8 nature escapes only an hour away from downtown Atlanta

Sharon Collins, host of GPB’s Georgia Outdoors, shares her favorite spots
Sharon Collins
Photograph by Jeff Roffman Photography

If you’re like me, you get off work on Friday and collapse from the week’s stress. Maybe you’d thought about driving to the mountains or the coast, but there are groceries to buy and errands to run. Fortunately, as host of GPB’s Georgia Outdoors, I’ve discovered many places to escape into nature that are an hour or less from downtown. Here are some of my favorites.

1. Sleep in a tree
Panola Mountain State Park
25-minute drive
I had never climbed a tree, much less slept in one. But here I donned a helmet and a harness attached to ropes, and staff hoisted me into a Southern red oak named Naomi Ruth. My heart raced as I went higher, but the panic subsided as I climbed into a hammock-like “tree boat” (they range from 20 to 50 feet up). Overnight I listened to a symphony of sounds as I drifted off to sleep beneath the stars. Bragging rights are well worth the $90 fee, plus $5 parking.
Call 770-389-7801 for more information.

Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
Photograph by Eric Champlin, atlantatrails.com

2. Dip your toes in the water
The Palisades
25-minute drive
There are two Palisades sections in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area: east and west. The name comes from granite boulders that stir up the river, giving kayakers a thrill and hikers a place to wade out and rest. The east route is the most scenic, as it passes through a bamboo forest, over large rock formations, and up a bluff with long-range views of Atlanta. Dog friendly and with a variety of trails, it ranks as one of the prettiest walks along the Chattahoochee.
Take exit 22 off I-285 East. Turn right onto Northside Drive, then right onto Indian Trail. Parking is $3.

3. Visit ancient ceremonial grounds
Sawnee Mountain Preserve
45-minute drive
With a 963-acre forest and 11 miles of trails, this enormous preserve is just north of Cumming. At the 1,700-foot summit of Indian Seats Trail, you can sit in natural rock depressions where Native Americans supposedly gathered for ceremonies. The mountain view is beautiful, and there’s an observation deck at the top. On your way up, you’ll pass an abandoned gold mine. The park sometimes offers rock- and tree-climbing classes, and there are picnic areas, bathrooms, and a well-appointed visitors center. Admission is free, but no pets are allowed.
Take exit 15 off Georgia 400 North. Turn left onto Bald Ridge Road, then continue onto Pinkle Ferry Road. Turn right onto Tribble Gap Road.

4. Cross a covered bridge
Heritage Park
30-minute drive
This 105-acre preserve in Smyrna has a scenic trail with a boardwalk across wetlands. It follows Nickajack Creek and passes the ruins of Concord Woolen Mills. Keep going and you’ll enjoy pretty views of the rapids below before ending up at a covered bridge on Concord Road. The round-trip walk is only about three miles. Bonus: This park leads to the Silver Comet Trail.
Take exit 15 off I-285 North. Turn left onto South Cobb Drive, then left onto East-West Connector. Turn left onto Fontaine Road.

5. Watch the birds
Constitution Lakes Park
15-minute drive
No promises, but in one day here my photographer shot gnatcatchers, yellow-crowned night herons, and both pileated and red-headed woodpeckers. The park’s location—in an industrial section of DeKalb County—is a bit odd. You might think you’re turning into a freight center, but the road to the park goes downhill to the right. The preserve covers 125 acres of forest and wetlands, with meandering trails and boardwalks around the lakes. Doll’s Head Trail is lined with quirky art that visitors have made from junk washed up during floods.
From I-20, go south on Moreland Avenue. Proceed past the Starlight Drive-in Theatre and turn left onto South River Industrial Boulevard.

Fort Yargo State Park
Photograph by Eric Champlin, atlantatrails.com

6. Glamp in a yurt
Fort Yargo State Park
55-minute drive
This park in Winder includes a 260-acre lake with a public beach and canoes for rent. Mountain bikers and hikers love the variety and length of the trails. There is also a disc golf course and a log fort built in 1792. Book a night in one of the yurts, which are located on a peninsula that juts out into the lake. Number two has a deck with, in my opinion, the best views.
Take exit 106 off I-85 North and continue onto Georgia 316. Turn left onto Loganville Highway, then right onto Fort Yargo Road.

7. Go fish
Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center
55-minute drive
This wooded 6,400-acre property is managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. At the visitors center, see interactive wildlife exhibits, a freshwater fish aquarium, and a bird-watching area (binoculars provided). The park is loaded with activities: Fish in one of 20 ponds ranging from one to 95 acres; hike a 5.6-mile trail; or try tree-climbing classes, archery, and horseback riding.
Take exit 98 off I-20 East. Turn right onto Georgia 11, then left onto Marben Farm Road. Turn right
onto Elliott Trail.

 Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park
Photograph by Eric Champlin, atlantatrails.com

8. Get close to deer
Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park
30-minute drive
Beyond the famous Civil War history and artifacts, this park offers almost 20 miles of trails for joggers, hikers, or families who just want to walk through the forest and watch the many deer. The summit tops 1,800 feet and provides an amazing view of Atlanta’s skyline.
Take exit 267-B off I-75 North. Turn right onto Church Street Extension, then left onto Old Highway 41 and left onto Stilesboro Road.

This article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue.