We're trapped in traffic, clustered in cul-de-sacs, and hiding out in high rises. Everywhere we turn, there's asphalt, red lights and the constant chirp of our cell phones. Atlanta's a wonderful place but surely there's more to Georgia.
Scattered about the state are countless natural wonders, most of which — cost of gas or river guides excluded — are free to enjoy. And you can find them mere minutes or hours away: from the Appalachian Mountains foothills to the gator-filled swamps near the Florida border; the roaring rapids of the Chattooga River to the scenic stillness of Cloudland Canyon; the wonder of a majestic waterfall to a sanctuary in the middle of DeKalb County. You can walk well-trodden trails for miles through verdant woods and rarely encounter another person. You can stand on a mountaintop and breathe air that's actually clean. And you can rest assured that you can always return to these places because they're protected, and will stay pristine long after we're gone.
AMICALOLA FALLS STATE PARK This popular park, home to the tallest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River, boasts numerous trails as well as lodging. Len Foote Inn, a cozy lodge that offers hot showers, soft beds, and good food, is sequestered from civilization five miles into the woods and reachable only by foot. If you'd like to toe-touch one of the country's most famous trails, hike eight miles to Springer Mountain, the Appalachian Trail's southernmost point. 418 Amicalola Falls State Park Road, Dawsonville. 706-265-4703. gastateparks.org/info/amicalola.
CHATTOOGA RIVER Just over the Georgia border in South Carolina, the Chattooga is one of the closest — and most popular — waterways for navigating roaring rapids. Licensed guide companies offer trips ranging from five hours to two days with overnight camping. If you hear banjos, paddle harder — Deliverance was filmed here. The U.S. Forest Service has a list of commercially licensed guides and tips for people looking to get away. www.fs.fed.us/r8/fms/forest/recreation/chattooga.shtml.
CHATTAHOOCHEE NATIONAL FOREST The massive forest encompasses more than 18 North Georgia counties and has everything that anyone, young or old, could ask for from Mother Nature. Excellent loop trails worth hiking include Gennett Poplar at Bear Creek, Blood Mountain near Neels Gap, and Rabun Bald, Georgia's second-highest point. Track Rock Gap to Brasstown Bald is a beautiful ridge walk that's won the heart of some of the state's most passionate hikers. www.fs.fed.us/conf/.
CLOUDLAND CANYON STATE PARK Considered one of the state's most scenic areas, the rugged park tucked away in Georgia's northwest corner offers sweeping panoramic views of waterfalls and a breathtaking gorge. Try the West Rim Loop Trail for a moderate hike with picturesque rewards. 122 Cloudland Canyon Park, Rising Fawn. 706-657-4050. gastateparks.org/info/cloudland.
DAVIDSON-ARABIA MOUNTAIN NATURE PRESERVE Thanks to the efforts of dedicated conservationists, DeKalb County — and all of metro Atlanta for that matter — can enjoy one of the state's most pristine and diverse nature areas. A well-maintained bike trail and fishing makes this park a popular stop. 3787 Klondike Road, Lithonia. 770-484-3060. www.arabiaalliance.org.
OKEFENOKEE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE Canoe rides, tent camping and gator-gawking await you in the 402,000-acre park that features both wetlands and forests. Admission prices start at $5. 2700 Suwannee Canal Road, Folkston. 912-496-7366. www.fws.gov/okefenokee.
SWEETWATER PARK It's easy to forget you're a short drive from downtown Atlanta at this day-hiker's paradise. Take the park's most popular trail to view the ruins of an old textile mill before resting next to river rapids. 1750 Mt. Vernon Road, Lithia Springs. 770-732-5871. gastateparks.org/info/sweetwater.
TALLULAH GORGE STATE PARK Wear your hiking shoes. This spectacular canyon boasts challenging trails — including a steep option that brings you into the bottom of the gorge — and spectacular views. 338 Jane Hurt Yarn Drive, Tallulah Falls. 706-754-7970. gastateparks.org/info/Tallulah.