Some say the biggest burst of color found in the trees every fall is best in New England. After living in Boston for more than a decade, I’ve certainly spent my falls soaking up sunny days with the hues of red, orange and gold across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. And yet, when I arrived in Alpharetta, I changed my opinion. To me, North Georgia’s mountains into Tennessee and North Carolina were the prettiest I have ever seen.
What makes the southern fall so much sweeter is the warmer weather. In New England, the weather goes from a hot Indian summer into a winter chill practically overnight. This leaves timing a day of leaf-peeping tricky—blink and you could miss it. But in North Georgia? Well, it seems the skies are sunny all of October and November, the weather is warm but lacking the humidity of summer, and I don’t have to travel more than an hour to be immersed in a forest of colors.
Where can you expect to find nature’s fireworks in North Georgia this fall? Here are the most popular state parks for catching the views.
AMICALOLA FALLS Dawsonville
Home to the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeast at 729 feet, Amicalola Falls State Park is already a popular destination. Part of the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, the park is filled with hiking trails from a quick jaunt to a full day. One of the best day hikes is the 8.5-mile trail from the park to Springer Mountain, where you’ll be in the thick of the color. Not up for a walk in the woods? Drive to the mountain-top lodge of the same name and enjoy lunch at the Maple Restaurant, where floor-to-ceiling windows provide views over the rolling hills. The lodge also provides comfortable overnight accommodations so you can spend an entire weekend enjoying the surrounding color.
BLACK ROCK MOUNTAIN Mountain City
This highest state park in Georgia can be found within the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, Black Rock Mountain towers 3,640 feet above the land and provides the best views across the ridges. At this height, the leaves change a bit earlier than in other areas of the state because of the chilly weather (which also means layer up and be prepared for the cold). While hiking trails may be filled with color, to see a carpet of reds, yellows and greens, roadside overlooks also provide 80-mile vistas where you can take in the views without the work.
F.D. ROOSEVELT Pine Mountain
With its warm springs and serene surroundings, Franklin Roosevelt came to this area southwest of Atlanta for relief from his polio. His Little White House is a historic site for visitors but with more than 9,000 acres of land, this is Georgia’s largest state park and a great place to find fall foliage. Set out on one of more than 40 miles of trails that pass through hardwoods and by small waterfalls. An overlook with fabulous views can be found at Dowdell’s Knob, which looks out at King’s Gap and features a life-size sculpture of the 32nd president. Nearly two dozen cottages are available, as well, if you choose to stay and perhaps attempt to hike the 23-mile Pine Mountain Trail.
MOCCASIN CREEK Clarkesville
This area of the Blue Ridge Mountains may be known as where spring spends the summer due to its cooler temperatures, but this just means fall arrives here earlier and gives you more time to spend beneath a canopy of colors. The trout-filled water also makes for a nice day sitting beside the creek casting a line. (See our story on North Georgia fishing locations.) The 2,800-acre Lake Burton is also a lovely spot for fishing, kayaking and boating well into the fall months, mirroring the colors of the trees aligning the river.
CLOUDLAND CANYON Rising Fawn
Found at Lookout Mountain’s western edge, the rocky ridges and deep gorges provide scenery like no other in the state’s parks. Drive up to the picnic area, where you can park and take in the park’s best view overlooking the gorge created by Sitton Gulch Creek. Hiking trails will take you from 1,980 to 800 feet, and if you are brave enough to descend into the gorge you will be rewarded with two cascading waterfalls. For overnighters, cottages near the edge of the canyon are available so you can soak in the views with privacy (and perhaps a bottle of wine).
FORT MOUNTAIN Chatsworth
Explore the Cohutta Wilderness within the Chattahoochee National Forest and you’ll find travels in the North Georgia Mountains that will afford you more fantastic leaf-peeping views. At the highest point of the mountain—2,850 feet—stands a stone fire tower as well as an ancient stone wall built by the Cherokee who lived here hundreds of years ago. But you don’t have to climb to the top to enjoy the changing colors. Try the trail that follows the 17-acre lake for picturesque photos to share on your social media pages.
Just north of Helen, you’ll find more waterfalls, hiking trails and more glowing colors of a fall in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Unicoi. This is an adventure-lovers park with plentiful activities, but make sure you enjoy the radiant trees by flying above them on a zip-lining trek. (For more ideas on how to see the foliage from above, read our story.) This park is also home to a lodge for overnight guests or just hungry hikers at its restaurant, Smith Creek Tavern.
SMITHGALL WOODS Helen
Another big trout stream can be found at Dukes Creek in Smithgall Woods (for catch and release), but Helen has long be touted as the place to be during the fall. Not only is it home to annual Oktoberfest, but its state park’s mountains are filled with cottages in which to enjoy immersion in the trees. This is the right place for those who want to see the foliage without having to be too lost in the wilderness; five manageable miles of trails are available for hiking and you can enjoy the fall splendor while enjoying a bite dining outdoors at one of many Helen restaurants.
TALLULAH GORGE Tallulah Falls
Two miles long and almost 1,000 feet deep, visiting these canyons in North Georgia is something out of a movie yet right here in our own backyard. Cross the suspension bridge that hangs 80 feet above to get the best views of the canyon, river and waterfalls that make this one of Georgia’s best state parks. Kayakers can enjoy the river, mountain bikers can get their thrills on a 10-mile trail and those just looking for a quiet stroll beneath the trees can follow the paved walking path that once was a track for trains.
One of the oldest parks in the state, Vogel is also located within the Chattahoochee National Forest at the base of Blood Mountain. Becoming a blanket of colors in the fall, a drive through Neel Gap gives you a glimpse of the tallest peak in Georgia: Brasstown Bald. Hikers love this park for its array of trails for all levels, such as the easy 4-mile lake loop trail, Bear Hair Gap, to visit Trahlyta Falls, as well as the Coosa Backcountry Trail for more serious peakers wanting to tackle 13 miles under the reds, golds, oranges, yellows and greens.
FALL COLOR UPDATES
The Farmer’s Almanac predicts Georgia will see fall foliage between October 19 and November 4. In Tennessee and North Carolina’s mountains, expect it to be October 12 to 28. You can turn to various online sources beginning in mid-September that will give you estimates on when the colors will peak.
HERE ARE SOME HELPFUL PLANNING SITES:
• GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES — Offers a Leaf Watch, gastateparks.org/leafwatch
• BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAIN LIFE — Covers North Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, blueridgemountainlife.com
• GEORGIA FORESTRY COMMISSION — Offers a Fall Leaf Report in northeast Georgia, gfccommunityforestry.wordpress.com You can also call the Foliage hotline at 800-864-7275.
For more information about these state parks, visit Georgia State Parks, gastateparks.org. The parks are free to visit but require a $5 parking fee. If parking fills to capacity, the parks may restrict access to ensure social distancing, which could last several hours. To avoid crowds, visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon.