Wide open spaces
State parks offer activities for day visits, overnight stays

By Terah Shelton

Staff Contributor

It can be said that Stone Mountain is Atlanta's favorite park, attracting scores of visitors each year with outdoor, leisure and family activities.

But did you know Georgia is home to 63 state parks and historic sites, including eight state golf courses and seven park lodges? Or that there's a park located within an hour distance of everyone in Georgia? That you can rent a yurt, take tree-climbing lessons or view the tallest waterfall, all at Georgia's state parks?

The State Parks and Historic Sites Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2006. However, the Georgia State Parks System began in 1931 with the reorganization of the State Board of Forestry.

The first two parks established were Indian Springs in Flovilla and Vogel in Blairsville. Recently named a finalist for the National Recreation and Park Association's Gold Medal Excellence in Park and Recreation Management award, Georgia's state parks offer visitors 84,000 acres of outdoor activities, historic attractions and natural environments.

According to Sally Winchester, spokeswoman for Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites, the parks are dedicated to providing opportunities for public enjoyment, outdoor recreation and education.

"We take pride in our mission to be good stewards of our state's natural, cultural and historic resources," she said. "Our studies show that adults who spend time in nature are more relaxed and energetic and children who play outdoors are more imaginative and physically fit."

A few of the things that make a trip to a Georgia state park special are the limitless number of activities and attractions they offer. From camping and hiking to birding and picnicking, there's a park for every itinerary, Winchester said.

Mountain bikers can test their endurance and skills at Fort Mountain State Park, Tallulah Gorge, Unicoi, Magnolia Springs or Fort Yargo, among others. More than 30 parks rent motorized fishing boats, pedal boats or canoes by the hour for fishing and boating. At other parks, such as A.H. Stephens and Hard Labor Creek, visitors can ride their own horses on equestrian trails.

And if you want to try out everything the parks have to offer, there's a group for you.

"Our new Canyon Climbers Club is reserved for those few who have scaled to the top of Amicalola Falls, explored the depths of Providence Canyon, braved the swinging bridge in Tallulah Gorge and faced the daunting staircase in Cloudland Canyon," Winchester said.

However, the parks offer more than just leisure and outdoor activities.

"A day visit is wonderful, but an overnight stay in a campground, cottage or lodge is something special," Winchester said.

Visitors can spend the night in a yurt - canvas and wood tents with comfortable furniture inside and a grill and picnic table outside - at Bobby Brown, Red Top Mountain or Unicoi state parks, rent a room at Georgia's only eco-friendly lodge, Len Foote Hike Inn in Amicalola Falls, or sleep in a primitive treehouse-style shelter at Seminole State Park.

There are also plenty of opportunities for visitors to learn while they're having fun. Georgia's state parks system offers a number of historic sites and educational programs, both for children and adults.

"Our historic sites include presidential homes, Indian mounds, Revolutionary War sites, Civil War battlefields, picturesque plantations and a museum dedicated to Georgia's Gold Rush days. Visits to these places offer a mix of entertainment and education with living history demonstrations, re-enactments and other programs throughout the year," Winchester said.

One such program is "A Dip Into the Past," offered over Labor Day weekend at Roosevelt's Little White House Historic Site. During the event, visitors can swim in the historic pools originally built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a place for therapy. Normally kept empty for preservation, the pools are filled with naturally warm spring water. Two-hour swim sessions are offered at 10 a.m. and 1 and 4 p.m., and the event is open to ages 6 and older.

Parks make a great weekend escape, family outing or place to host a family reunion or business meeting, Winchester said.

"We are close, affordable, educational and easy," she said. "A little time away surrounded by peaceful lakes, awesome waterfalls, forests and wildlife can do wonders."

For more information, locations or to make a reservation, visit www.gastateparks.org.

SideBar: If You Go

What: Tree Climbing Rendezvous

When: 6 to 8:30 p.m. every Tuesday through Aug. 28

Where: Panola Mountain State Park, 2600 Ga. Highway 155, Stockbridge

Cost: The cost is $10, plus $3 for parking.

Info: Explore the canopy above in this introductory climb. Participants use rope and harness for the moderately strenuous climb. Visit www.

gastateparks.org or call 706-389-7801.

What: Summer Twilight Wildlife Hike

When: 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Panola Mountain State Park, 2600 Ga. Highway 155, Stockbridge

Cost: The cost is $5, plus $3 for parking.

Info: Take a two-mile hike on the new PATH trail that adjoins the park. Learn to identify wildlife as a ranger teaches birdcalls, frog songs and other ways to observe animals. Visit www.

gastateparks.org or call 770-389-7801.

What: Party with the 'Possums

When: 8:30 to 10 p.m. every Friday through Dec. 28

Where: Red Top Mountain State Park and Lodge, 50 Lodge Road, Cartersville

Cost: The cost is $3 for parking.

Info: On this family-friendly hike, participants can learn about nocturnal animals and their habitats. Duration and distances vary each week. Visit www.gastateparks.org or call 770-975-0055.

What: New Manchester History Hike

When: 1 p.m. every Saturday

Where: Sweetwater Creek State Park, Mt. Vernon Road, Lithia Springs

Cost: The cost is $1 to $2, plus $3 for parking.

Info: This mile-long, easy to moderate hike explores the ruins of the Civil War-era New Manchester textile mill and focuses on the history of the Sweetwater Creek valley. Visit www.gastateparks.org or call 770-732-5871.