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Georgia State Parks: A Family Guide – Part 1

Georgia State Parks: A Family Guide – Part 1


Georgia State Parks Family Guide

My resolution this year: I want the kids to play outside more often. I sincerely believe that the best way to get your kids outside is to be the example. In light of that resolution, my family took the challenge of staying at a Georgia State Park every month of 2014. Not only have the boys enjoyed the fresh air and natural beauty, but we also acquired new skills (like archery and tree climbing), and took road trips to spectacular locations within Georgia that we might have otherwise missed.

The year is half over, and our goal is on track. Read below about our adventures so far, and stay tuned for Part 2 at the end of the year. Georgia State Parks have awakened a special love for nature in my family, and I hope you experience that as well as you follow along with us.

Don Carter State Park in Gainesville

Don Carter State Park Georgia Gainsville

Family-friendly Park Highlights

Don Carter is Georgia’s newest state park. It sits on 10+ miles of Lake Lanier shoreline boasting a sandy beach with a large, clean bathhouse and bench swings that beckon you to relax in the warm, summer sun. Kids clamor to the playground, but there are also multiple hiking paths. One such path is a natural trail, and the other is a paved multi-use trail perfect for roller blades or strollers. Launch the family boat, rent a canoe or kayak, or bait a hook and fish from the docks.

Cottage Critique

The cottages at Don Carter are new, modern, and spacious. I fell in love with the expansive kitchen, which opened to the living area. The back deck, complete with rocking chairs and French doors, played center-stage to our time together. We ate dinner here as we watched the sun set on the lake. Four double beds within two bedrooms, each on separate ends of the house, make this ideal for a large family or multiple families spending a weekend together.

Read all the details about Don Carter State Park and the park cottages.

George L. Smith State Park in Twin City

George Smith State Park Twin City Georgia Canoe

Family-friendly Park Highlights

George L. Smith Park centers around a Parish Mill, a preserved grist mill/saw mill/covered bridge/dam built in 1880. The dam creates a pond, which is home to stately Cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, and Tupelo trees that graze the sky. The water is so pure that fish can be eaten right from the pond. We canoed along the black water, which perfectly reflected the green canopy trees. As we paddled slowly and leisurely between the trunks, the only sounds we heard were the whistles of the birds and our paddles against the water.

Cottage Critique

The cottages at George L. Smith are rustic, charming escapes. While the pond and mill are not visible from the cottages, they are only a short walk away.  I enjoyed the pine details and brick fireplace, but the porch and backyard were the biggest hit with my family. The back porch spanned the length of the house, and was almost as wide. In our rocking chairs on the screened-in porch, we watched the boys run in the expansive back yard.

Read all the details about George L. Smith State Park and the park cottages.

Magnolia Springs State Park is about 20 minutes from George L Smith, and houses two interesting and important attractions. First, it was the natural spring that brought me here. The spring provides over seven million (some say nine million) gallons of water every day. The spring water was crystal clear, and the bubbles and shades of blue made it apparent where the spring originated from underground. And then….we spotted a turtle, then another, and another, and another! Soon there were several dozen turtles swimming at our feet, with dozens more making their way across the little lake.

We learned that Magnolia Springs was Camp Lawton, one of two POW prisons during the Civil War. The artifacts on display were discovered as recently as 2010 and the find has been called one of the most important in recent history.

Smithgall Woods State Park in Helen

Smithgall Woods State Park Helen Georgia Luxury

Family-friendly Park Highlights

Smithgall Woods is a gorgeous 5,600+ acre park granted to Georgia in 1994 as a gift-purchase from Charles Smithgall Jr. Running through this prime mountain is Dukes Creek/Dover Creek, which is home to award-winning trout, and is a favorite for catch-and-release fishing. The mammoth forest trees, boulder and moss-lined creek, and diverse flora and fauna make this state park a (lesser known) gem in the Georgia Mountains. Walking the trails of Smithgall Woods, I felt as if I were in a fairyland of wonder and beauty.  Additionally, from the cottages, guests gain easy access to the Duke’s Creek Falls trail, a short and easy hike for the family. Smithgall Woods has become one of my favorite places in Georgia for peaceful connection with Mother Nature.

Cottage Critique

Each of the cottages at Smithgall Woods State Park is different and unique. We stayed in Creekside Cottage. It was a luxurious, fully equipped haven in the woods. Our cottage escape sat right on the creek’s edge, and the sound of the rushing water eased our woes and brought a peaceful night’s rest. We enjoyed its three bedrooms, though larger and smaller cabins are available.

The back wall of the living area was a large picture window overlooking the porch and creek. The porch deck ran the entire length of the cottage and included seating for six. From the deck, one could walk down to the creek or gain access to Dover Creek Trail. This trail crossed the creek right at the cabin, which was a fun way to see the backside of the cottage across the stream (see photo). The creek was gorgeous with large, moss-covered boulders and towering trees. The length of the creek was dotted with hearty rhododendron, and would be a remarkable sight in spring. It was shallow right near the edge, making it a perfect play-place for the kids in warmer weather. We were visiting in winter, but the boys loved putting their hands in the water and throwing stones. Dover Creek is filled with rainbow trout, and cottage visitors are free to fish at any time.

Read all the details about Smithgall Woods State Park and the park cottages.

Black Rock Mountain State Park in Mountain City

Black Rock Mountain State Park Mountain City Georgia

Family-friendly Park Highlights

Black Rock Mountain is the highest state park in Georgia, and the views here will leave you in awe. We enjoyed hiking the terrain; with 11 miles of trails, there is something for everyone. Ada-Hi Falls is only a half-mile round trip hike, but it is steep. We were rewarded near the end with a lovely waterfall. The shrubs and trees on this trail give evidence to the height of the mountain. The forest here is thick with hardwoods and rhododendron, lush and green even in the middle of summer. We also circumnavigated the .85-mile trail around Black Rock Lake, where we saw anglers of all ages fishing for bream, trout, bass, perch, and catfish. The trail is flat and easy for little legs (or tired mommies).

Adjacent to the park is Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center. Here you will find a replica of a Southern Appalachian community, complete with homes, a chapel, workshops, and more. We enjoyed hiking through this museum-in-the-mountains while staying at the park.

Cottage Critique

While the cottages at Black Rock Mountain are older than those at other parks we have stayed at, they were comfortable and clean. The cabin showcase is a towering stone fireplace; while we visited in summer, I can imagine how delightful it must be to warm up here in the colder months. From the back porch we could see for miles and miles, and the clouds hung over the mountains like cotton balls.

Read all the details about Black Rock Mountain State Park and the park cottages.

While staying at Black Rock Mountain, we visited nearby Tallulah Gorge State Park. The canyon falls about 1000 feet, and it is two miles long. With a permit, seasoned hikers can make their way to the canyon floor. Families with older kids not quite ready for extreme hiking can enjoy taking the trek to the suspension bridge across the gorge. Families with young tots like mine will enjoy the fun and easy rim hikes. We had breathtaking views of the canyon and waterfalls. We even captured pictures next to the towers used by Karl Wallenda to tightrope-walk the gorge in 1970.

Unicoi State Park and Lodge in Helen

Unicoi State Park and Lodge in Helen, Georgia

Family-friendly Park Highlights

Fishing, boating, swimming, mountain biking, hiking…you can fill a week with outdoor adventure and excitement at Unicoi State Park and Lodge. We took a canoe on the lake in the afternoon. Later that evening we walked the 2.5-mile loop around the same lake. Sections of the trail running through the thick forest include solar lights (near the cottages), which was a special treat for the boys. As we rounded the corner toward the fishing docks, the pitch black enveloped us, and we could hear the bellow of a bullfrog in the water.

Smith Creek Trail is a 10-mile round trip hike to Anna Ruby Falls. That was a bit much for my young kids, so we drove a few minutes to the trailhead and visitor center. Anna Ruby Falls are run by the Forestry Service (not GA State Parks), so a nominal parking fee is required, but it is well worth it. The hike from the parking lot to the falls was an easy four-tenths of a mile jaunt on a paved walkway. The falls were breathtaking, and the hike was serene (and FULL of wildflowers in spring). The falls are the meeting of two rivers into Smith Creek, which fills the lake at Unicoi.

Cottage Critique

Unicoi is one of only a handful of state parks that also offer a lodge and conference center. The lodge rooms are spacious, and several even include a loft space for your young sleeping beauties. Traditional cottages are available as well, but we elected to stay in the unique “Barrel Cabins.”  These cabins are a little older (although a renovation is scheduled this year), but their novelty won us over. Two bedrooms, a cozy fireplace, a spacious kitchen, and a porch overlooking the lake were just a few of the highlights.

Read all the details about Unicoi State Park and the park cabins.

Richard B. Russell State Park in Elberton

Richard B Russell State Park in Elberton, Georgia

Family-friendly Park Highlights

Richard B. Russell is a stone’s throw from the South Carolina border. It is home to Arrowhead Pointe Golf Course, for which the park is known.  Additionally, the park’s lake access was the official Olympic training site for rowing. We saw a series of rowers preparing to get on the water, and learned that this is a frequent occurrence. The park’s Rowing Center provides opportunity for visitors to launch their own boats or rent paddleboats, canoes, or pontoons. Still need more to do? Play at the beach, rent bikes, hike the trails, or take in a game of Disc Golf.

Cottage Critique

The cabins at Richard B. Russell were spacious and relaxing. We enjoyed a two bedroom/two bathroom cottage, with a gorgeous view of the lake. The kitchen, dining, and living rooms were open to each other, creating an environment perfect for the family. I’m sure it is no surprise to hear that the back porch was our room of choice. A long and deep screened-in porch held rocking chairs with a view to the sunset on the lake. Outside the porch was a fire pit, a picnic table, and a private boat ramp.

Read all the details about Richard B. Russell State Park and the park cottages.

Watson Bridge State Park is a short 15-minute drive from Richard B. Russell, and is a great place to explore. Here you will find the longest covered bridge in the state. There are seven miles of trails; we enjoyed the two-mile Nature Trail loop. The trail ran parallel with South Fork River for a long while, then veers right to pass the ruins of old Watson Mill, an old powerhouse sluiceway, and a beautiful view of the bridge and waterway below.


Disclosure: Thank you to Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites for hosting my family and me this year at the above-mentioned parks and cottages.  While I appreciate their hospitality and generosity, it is no way influenced my opinions.

Lesli Peterson