Exploring North Georgia's Area 51

Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area is home to more than 25,000 acres of forest area located just 60 miles north of Atlanta.
Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area is home to more than 25,000 acres of forest area located just 60 miles north of Atlanta. Ryan Watkins
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Rumors abound about the purpose and history of the now-defunct facilities located in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area. Sometimes called Georgia's "Area 51," the site of the former Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory (GNAL) was once home to nuclear aircraft and radiation testing and featured a sprawling complex of concrete bunkers and buildings that have long been closed to the public eye.

Because of the governmental secrecy surrounding the facility during its heyday in the 1960s, local residents, especially those with long memories, have a host of stories and conspiracy theories regarding the old laboratory site ranging from alien abductions and UFOs to radiated and mutated deer and malformed plantlife. Mysticism and conspiracy aside, there is an indescribable quality about the WMA that adds to the overall experience in ways most outdoor recreation areas simply cannot, particularly if you know a bit about the legend before heading into the woods.

Today's Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area, located about 60 miles north of Atlanta, consists of some 25,000 acres of varied flora and fauna separated into five areas: Wildcat Creek, Goethe, Burnt Mountain, Amicalola, and City of Atlanta. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife Resources Division owns 15,000 acres of the forest to the north, while the city of Atlanta owns another 10,000 acres that was once considered as a second airport to service the Atlanta metropolitan area. Once an analysis of the area determined the land was ill-suited for an airport, the land that is now the City of Atlanta Tract was placed under the stewardship of the Georgia Forestry Commission and the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area was born.

Two rivers, the Etowah River and Amicoloa Creek, both flow through the 10,000 acre City of Atlanta Tract and offer visitors the opportunity to partake in a variety of outdoor activities. Horeseback riding, hunting, hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, fishing, and camping are all common outdoor activities in the WMA. Parking and hiking at the WMA is free, though there are trail fees for those on horseback or on trail bikes.

Hiking

The Red and Blue trails in the City of Atlanta Tract are popular with hikers and horseback riders.
    Ryan Watkins
The Red and Blue trails in the City of Atlanta Tract are popular with hikers and horseback riders. Ryan Watkins

While not as well-known as other trail areas in North Georgia, the WMA offers an extensive network of trails which are open all year to hikers. Hiking here is not strenuous for the most part, and the vast network of trails means that dayhikers can return here again and again with the possibility of hiking a new area with each subsequent visit. There are dozens of miles of trails weaving throughout the WMA that offer views of waterfalls, rivers, and woodland areas. The elevation gains and losses are mild, and the trail network is especially popular with trail runners due to the well-maintained pathways and easy elevation.

Since the area is open to hunting during deer and turkey seasons, hikers are advised to begin the day after 10 a.m. and wear brightly colored clothing, such as a reflective orange vest, while on the trails.

Canoeing and Fishing

Shoal Creek meets the Etowah River in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area.
Shoal Creek meets the Etowah River in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Etowah River and Amicoloa Creek both flow through the City of Atlanta Tract and allow those in fishing kayaks or canoes to coast with the flow through a large section of the WMA by boat. Smaller streams and creeks feed into the river throughout the WMA, offering ample opportunities to find the perfect fishing hole on a lazy Saturday. The depth of the river varies by season, notably during the summer months when rain and mountain runoff is scarce. Be prepared to drag your kayak across some of the more shallow sections as you make your way down the river.

Horseback Riding

Habitat refuges are scattered throughout the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area.
    Ryan Watkins
Habitat refuges are scattered throughout the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area. Ryan Watkins

This area is a wildly popular destination for horseback riders. In warmer weather, hikers share the larger trails with groups of riders as you make your way through the trail network toward some of the more remote areas of the wilderness area. Horseback riders are limited to designated trails only, but even those trails offer many miles of well-maintained and clean pathways.

The experience in the WMA can feel manufactured at times, considering the land was once home to a nuclear testing facility that has been transformed into an outdoor wilderness area. And while most of the old bunkers and concrete buildings have long been closed off or buried, there are still plenty of sites to see from the topside as you walk along. All in all, it's a place worth experiencing. And who knows? You may even have a UFO encounter.

For more information on the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area, check out the Georgia Forestry Commission website.

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