3 Ways to Enjoy Sweetwater Creek at Sunset

Sweetwater Creek State Park
Sweetwater Creek State Park Bill Leffler
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Spring has sprung, and summer is quickly approaching. With that, you now have more time in the day to explore the outdoors and fewer excuses to stay inside and binge on Netflix. Conveniently for Atlantans is the fact that, just 17 miles west of the city, the 2,500-acre Sweetwater Creek State Park beckons. This park of understated opportunity is a place that's brimming with history, outdoor possibilities, and a number of unique ways to enjoy it—including at dusk, sunset, and night. So check out some of these ranger-led, nighttime activities offered at the park, and explore wire grass-lined lakes, Civil War era mills, and caves rich with Native American history.

Sweetwater Creek State Park as the Sun Sets
Sweetwater Creek State Park as the Sun Sets Bill Leffler

1. Eastside Night Hike

Grab your flashlight for a 3-mile moderate hike on the less visited side of the park. A friendly ranger will greet you as you cross over Sweetwater Creek on a newly constructed bridge. You’ll learn that access to the east side was cut off for more than two years when the floods of 2009 washed out the Vietnam-era, army surplus bridge. If you look in the creek, you’ll see a couple of large pieces still embedded in the silt.

Beginning the Eastside Night Hike
Beginning the Eastside Night Hike Bill Leffler

The first mile is flat and hugs the creek. You’ll soon come to a group of rocks jutting out from shore that you'll walk across and be treated to a twilight view of the mill across the water. The ranger will tell you about Sweetwater Creek, which is actually a watershed where 8 million gallons of water flows per hour.

You’ll start ascending the ridge where you can take a side trip to the “Indian Cave.” It’s not a cave in the true sense, but more of a granite ledge covering. Arrowheads found here suggest that it was used by both the Creek and Cherokee Indians, for hunting; either as a resting place while out hunting or a place to hide in order to surprise attack their prey. You’ll learn how the Indian tribes were forced from the area not from the Trail of Tears, but by land lotteries held earlier when gold was found in nearby Villa Rica in 1828.

Continuing the 400-foot climb to the highest point, hikers speak in hushed whispers as nightfall descends. Your other senses will kick into gear as it gets harder to see. Before cresting the ridge, the ranger will instruct everyone to look at the quiet night. You may see a few lights in the distance, but otherwise you’re away from civilization. However, that feeling is short-lived when you come over the ridge and see the “light pollution” from Atlanta. In the early spring before the trees have leafed out, you can see the Atlanta skyline. During the day, visitors can see as far as Stone Mountain. The trail continues back down the ridge at a less steep descent.

The cost is $6 per person with $5 parking fee per vehicle. Upcoming hikes are May 22 and 29 8 to 10 p.m.

2. Twilight Lake Paddle

Choose either a canoe or kayak to paddle on the 275-acre Georgia Sparks Reservoir. Rangers will lead you through a short tunnel to the northern side of the lake. You’ll have to lie completely back as you paddle under the low, cylindrical tunnel. Don’t let your boat stray from the middle or you might flip over when it bumps into the sides. Once you come out on the other side, Carolina jessamine and redbuds line the lake’s edge to the right. To the left, you can see the foundations for the 10 yurts set to open later this year. As the sun sets, keep your eyes peeled on the sky. You may see an osprey and a territorial bald eagle “duke it out,” and blue herons and geese swooping over the water is an almost inevitable sight.

Rangers Lead the Twilight Paddle
Rangers Lead the Twilight Paddle Bill Leffler

With just a remnant of daylight left, the ranger leads you off the beaten path to Beaver Creek. The water is still, and as you paddle along the clumps of wire grass, you’ll row right up to two beaver dams. On the way back, it is eerie in the completely dark tunnel.

As you complete the 3-mile paddle, you’ll be amazed to learn you’re on top of an ancient Indian village. The reservoir lake, which also serves as the back-up drinking water for East Point, was at low levels during the recent drought. At that time, Native American Indian artifacts were found on the creek floor.

The cost is $20 per person, which includes all equipment and life vests and $5 parking fee per vehicle. Upcoming paddles occur during the full moons, so check the schedule on the park's website.

Wiregrass near Beaver Creek
Wiregrass near Beaver Creek Bill Leffler

3. Candlelight Hike to the Mill

No need for a flashlight as you’ll be provided with a lantern similar to those used in the 19th century for this 1-mile hike. Guides will lead you on the historic Red Trail to the mill ruins of the New Manchester Textile Company. As you hike on the path, passing sourwood trees and Christmas ferns, the area becomes perfectly quiet. You’ll find it hard to believe this was once the busy mill town of New Manchester—home of over 400 people during the Civil War.

When you come to the location of the mill store operated by Nathaniel Humphries, you’ll learn about mill life in the 1850’s. Coming up to the first set of rapids, you’ll see the 1,200-foot long millrace that was dug out from hand and powered the 50,000 pound water wheel. Soon you might be able to see a few concrete steps—the only remains of a speakeasy that was built in the 1920’s. Rapids roar as you approach what remains of the 5-story mill—the largest in the Southeast at that time. You may recognize the ghostly mill ruins from the movie, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. Although you can’t go inside the ruins like Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth, you’ll be able to imagine how the mill operated. Built by former Georgia governor, Charles J. McDonald, the mill was only in operation for 15 years.

As you retrace your steps, find out why no shots were fired when the Union Army seized the mill in 1864, why it was burned and what became of the women and children mill workers. The easy hike is perfect for a date night or relaxing evening.

The cost is $5 per person with a $5 parking fee per vehicle. The next hikes are May 16 and June 27 from 8 to 10 p.m.

Mill Ruins
Mill Ruins Bill Leffler

Other Options

Throughout the year, Sweetwater offers other evening hikes for $6 per person. The 2.0-mile guided Stargazer Hike takes hikers to an isolated part of the park where you can see constellations, stars, and planets. During a full moon, the "Photography in the Park"   event is perfect to shoot photos of the night sky. The 1.5-mile “Ruins to Rapids” Full Moon Hike goes past the mill and along the class IV+ rapids where everyone will turn off their flashlights to listen to the sounds in the park. If you’re not in the mood for exercise, try out the Hayride and S’mores to hear rangers tell more about the history of the park for $8 per person.

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