Fall finally arrived, and hiking is a great way to get outdoors and enjoy the cooler weather. My father, 61, played basketball in high school and college and has the bad knees to prove it. I’m only 25, but running 5Ks has left my left knee a little iffy, too.
We’ve been hiking every now and then for years, but last spring we got serious about it. Being together on the trail has given us a chance to have real conversations, in person, instead of by phone. And we’ve both become more fit, too.
My dad likes to see waterfalls when hiking, and I like great views, so we’ve put together a list of places with both. Here are our five favorite hikes within two hours of Athens. All have well-maintained trails, varying degrees of difficulty, and modern bathrooms (not chemical toilets).
Four of these are Georgia State Parks, which have a $5 parking fee. The fifth, Brasstown Bald is operated by the U.S. Forest Service, and admission is $5 per adult.
Dad and I love hiking because we get to explore new places, work our muscles and raise our heart rates. We have some tips for beginners: start off slow and build your endurance for longer, harder trails. Hiking is not a race, and it is okay to take a break when needed. We learned that from experience. Make sure you have a good sturdy pair of shoes, take plenty of food and water, stay on the marked path, and let someone know about your plans for that day.
Vogel State Park is about an hour and 40 minutes northeast of Athens, just south of Blairsville. We like the park’s history: the Civilian Conservation Corps built its facilities in the early 1930s as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. It has 17 miles of trails, picnic areas, a visitor’s center, and a lake where visitors can swim and rent boats. The Trahlyta Lake Trail named for a legendary Cherokee princess is the easiest hike, yet it has terrific views of a waterfall and mountain vistas.
Unicoi State Park and Lodge is just north of downtown Helen, and has amenities much like those at Vogel. Unicoi is about 66 miles northwest of Athens. It has five hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous. We particularly like the Lake Trail because it not only has water views, but we can also walk on the eight docks where people fish, lounge, or just enjoy the views of Unicoi Lake.
Tallulah Gorge State Park is in the mountain town of Tallulah Falls, about an hour north of Athens. My dad loves waterfalls even more than most people, and this is his favorite hike in all of Georgia. The park has seven hiking trails and none of them are flat; park literature rates them moderate in difficulty. We like both the North and South Rim trails for their many views of the Tallulah River and waterfalls.
Black Rock Mountain State Park is in Mountain City, off highway 441, about an hour and a half north of Athens. This park is perfect for picturesque views of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall. All five hiking trails have nice views, but we think the most panoramic is from the Tennessee Rock Trail.
Brasstown Bald is the highest point in Georgia and has sweeping views of North Carolina, Georgia, and Lake Chatuge. It’s about two hours from Athens near Blairsville. The Summit Trail to the top is only six-tenths of a mile, but it is steep and you may need to stop on one of the convenient benches along the way.
Dad and I are lucky to have each other as hiking buddies. But if you need a partner in exploration, you might want to look up Prime Time Hikers of Northeast Georgia on Meetup.com. Back in 2013, Sharon Wynns, who lives in Royston, and Ellen Miles from Danielsville, had the idea of starting a hiking group for retirees. Since then, people of all ages have joined the group.
I hiked with Prime Time at Watson Mill Bridge State Park, and I met men and women, young and old, from all around the Athens area. Everyone kept up with the group, and after three miles, we paused for a picnic lunch. Miles and Wynns typically plan hikes that are five miles or longer, so they welcome people who can go the distance.
“Just find some friends and do it,says Denise Cagle, 45, a nurse from Commerce and member of the group. “Get some good shoes, take some water and have fun.”
DID YOU KNOW…
With a valid library card, you can borrow a Georgia State Parks Annual ParkPass for up to 7 days. The ParkPass exempts you from paying the daily parking fee at state parks. For more information, ask your local librarian. There’s a $3/day fine for an overdue pass, and don’t lose it or you’ll pay $50.
For more information on the Vogel, Unicoi, Tallulah Gorge, and Black Rock Mountain state parks and their trails, go to www.gastateparks.org,
Brasstown Bald: http://www.exploregeorgia.org/listing/576-brasstown-bald-visitor-center
The American Hiking Society has a comprehensive website that covers everything from hiking etiquette to hiking boots; from blisters to starting a hiking club.