In search of easy weekend escapes from Atlanta, our contributor and her family venture to three spectacular cascades for fresh air—and a fresh perspective. By Gisela Williams
Explore three waterfalls of Atlanta
Five months after my husband got a new job in the US and our family relocated from Berlin to Atlanta, COVID-19 hit. Being locked down in an unfamiliar city wasn’t easy for any of us, so as time went on and we exhausted our suburban green spaces, I started looking a bit farther afield for places to get some outdoor exercise while the weather was still cooperating.
As it turned out, the north of Georgia is loaded with dramatic waterfalls—and the whole area is within an easy two-hour drive of our new home in Roswell. Somehow the promise of a spectacular cascade as a destination made our hiking adventures that much more compelling, especially to our three children, who are all under 13. After several weekend adventures, three trips emerged as family favourites.
Among in-the-know Georgians, Amicalola Falls is considered the crown jewel of local waterfalls. At 222 metres, it’s the tallest in the state. One Friday morning, we packed lunch and drove 90 minutes to Amicalola Falls State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the way, I attempted to impart some local history to my kids, including the fact that the park’s name is a Cherokee word (amicalola means ‘tumbling waters’).
To take in the full splendour, our crew had to climb the 604 steps that zigzag up a steep incline. At first, there was a bit of grumbling in the ranks, but several viewing platforms allowed us to take our time and absorb the falls from different angles while we caught our breath. At the top, the forest spread out for miles, and the claustrophobia of the past few months dissipated into the mist.
We visited just after the trees had lost their leaves, but when I chatted with Jared Teutsch, executive director of Georgia Audubon, an independent chapter of the National Audubon Society, he waxed poetic about the summer, when the water level is lower and the falls glide over the rocks rather than gush. Those warmer months are when colourful warblers flock to northern Georgia’s forests, too. It’s also, I’m told, the best time to stay at Len Foote Hike Inn (doubles from INR 13,462), an eco-lodge accessible only via an eight-kilometre trail.
I had heard whispers of a privately owned preserve called Lula Lake Land Trust, which was founded by philanthropist Robert M Davenport and his family, so one weekend we headed west to a whole other ecosystem: the Cumberland Plateau. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Davenport bought up parcels of land around the area and gradually pieced them together. Today, the preserve encompasses more than 8,000 acres—and one legendary waterfall.
Lula Lake is open to the public only on the first and last weekends of the month, so reservations often get booked up at least four weeks in advance. We managed to score an early-winter slot and chose the most popular hiking loop, which begins on the Middle Trail. After about an hour, the meandering dirt path led us through woodlands to a bluff that afforded sweeping views of both northern Georgia and Tennessee.
From there, we descended a steep twisting path to Lula Falls. I’d seen Civil War-era images of soldiers resting at the base of the waterfall, where the broad cascade drops into a small pool in front of a curving rock face. It looks almost exactly the same today, but the trust’s executive director, Cody Roney, told us that, throughout much of the 20th century, the falls had been used as a dumping ground. After Davenport bought up the site, the trust had to haul out tonnes of trash.
For an hour, my husband and I lingered in the sun while the kids jumped like goats from one rock to another. The roar of the falls subdued my anxious thoughts. I later found out that certain water formations (including waterfalls) contain negative ions, which are believed to increase serotonin levels. Suddenly, my recent obsession made a bit more sense.
Cloudland Canyon State Park was our final waterfall escapade. The two-hour trip ended up being our longest adventure, but well worth the effort, especially since Chattanooga, a funky little city worth a detour, sits just across the Tennessee border. We spent a night at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel (doubles from INR 9,387), housed inside the city’s former train station.
After a hearty breakfast at the popular Niedlov’s Bakery & Café, we drove 40 minutes to Cloudland. One of Georgia’s largest and most beloved parks, it stretches across more than 3,500 acres that include sandstone cliffs, deep canyons, caves, and woodlands. We had, of course, come for its Waterfalls Trail, which runs 3.5 kilometres down through a grey-green canyon to two stunning displays. During our excursion in early November, the woodland foliage was exploding with shades of fiery red, orange, and gold.
Eventually, the dirt path brought us to a fork that splits off towards two metal staircases: one led to Cherokee Falls, a semi-hidden oasis with a waterfall plunging 18 metres into a rocky pool, and the other to Hemlock Falls, a narrow cascade we watched from a viewing platform. We heard that Cloudland is crowded during its high season; our late-fall outing meant we had both spots almost entirely to ourselves.
We spent the bulk of our time at Cherokee Falls. As the kids explored the edges of the pool and followed the river, I took the rare opportunity to sit still. I had read that many Indigenous people consider waterfalls sacred—the misty veils separating the natural and supernatural worlds. In that moment of reflection, I could see why.
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