Over the last couple of years we have realized that while we have spent lots of time traveling all over the county and overseas, we haven’t really spent much time exploring places that are close to us. Sadly, until recently, it was rare that we took a weekend trip anywhere other than to visit family. Case in point: out of the 130 National Parks Sites that we have visited (everywhere from Florida to Alaska), we have only been to five out of 10 of the sites in Georgia, and most of those have been in the last year or so.
We really have had to make a concerted effort the past few years to visit cities and sites that are within just a couple of hours of where we live. I suppose most folks are guilty of this…you take for granted the fact that you could visit anytime, so making that visit never seems like it needs to be a priority.
So this past weekend we decided to take our first real day trip around North Georgia and spent time at Cloudland Canyon and Fort Mountain State Parks. Dinner in Ellijay rounded out a lovely day out on the road exploring our own “backyard.”
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Cloudland Canyon State Park
Cloudland Canyon State Park is located in the northwest corner of Georgia, not that far from both the Alabama and Tennessee borders. Before this weekend, neither of us had ever visited, though we had heard good things about it.
The park consists of several hiking trails, overlooks, waterfalls, camping, horseback and mountain biking trails, and of course, picnicking. There are several trails to choose from, most with some elevation change, which is not unexpected at a canyon.
The easiest trail, which is accessible to just about everyone, is the Overlook Trail. This is a flat, half-mile trail adjacent to the parking and picnic area that connects two overlooks, both offering picturesque views of the canyon. You could have some lunch and see some of the best views of the canyon in about an hour if you are just passing through the area.
The West Rim Loop
There is plenty more to keep you occupied if you are looking to spend a full afternoon or even a weekend, though. In addition to the Overlook Trail, we hiked the West Rim Loop Trail, which is also right at the main parking and picnic area. This trail is certainly more strenuous, yet should be easily completed by those in good overall health.
The West Rim Loop is a five-mile lollipop style trail, meaning the first portion you will hike there and back, with the middle being a loop. The trail takes you around to the “other side” of the canyon, opposite the main picnic and parking lot. It is really neat to be able to see the parking lot from across the canyon. There are several overlooks of the canyon and the adjacent town from along the trail. There are also several good places to stop and rest or enjoy a snack or even lunch along the trail.
The trail itself is well maintained and well-marked. There are a decent amount of rocks and roots in places, but overall it is easy to hike. The elevation changes are enough to get your heart pumping without being too exhausting. The uphill and downhill is mostly at the beginning and end, with the middle of the trail being relatively flat.
The main campground had nice, level, well-spaced sites. It is located right off the main road, but there was not a lot of traffic, so I don’t think the noise level would be bad. For those who aren’t really into camping, there are several cabins and yurts for rent. If you prefer a more primitive style of camping away from the main area, there is a walk-in campground well off the main road.
The park also offers a visitor center with a few supplies and mementos. There is also an interpretive center that showcases some of the local flora and fauna. They even house a few live animals, such as a snake, a few turtles, and even a couple of opossums! I think this is the first time either of us have seen opossums in a cage.
While we thoroughly enjoyed our visit, it definitely would have been better if North Georgia was not in the middle of a drought. Living nearby, we expected water levels to be low… The water actually was non-existent, meaning no waterfalls.
The fall colors were nice… Just enough yellows and reds to be interesting. Again, with the drought the colors are not quite as vibrant as they usually are, but it was enough to make it feel like Fall, even if the temperatures were in the 80s!
Fort Mountain State Park
Following our visit to Cloudland Canyon, we decided to continue our tour of North Georgia and drove about an hour east to Fort Mountain State Park. Located in Chatsworth, it is not the easiest place to get to, but it is worth it!
The two main attractions at Fort Mountain are the lake and the Fire Tower and Overlook. There is a relatively flat 1.2 mile loop around the lake. Due to our timing, we did not do that hike. But, the trail is nice and wooded and looked to be an easy walk that most anyone could complete. In the lake area there is also a large playground, picnic tables, and a campground.
The campground at Fort Mountain was more wooded and each site slightly more secluded than those at Cloudland Canyon.
At the end of the main road is the overlook and a CCC Fire Tower. We hiked a moderate one-mile loop trail that took us about 30 minutes. The overlook is grand, covering the town below (Chatsworth) and surrounding area. The park had closed the fire tower, but it is a nice structure. Following the return trail, we passed the “mysterious” stone wall.
The exact origin and purpose of the stone wall are unknown, though archaeology shows that it is likely a Native American structure from the Woodland Period. This particular wall, just below the summit of Fort Mountain, is one of the largest prehistoric piled stone features in the Southeastern U.S.
Fort Mountain is a nice park with several hiking trails and many more mountain biking and horse trails. While we spent only about an hour here, it would be a great place to spend a day or a weekend picnicking or camping with family and friends.
On our way home, we stopped in Ellijay, GA, which is just about 20-minutes east of Fort Mountain, for dinner. As we pulled into town, they were just cleaning up from the second weekend of the Apple Festival. Apple orchards and various festivals fill North Georgia this time of year. I really wish we had planned a little bit better and been able to enjoy that… I suppose that is something to look forward to next year.
We ate dinner at the River Street Tavern. Grant enjoyed one of the local brews, the Fannin Brewing Hiawassee Gold, while I had a Cider Bliss, a local cider with a shot of Crown Apple… Both were delicious!
We had the jalapeño poppers appetizer which was tasty, with just the right amount of cream cheese to balance out the heat of the jalapeños. Our entrees (a black-and-blue burger and sweet jalapeño chicken tenders), however, were just ok.
While the food may not have been too exciting, the service was good and the atmosphere just right, especially after a long day of being outside. The best part was that it only took us about an hour to get home!
We thoroughly enjoyed our mini-vacation driving around North Georgia for the day. Are these places on a must-see list of stops in Georgia? Maybe not, especially if you only have a couple of days in the state. But, they are worthy of at least a short visit if you are passing through or live in the area.
I do think this has inspired us to get out and explore our local area a bit more. Whether you visit these sites or not, hopefully this will at least inspire you to visit something near you!