortest clocking in at a half mile and many leading to the lake. Cyclists may take to the PATH trail from here, a 33-mile paved walkway connecting Arabia and Panola mountains. Arabia Mountain is just 21 miles east of downtown Atlanta, though you may feel you escaped to another planet.
6. Lionel Hampton-Beecher Hills Park (Southwest Atlanta)
Another well-protected slice of nature in the heart of Atlanta, the Lionel Hampton-Beecher Hills Park is part of a roughly 100-acre nature preserve that is more developed than Cascade Springs and Morningside. Nearly half of the four miles of trails here are paved, with paths following Utoy Creek where Civil War remains of Union fortifications are still visible. The park features a playground and easy access to the BeltLine Westside Trail, making it a great jumping off point just five miles west of downtown.
7. Atlanta BeltLine Trails (East and West Atlanta)
The Atlanta BeltLine, which follows old railroad corridors, is one of the easiest ways to explore the city’s neighborhoods and its street art. (Timothy J, flickr)
A developing trail network with grand ambitions, the Atlanta BeltLine is already reshaping the city. The goal is a 22-mile loop following old railroad corridors that will connect 45 in-town neighborhoods. So far the Eastside and Westside trails have been completed. Both are broad, paved and well-traveled walking paths opening up and breathing new life into long stretches of the city.
The Eastside Trail runs three miles from Piedmont Park in Midtown to Memorial Drive in Reynoldstown. The Westside Trail is accessible from MARTA, starting at Washington Park on the north end and stretching to University Avenue near the West End MARTA station. Both are in close proximity to downtown with numerous access points, unique street art and greenery planted by Trees Atlanta Arboretum. Get out and enjoy it.
8. Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (north of Atlanta in Kennesaw)
Another Civil War battle site-turned-recreational retreat, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park holds more than 17 miles of interpretive trails transversing the highest peak in the core metro area. The short one-mile hike up Kennesaw Mountain isn’t the easiest, but it’s worth the effort. The summit is also accessible by car (road is closed on weekends) with a short cannon-lined walking paths with views of downtown Atlanta in the distance.
Located 23 miles northwest of downtown, the 2,965-acre historic park has long been a favorite among trail runners and history buffs. Check in at the Visitor Center off Stilesboro Road for a rundown on trails, history and a tour of the museum. The mountain is actually made up of two peaks, Big and Little Kennesaw. Little Kennesaw is encircled by trails and offers some easier routes than the summit run. There are numerous trails of varying difficulty, making it a perfect place to find your pace and explore nature.
9. Stone Mountain Park (east of Atlanta in Stone Mountain) Stone Mountain is one of Georgia’s iconic landmarks. (John Rosemeyer, flickr)
This well-known Georgia landmark located in the city of Stone Mountain 20 miles east of downtown is a must-visit for tourists and locals. Stone Mountain Park has more than 15 miles of well-marked trails following lake shores at the base of the mountain and climbing to the top of the 1,686-foot granite outcrop. The hike up Stone Mountain is about a mile and has a more gradual gain than Kennesaw Mountain. Another option is to take the Summit Skyride lift to the top -- where the city skyline looks like mountains rising in the distance -- and walk down.
The park hosts numerous festivals, events and laser shows at various times during the year. While access to the trails is free, the park also sells tickets for various attractions such as laser shows. It’s a good idea to check its website for events schedules before you go.
10. Hard Labor Creek State Park (east of Atlanta in Rutledge)
Perhaps best known for its golf course, Hard Labor Creek State Park also has more than 24 miles of horseback, biking and hiking trails cutting through dense woodlands and around two lakes. Only two and a half miles of trails are dedicated for hikers, but the lengthy horseback trails are open to foot traffic on weekdays. Boat and kayak rentals are available during the warmer months, and several newly opened campsites make it a great option for a weekend getaway that’s not too far from home.
Located in Rutledge about 50 miles east of downtown Atlanta, the 5,804-acre preserve abuts the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir, a popular fishing destination. The easiest routes in the park are the Brantley Nature Trail and Beaver Pond Trail, both casual one-mile hikes crossing through diverse terrain, including old hardwoods, boulder formations and a ravine that’s a result from poor land management practices when the area was used for cotton and corn farming. With such an expansive network of trails, you may need more than a day trip to truly enjoy everything this park has to offer.
Coming Soon: Westside Reservoir Park (Northwest Atlanta)
When complete, Atlanta’s Westside Reservoir Park will be more than twice the size of Piedmont Park, holding a month’s worth of drinking water in an old quarry-turned-lake and connecting with the northwest leg of the Atlanta BeltLine. In the works for several years now, the first phase is of the park is expected to open in 2019. Renderings of the park show sweeping paved trails encircling the lake and sports fields on the periphery, with views of the Atlanta skyline close in the background. In all, it will cover 280 acres just a short jaunt from downtown. Visitors will soon have yet another way to explore outdoor Atlanta.
Written by RootsRated Media for Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.