Crisp mornings and shorter days are ushering in fall. As the leaves soon will boast a medley of oranges, reds and yellows, take advantage of the autumn spectacle with some leaf-peeping from the water at one of the region’s state parks. It’s the perfect season since those hot temps and pesky pop-up afternoon thundershowers are less likely to occur.
Here are six unique paddles that are part of the Georgia State Park Paddlers Club. Pay a $10 membership fee online or at a participating park, get your card stamped after each paddle, and mail it in when you complete all six water trails. In return, you’ll receive a cool T-shirt. Call each park beforehand to check water levels and wind conditions and note there is a $5 parking fee at each park.
1. Chattahoochee Bend State Park
For a relatively easy flat-water river paddle interspersed with a few Class I rapids (dependent on water levels), come to one of Georgia’s newest state parks. Teeming with deer and coyotes, Chattahoochee Bend State Park encompasses 5 miles of riverfront in the Piedmont Hills near Newnan. Afterward, you can hike the 6 miles of shady trails along the pines and get a spectacular view of the river by climbing the observation tower.
Take another person and two vehicles since the park doesn’t offer shuttle service with its boat rentals. For longer paddles, you can put in at the Highway 16 boat ramp or the nearby McIntosh Reserve. Stay the night at one of the campsites or the Adirondack-style shelters (screened in to keep bugs away) for an overnight adventure.
2. Crooked River State Park
Experience the other end of the spectrum at Crooked River State Park near St. Marys. Considered a more challenging paddle because it’s on a tidal river, you’ll need to plan your trip around current tide schedules. As you drift on the salt marsh among the palmetto trees, keep your eyes peeled for dolphins on the three kayak trails, ranging from 4 to 8 miles,
Since the park doesn’t offer boat rentals, bring your own or look up local outfitters. Up the Creek Xpeditions offers guided trips. Cottages, tents, and campgrounds are available.
While there, take advantage of the close proximity to Cumberland Island National Seashore. Paddle or take the ferry to this barrier island that doesn’t allow motor vehicles, relishing the unspoiled beaches and wilderness.
3. George L. Smith Park
Amid a backdrop of Spanish moss dripping from Cypress trees, George L. Smith State Park feels more like the bayous of southern Louisiana than a 412-acre pond in the middle of Georgia. The best time to visit is in the fall when the dizzying array of color from the changing leaves reflect on the black water. You’ll wind your way among the swollen cypress and water tupelo to reach an original covered bridge. Completely built by hand in the 1880s, the Parrish Bridge also served as a gristmill, sawmill and cotton gin.
Tucked between Swainsboro and Statesboro, this hidden park rents kayaks, canoes, and pedal boats so can discover more than 10 miles of water trails on your own or hire Mill Pond Kayak to guide you. You can stay in one of the cottages, tents or primitive campsites, as well as bike or hike on the 7 miles of trails. Visit on November 21 for the annual Sugar Cane Festival with live music, food, and, of course, cane syrup.
4. Reed Bingham State Park
Enjoy brilliant sunsets at this state park, not far from I-75 in Adel. Known for buzzards migrating in the wintertime (for the record they are really turkey vultures and black vultures), the park also hosts a preserve for the state reptile—the gopher tortoise. Bald eagles and great blue herons soar above you as you float among the water lilies in the 375-acre lake. Starting at the Little River, you can paddle 3.5 miles and end there if you have a second vehicle. Better yet, since the lake is generally calm, you can easily return upstream for a total of 7 miles. Boat rentals and campsites are available. Be sure to explore 7 miles of hiking trails and swim at the beach.
To enjoy Reed Bingham State Park at its fullest, stay the night on your own private island—specifically the park’s paddle-in, primitive campground site at Eagle Island. You also can sign up for the ranger-led paddles on October 17 and November 10 for an additional fee.
5. Stephen C. Foster State Park
If being out in the wild and paddling among 10-foot alligators is your thing, head south to Stephen C. Foster State Park in the legendary Okefenokee Swamp. In addition to the 12,000 resident alligators, the area is the home to turtles, raccoons and black bears. While there, paddle over to Billy’s Island and examine the remnants of the Hebard Cypress Company’s abandoned logging town. Bring plenty of food and water as the park is 18 miles from the nearest town of Fargo (population 321).
Don’t want to go it alone? Evening ranger-led paddles are offered on October 9 and October 23, and you can also enjoy some of the best stargazing in the state. Private kayak/canoe tours are also available, as are kayaks, canoes and fishing-boat rentals. Plan to stay in the cottages or campsites at the park, or stay at the park operated Suwannee River Eco-Lodge in Fargo.
6. Sweetwater Creek State Park
Want to try stand-up paddleboarding? Head 20 minutes west of Atlanta to this gem of a park that rents kayaks, canoes and SUPs. Whatever method you choose, you’ll enjoy the peaceful 3-mile paddle at Sweetwater Creek State Park on the George Sparks Reservoir, which once was an ancient Indian village. If in a canoe or kayak, cross through a short tunnel under the road to the other side to paddle among beaver dams and wire grass. Take advantage of the 9 miles of hiking trails including the historic red trail that leads you to the Civil War ruins of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company. As an added bonus, stay in one of the 10 newly constructed yurts and five campsites that opened this past summer.