State parks are a treasured and essential part of the heritage of Georgia. The 66 state parks provide a wide perspective into the landscape of the state.
By: LAUREN ANDREWS, KEVIN HENSLEY and, LAURA NIELSEN
KENNESAW, Ga.– Amicalola Falls State Park and Red Top Mountain State Park are two valuable assets in the state park system, each with its own history.
History of Georgia State Parks
The state park system in Georgia has its roots entrenched in 1927, when the 21st Georgia Senate Resolution said that, “The Indian Springs Reserve in the county of Butts … is hereby placed under the jurisdiction and control of the State Board of Forestry, the same to be converted and used for a State Park.” Four years later, the state set up a more specific entity to operate and maintain the park and others to come, the Georgia State Parks System.
The transition brought with it Indian Springs and a new park, Vogel, which is located in Union County. Within six years, Santo Domingo (now called “Boys Estate,” near the Hofwyl-Broadfields Plantation), Alexander H. Stephens, Chehaw (now a local park) and Pine Mountain (now named after president Franklin D. Roosevelt) all joined the network.
A separate state park authority division was established in 1941 to manage the Confederate Memorial of Stone Mountain. Similar authorities have also been put in place to maintain Jekyll Island and Lake Lanier Islands, but like Stone Mountain, they have never been considered a part of the Georgia State Park System.
State Park Comparison
The smallest member of the system is the one-acre Lapham-Patterson House in Thomas County, while the biggest is the 9,049-acre Roosevelt Park in Harris County. The most recent addition to the state park system is Don Carter State Park in Gainesville, which attained its status in 2008.
Sixty-six parks exist under the state system. Several are operated privately, like Red Top Mountain State Park and Amicalola Falls State Park.
Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources State Parks and State Historic Sites Division, possesses an inside opinion on the state park discussion.
“Parks come to be [a state park] in different ways,” said Hatcher. “In the past five years, we’ve opened two new state parks. But that’s very unusual, because over many years, the state was purchasing land along the Chattahoochee River, to try and protect that corridor.”
Red Top Mountain State Park History
Red Top Mountain is nestled in Bartow County, an hour northwest of Atlanta. This state park has boasted its status for 65 years, making it a relatively older state park in the system. Sixteen state parks were established before Red Top, with 49 established afterward.
The park has over 1,500 acres for visitors to explore, including access to Lake Allatoona to swim or fish, hiking trails for beginning and expert hikers and picnic areas to savor a meal.
The accessibility of the scenic state park allows easy access for Atlanta locals.
“Red Top State Park is so close to Kennesaw, so close to Atlanta, that you can just run up there on a Saturday and spend your whole day hiking or enjoying Lake Allatoona,” said Hatcher. “There’s a great campground and it’s so close. You feel like you have this nice break in nature, this nice wildlife and scenery, but it’s only a few miles off I-75.”
Change of Plans
The park was not initially this big, nor were the acres surrounding the park intended to be a part of Red Top. Atlanta resident John Atkinson originally planned to use those 345 acres neighboring Red Top as an exclusive center for blacks.
According to Georgia state park records, Georgia’s Gov. Herman Talmadge assisted Atkinson in leasing the land from the Corps of Engineers, with the intent to make it a state park. Eventually, the acres were absorbed into Red Top Mountain State Park, which increased its size.
Red Soil Riches
The park built a lodge, conference center and restaurant in 1989 to increase the park’s value and to attract outsiders to the park. Twenty-one years later, the park had to close the lodge, conference center and restaurant due to financial strain.
In 1993, the Vaughn Cabin Relocation Project began. The project, headed by the Etowah Valley Historical Society, relocated a 1870s log cabin to Red Top which adds an olden-day feel to the park.
The history of the park can be found in the red soil. The soil is rich in iron-ore content which made Red Top an influential mining area. In the 21st century, there are iron pour demonstrations at Red Top to educate the spectators of the mining industry.
Amicalola Falls State Park
Tucked between Ellijay and Dahlonega north of Dawsonville, Amicalola Falls State Park features a 729-foot waterfall that attracts hundreds of visitors each month. Apart from the famous falls, the park possesses an eight-mile hiking trail that leads to Springer Mountain, known for being the Southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Amicalola Falls entered the state park system in 1940, the same year Georgia purchased the grounds. Since its official park designation, the park has doubled in acres and visitor volume.
The Cherokee Indians controlled the 829-acre park land until 1838, when the natives were forcibly removed during the Trail of Tears event. Making a lasting impression on the area, the Cherokee people attributed their native term, “umicalola,” which means “tumbling waters,” to the land.
Before Amicalola Falls was inducted into the state park system and after the Cherokee Indians were removed, the land was owned by the Cranes, a family that manufactured moonshine. Unaware of the park’s potential value in 1940, the family sold the property to the state in a land sale for a mere $2.65.
Today, the park is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia.
First Account of Amicalola Falls
Long before Amicalola Falls claimed the state park title, William Williamson, a Georgia surveyor, documented the first account of the site. Williamson provided the primary description of Amicalola Falls in 1832, paving the way for similar impressions.
“In the course of my route in the Mountains I discovered a Water Fall perhaps the greatest in the World the most majestic Scene that I have ever witnessed or heard of the Creek passes over the mountain and the fall I think can’t be less than Six hundred Yards,” Williamson wrote.
Current Account of Amicalola Falls
The interpretive manager at Amicalola Falls, Heather Wilson, first became an employee of the state park while attending college nearby at the University of North Georgia. Over a decade later, she has dabbled at various roles within the system and proves a well-rounded voice for the park.
“We have the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi,” said Wilson. “Amicalola [Falls] is a hiking park, but it’s a hiking park with a good place to stay and a good restaurant. It’s really the best of both worlds.”
The Ultimate Hiking Park
Amicalola Park’s eight-mile trail is known as the Approach Trail to the Appalachian Trail and draws a variety of hikers from across the country. At Amicalola Falls, hiking season begins in March.
In most cases, it takes the average hiker four to six months to complete the entire trail. Georgia claims 75 miles of the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail that reaches all the way to Maine. The collaborative trail stretches across 14 U.S. states.
In 1937, the Appalachian Trail began on Oglethorpe Mountain near Jasper, Ga. Nearly 15 years following, commercial development, particularly the popular chicken houses of the 1950s, intruded upon the final miles of the trail. In response, the Appalachian Trail Club in Harper’s Ferry approved a rerouting of the trail to the Springer Mountain location in 1956. Georgia, in turn, decided to build a long-term parking area for hikers.
When the Appalachian Trail was redirected to end at Springer Mountain, the park began to serve as an official access point for hikers. Beginning at Amicalola Falls, the mountain is just over an eight-mile hike on the Approach Trail.
“It’s a big thing,” said Wilson. “When the terminus was changed from Oglethorpe to Springer, it meant a lot more volume for Amicalola [Falls].”
In addition to the Approach Trail, Amicalola Falls holds four separate hiking trails equipped for various skill levels. One trail classified as strenuous leads hikers to the top of the falls by means of 825 wooden steps.
Strides in Safety
In 1977, a hiker fell to his death near the waterfall from an unsecured ledge. This tragedy inspired park rangers to create a Mountain Search and Rescue team at Amicalola Falls, planning to prevent future accidents. Today, the park is equipped with a full-time staff of park rangers to ensure visitor safety.
Amicalola Falls maintains 21 full-time employees and 57 part-time employees. Of the full-time employees, 12 of the individuals serve as park rangers, working to properly keep the peace throughout the park.
Even experts from fellow state parks can agree on the magnitude of beauty and history wrapped into one at Amicalola Falls.
“If you want to see a waterfall, you’ve got to go to Amicalola Falls State Park,” said Steve Hadley, resource manager at Red Top Mountain.
Apart from waterfall views and hiking trails, the grounds of Amicalola Falls additionally include a lodge and a campground.
Plans for expansion within the next year include integrating park activities, such as zip lining, and additions to the existing lodge on site.
Georgia state parks are 88 years in the making. Parks’ histories are strengthened with every passing year, impressing thousands of visitors in the process.
“Public space is a wonderful thing, so I think as the population in Georgia grows, more people will want more parks,” said Hatcher.