The 15 Best Georgia State Parks for Fall Color

Plan a day trip or a romantic weekend in the mountains during peak leaf season.

Atlanta may be known as "the city in the trees," but if you really want to see the region's fall color change, you need to get out of town—literally. Fortunately, the city's location means quick access to the nearby mountains. Within an hour's drive you can be standing in a mountain oasis, surrounded by brilliant fall foliage. For the best experiences, head to these state parks, all of which easily rank among the best places to see fall colors in Georgia:

Amicalola Falls

Location: Dawsonville

Miles from Atlanta: 55

Highlights: Just an hour north of Atlanta you’ll find the Southeast’s tallest cascading waterfall. The falls can be enjoyed from easy or difficult trails. A short, flat path leads to a boardwalk offering the most spectacular views. There’s also an easy-to-reach overlook at the top. For a tougher challenge, start from the bottom of the falls and hike up the steep staircase. Amicalola Falls gets very busy on pretty October weekends. Pumpkin farms and apple orchards are nearby.

Black Rock Mountain

Black Rock Lake

Location: Mountain City

Miles from Atlanta: 110

Highlights: At an altitude of 3,640 feet, Black Rock Mountain is Georgia’s highest state park. Roadside overlooks and the summit Visitor Center offer sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 2.2-mile Tennessee Rock Trail is a good choice for a short, moderate hike. For an all-day challenge, take the 7.2-mile James E. Edmonds Backcountry Trail. If driving Highway 441 north to the park, you can stop by Tallulah Gorge State Park and quirky Goats on the Roof.

Cloudland Canyon

Location: Rising Fawn (near Chattanooga, Tenn.)

Miles from Atlanta: 145

Highlights: One of Georgia’s most beautiful parks offers easy-to-reach rim overlooks and challenging hiking trails. A favorite hike takes you down a long, steep staircase to the bottom of the canyon, where you’ll find two waterfalls. (Remember, you have to hike back up, but it’s worth it.) The 5-mile West Rim Loop is moderately difficult and offers great views of the canyon. New yurts are located off this trail.

Don Carter

Location: Gainesville

Miles from Atlanta: 55

Highlights: Georgia’s newest state park opened this summer on Lake Lanier, protecting a beautiful hardwood forest and many miles of shoreline. If you have a boat, this would be a great park to enjoy fall color from the water. A 1.5-mile paved (and quite hilly) trail is open to bikes and foot traffic. Another 2-mile trail is open to hikers only.

F. D. Roosevelt

Location: Pine Mountain

Miles from Atlanta: 80

Highlights: Many people are surprised to find hardwood forests and rolling mountains south of Atlanta. The 6.7-mile Wolf Den Loop is a favorite section of the longer Pine Mountain Trail. For a touch of history, drive to Dowdell’s Knob to see a lifesize bronze sculpture of President F.D. Roosevelt and great views of the forested valley. Georgia Highway 190 is a pretty driving route.

Fort Mountain

Fort Mountain State Park

Location: Chatsworth

Miles from Atlanta: 85

Highlights: This park is best known for a mysterious rock wall along the mountain top, plus a variety of trails. For the easiest walk, take the 1.2-mile loop around the park’s pretty, green lake. For a challenging, all-day hike, choose the 8-mile Gahuti Trail. Mountain bikers have more than 14 miles to explore, and horseback rides are available as well. Highway 52 has beautiful mountain scenery and overlooks that are worth stopping for.

Hard Labor Creek

Location: Rutledge

Miles from Atlanta: 50

Highlights: Kayak tours of this park’s lake let you enjoy autumn color from a different perspective. Sign up for a ranger-led paddle or rent a canoe to explore on your own. Mountain bikers can explore 10 miles of trails ranging from beginner to experienced. This park is easily reached from I-20 exit 105.

James H. (Sloppy) Floyd

Location: Summerville

Miles from Atlanta: 90

Highlights: This park near Rome is a good choice for families with young children. An easy walk circles a fishing lake, and kids enjoy feeding fish from the boardwalk. Older children will like the Marble Mine Trail, which leads to a small waterfall with a pretty blue-green tint. Serious hikers can explore the nearby 330-mile Pinhoti Trail.

Moccasin Creek

Location: Clarkesville

Miles from Atlanta: 85

Highlights: Georgia’s smallest state park sits on the shore of a gorgeous, deep-green lake. Guests can choose from the 2-mile Hemlock Falls Trail or 1-mile Non-Game Trail with a wildlife observation tower. Highway 197 is a particularly pretty road, passing Mark of the Potter and other popular attractions.

Red Top Mountain

Location: Cartersville

Miles from Atlanta: 45

Highlights: Just 40 minutes north of Atlanta you’ll find a variety of trails with nice fall color. The easy, flat, 4-mile Iron Hill Loop is open to bikes and foot traffic, offering great views of the lake and forest. Another good choice for lake views is the 5.5-mile Homestead Trail. Families with young children will like the paved walking path behind the park office. Be sure to explore the log cabin and blacksmith shed.

Smithgall Woods

Location: Helen

Miles from Atlanta: 90

Highlights: Protecting more than 6,000 acres around Dukes Creek, this is the perfect spot for fly fishing while enjoying fall color. Day visitors can picnic near the creek, and overnight guests can hike a private trail to Dukes Creek Falls. A 1.6-mile loop climbs to Laurel Ridge and provides a view of Mt. Yonah once most leaves are off the trees. This park is near many wineries and Helen’s Oktoberfest.

Sweetwater Creek

Location: Lithia Springs

Miles from Atlanta: 20

Highlights: Just west of Atlanta you’ll find 9 miles of hiking trails, a beautiful creek and small lake. For an easy walk, take the popular 1-mile Red Trail which follows the creek to the ruins of an old mill. For more of a workout, continue past the mill to the Blue Trail, where you’ll climb steep bluffs for outstanding creek views. Sign up for a guided hike to learn more about this park’s Civil War history.

Tallulah Gorge

Tallulah Gorge State Park

Location: Tallulah Falls

Miles from Atlanta: 95

Highlights: Tallulah is one of the most spectacular canyons in the Southeast, and you can choose from easy or difficult trails. Hike along the rim to several overlooks with waterfall views, or get a permit from the park office to trek all the way to the bottom. During November, you can watch expert kayakers as they enjoy the bi-annual “whitewater releases.” Be sure to see the park’s film because it includes heart-racing footage of kayakers and news clips from Wallenda’s famous tightrope walk across the gorge.

Unicoi

Location: Helen

Miles from Atlanta: 90

Highlights: Avoid Oktoberfest crowds in Helen by hiking a pretty 3-mile trail which leads from the park into town. You can enjoy lunch and window shopping before hiking back to the trailhead. Mountain bikers can zip past fall color on the park’s challenging 7.5-mile bike loop. If you’re up for a steep hike, take the 4.8-mile Smith Creek Trail up to Anna Ruby Falls. (To avoid having to hike back, leave a second car at the falls.)

Vogel

Location: Blairsville

Miles from Atlanta: 100

Highlights: The 4-mile Bear Hair Gap Trail makes a nice day trip for experienced hikers, offering great mountain color and a birds-eye view of the park’s lake. For an easier walk, follow the Lake Loop to a small waterfall. The twisting roads around Vogel, particularly Wolf Pen Gap Road, offer some of north Georgia’s prettiest fall scenery.

This article first appeared on The Augusta Chronicle.