4 Reasons Why You Need to Explore the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area

The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area provides a spectacular outdoor playground just minutes from downtown Atlanta.
The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area provides a spectacular outdoor playground just minutes from downtown Atlanta. Bill Leffler
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Landlocked though Atlanta may be, the Chattahoochee River serves as the urban playground of the city. Atlanta’s main artery of this 430-mile river flows through the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, a 48-mile section that offers an abundance of activities for outdoor lovers from paddling to hiking to trail running and mountain biking. RootsRated offers our tips for getting the most out of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

1. Trail Running

The overlook on East Palisades trail.
The overlook on East Palisades trail. Alexa Lampasona

You only have to travel 20 minutes from downtown to find more than 50 miles of wooded trails in the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area . Not all trails are created equal though, so depending on the type of trail run you want to accomplish will depend on where you run.

By far the most popular and diverse is Cochran Shoals, because you can run the 3-mile gravel loop path, a nice reprieve from pavement running, or you can delve into the woods to wind through trails. The easiest way to avoid getting lost is to follow the mountain bike trails (which are well-marked); but stay alert as mountain bikers will pass by quickly and many of the turns are sharp so they don’t allow for much warning.

For technical trail running, East Palisades has some brutal, steep uphills where your footing is crucial. The trail begins with a steep hill where wooden steps are built into the trail to aid in your descent down to the river, and then it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure as you navigate through the serpentine trails. Expect varying elevations and a few switchbacks—nothing compared to the mountains but still fun for being in-town.

Island Ford is a toss-up for runners. The series of figure-8 loops amount to about 5.5 miles, all with modest elevation gain. The terrain is compact, smooth dirt with minimal roots, and as you dip into the valley you’ll cross over both Summerbrook Creek and Beech Creek.

2. Hiking

Vickery Creek's covered bridge.
Vickery Creek's covered bridge. Bill Leffler

Great for beginners, families, or those just looking to log some outdoor time after work, hiking at many of the parks along the Chattahoochee River and its tributaries is a welcome escape from city life.

You’ll find a waterfall, sort of, at Vickery Creek. The hike is full of history, and the waterfall in question is actually the Big Creek spillway dam. For the closest access to the dam, begin the hike at Oxbo Road. Stick to the outer loop for a 3-mile circle that will take you past the covered bridge and two historic mill ruins. The trails here follow Vickery Creek along steep banks and thick Georgia forest.

East Palisades is just as great a place to hike as it is to trail run. Be sure to make it to the rock overlook for beautiful views of the Chattahoochee River shoals, and visit the 30-foot tall towering bamboo forest on the northern edge of the trails.

The abandoned car on Gold Branch.
The abandoned car on Gold Branch. Alexa Lampasona

At Gold Branch , the nickname comes to life on a sunny day as the colors of the trees and leaves seem to glint gold. The highlight of this hike is Bull Sluice Lake, which seems to stretch beside you for a majority of your journey. The singletrack path becomes rock-laden and rooted as it rises and falls in a roller coaster fashion alongside the lake. On your hiking loop, stop by the abandoned car near trail marker GB 11. Rotted out and rusted with bullet holes in the frame, the haunting sight suggests a troubling event happened here.

In the north section of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Jones Bridge is a modest spot for hiking. On the 4.5-mile hike, elevation differs only about 200 feet and takes you over small hills and several bridges, as well as a few open fields—a grassy flood plains for the river that were used before Buford Dam was built. The picturesque view here is Jones Bridge, an old rusted toll bridge from the 1920s, that can be viewed from several points on the trail.

3. Paddling

Paddling into the sunset.
Paddling into the sunset. Bill Leffler

Kayakers and SUPers flock to the Chattahoochee River for a mix of both flatwater paddling and mild whitewater paddling—if you count Class II rapids as whitewater.

Newbies to SUP will want to check out Morgan Falls Overlook Park. This dam section of the Chattahoochee River is as glassy as a lake, but still offers plenty of miles to paddle around and practice your technique. On either side of the banks, which are usually no further than 200 meters apart, wooded forests puff with lush green foliage. Paddle upstream for a bit of resistance as you head north toward the Chattahoochee Nature Center.

Cedar Cliffs are a highlight of paddling on Bull Sluice Lake.
Cedar Cliffs are a highlight of paddling on Bull Sluice Lake. Bill Leffler

Once you ramp up your skills, make the 4 mile paddle from Azalea Park to Morgan Falls . You’ll paddle by horse pastures and golf courses as the river twists and turns, going through Bull Sluice Lake. Allow time to explore the small coves along the way, where ducks and turtles float along the river. The highlight here is Cedar Cliffs, a set of rocky outcrops on the banks where many daring souls will cliff jump in summer.

The northern section of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area often gets overlooked, but those who make the trip to the ’burbs can gain some distance with a longer 15.5-mile paddle from Settles Bridge to Jones Bridge. The river bottom is visible for most of the paddle, and you’ll spot fly-fishers reeling in trout, while turtles and herons are visible on shore.

4. Mountain Biking

Mountain bikers on the gravel path at Cochran Shoals.
Mountain bikers on the gravel path at Cochran Shoals. Alexa Lampasona

Atlanta isn’t really considered mountainous, but some of the mountain biking trails in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area are easy to access and provide good opportunities to polish or refresh your skills. Find mountain bike maps here.

Sope Creek is a perfect example of the terrain you’ll find by the Chattahoochee River—predominantly dirt and red clay. The main outer loop follows the perimeter of the trail on a gentle slope along the valley shelves and down across creek bed of Fox Creek. The trail offers minimal rock hopping, and fun creek crossings. For thrilling downhills, take the lower loop closer to Cochran Shoals.

The mountain bike trails at Cochran Shoals are easily accessed from the Columns Drive entrance, and they connect to Sope Creek. Pedal off the gravel path into the woods for a 4.2-mile loop. Getting into the trails involves some climbing, but once you’re in the forest, follow forgiving c-shaped turns over roller coaster dips. Just remember to follow the trail directions, which change daily.

Remember that there is a $3 park fee for all sections of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Get around it by buying an annual pass for $35.

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