Today I spent five hours exploring Sweetwater Creek State Park, a conservation area to the west of Atlanta. I walked, I hiked, and at times I even climbed, wandering around four marked trails and covering nearly nine miles. I saw beautiful forest, plenty of squirrels and bugs, a couple of deer, two tiny frogs, a long expanse of creek churning through white and gray stone, and the beautiful brick ruins of a mill.
I got out of bed this morning determined to do something with my day off other than clean, cook, sit at my computer, and watch TV. I’ve gotten into a decent rhythm of late with chores and meals, and this has helped us to save money by not going out to eat, but I’ve been going stir crazy in the apartment. I needed to get out and do something fun and productive and healthy. So I decided to find a park to explore.
Atlanta has no shortage of parks, as I discovered when I started googling. This list is huge, and it isn’t even conclusive. I scanned down the page for anything with a good deal of acreage, then started checking for websites or community information. A number of interesting sites cropped up, including Grant Park, Freedom Park, and Chastain Park. (I’ve been to Piedmont Park before and wanted to find something new.) At some point my searching led me to the PATH website. The PATH Foundation builds walking and cycling trails across Atlanta. I was intrigued by several of the projects, including the Silver Comet Trail. I realized I had already seen part of the South Peachtree Creek Trail when Charles and Heidi took me to Mason Mill Park years back.
Ultimately, though, I decided I wanted to rough it a little more, and Sweetwater Creek, a conservation area, started to stand out. I noticed that it’s relatively close to where we live, and from the description it sounded like it would be really fun to explore:
Sweetwater Creek State Park is a peaceful tract of wilderness only minutes from downtown Atlanta. A wooded trail follows the stream to the ruins of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company, a textile mill burned during the Civil War. Beyond the mill, the trail climbs rocky bluffs to provide views of the beautiful rapids below. Additional trails wind through fields and forest, showcasing ferns, magnolias, wild azaleas and hardwoods.
My destination decided, I set about preparing. Obviously my Nikon was going. I shifted my wallet and little Canon into the bag. I’d also need provisions. I packed a bag of almonds, an Atkins bar, and some snack crackers, then made some tuna fish salad to carry in a cooler with an extra bottle of water. I also fried some bacon, and despite the fact that I left it too long and it got crunchy, I bagged it up as well.
Then I realized that I should probably charge my Nikon’s battery.
As I sat watching the blinking light on the charger, waiting for it to stop its strobing, I realized I would go nuts if I sat around waiting any longer. It was past noon, which meant the Marietta Square Farmers Market was open; I went to an ATM to pull a $20 and then headed up there to buy peaches, tomatoes, and potatoes. (I also bought a small lemon-chess pie for $3 from a vendor whose sweet potato pie is apparently beloved by President Bill Clinton.)
This little excursion gave the battery plenty of time to charge. However, by the time I got home, I was hungry, and Sean needed lunch too. So I boiled some hot dogs and made macaroni and cheese and sat down and ate. Time ticked by as I waited for the food to settle.
And then, finally, I was ready.
Everything was all packed, so I snagged the cold items from the fridge and put them in a cooler with some ice, grabbed the camera bag and my Camelbak water bottle with purse strap addition, and I was on my way.
The drive wasn’t bad and the website’s directions were pretty clear, so I found the park without incident. Upon arriving I discovered there was a $5 parking fee; I hadn’t thought of this, so it was fortunate that I had change from the farmers market. “Enjoy the park!” the man at the booth said cheerfully, and I drove back on the winding road through the trees to the parking lot at the very end, near the Visitors Center.
I’d read up on the trails online before heading out, and I intended to simply take the red trail; it was short and sweet and led to the main attraction, the mill. However, there were people everywhere. A group of kids, one a teen, one possibly a tween, and one who looked maybe 7 were goofing around and talking loudly. Huge families and throngs of friends loped by with baby carriers and walking sticks. I felt that to avoid them–to keep them out of my personal space and my photos–I would have to keep hurrying up and then stopping and waiting, and that didn’t seem enjoyable. So when an unmarked side trail branched away from the red trail, running down along the creek, I took it, and was instantly comforted by solitude.
Eventually the side trail I was on led me to a bridge that spanned the creek; I saw that the yellow trail also led here. I remembered vaguely from my reading that this trail was longer than the red trail. More importantly to me, it was deserted. Everyone seemed to be fixated on the red trail. Without a second thought I crossed the bridge.
I got turned around at first, heading down what I thought was a trail but what was actually apparently a service road. RunKeeper’s GPS helped me see that I was going nowhere; I turned back and found the yellow markers leading off away from the bridge, along the creek the way I’d come on the other side. I followed them, and eventually a left fork in the trail guided me away from the creek and into the forest.
I hiked uphill. It was a long climb, but I felt good. It was only when I’d reached what seemed to be the highest point of the trail (though it was hard to tell with all the trees) that I saw any other people. Two men walked by together, and then a third came up behind them moments later. I greeted them all cheerfully.
As I wound my way back down and around, I remembered that the yellow trail was a loop, and the fork in the trail must have defined its start. Sure enough, I found myself walking back along the banks of the creek, and eventually I passed the point where I had set off into the woods. I retraced my steps to the bridge, crossed back over, and this time followed the yellow trail back to the parking area.
I could have called it quits then and headed to the car. It had been a good hike, with lots of uphill climbs. But I had plenty of water left, and I wanted to see the mill. So I turned back to the red trail, which by this time was thankfully less populated. One of the first things I saw was a beautiful butterfly atop a mound of dog doo. Of course I got a picture.
I found the beginning of the red trail to be far less strenuous than the yellow trail had been. It was mostly flat and very wide. Occasionally there would be an area off to the left where I could climb down to the rocky shore. The red trail also offered some lovely views of Sweetwater Creek.
It wasn’t long before I reached the ruined mill. I was overjoyed to discover plenty of great angles for photography, from the trail and from down along the creek. The mill is inaccessible thanks to chain link fencing, but the views are still spectacular. The crumbled brick and empty windows reminded me of the old Sheldon Church ruins near Beaufort, the ruined abbey in Whitby, and Roche Abbey. And the wooden steps down to the mill reminded me of the forest jaunts my classmates and I took during our 2001 trip to Japan. Meanwhile, the water lapping and sometimes surging through the smooth rocks of the creek took me back to my childhood exploring of creeks and rivers in Kentucky. I was enchanted.
Once I’d had my fill of the mill, I decided to keep going on the red trail; a sign indicated that “Sweetwater Falls Overlook” lay ahead just half a mile. I didn’t remember from my morning reading that this part of the red trail was difficult, and so I was surprised when soon I was having to climb over rocks and fallen trees and watch my footing across narrow passages. It took much longer to navigate this part of the trail.
Eventually I came across a large family I’d seen earlier; they were out on the rocks looking at and playing in the water. “She caught up with us!” yelled the father, as though this was a horrible thing to have happen. “Everybody back on the trail!”
“What, are we racing?” I mumbled to myself, annoyed, and continued on. I found a set of metal stairs, easily traversed, and shortly thereafter a long passage of railroad ties that might have been meant as stairs but which were far too steep to walk up. I used my hands and climbed, eventually finding myself on a boardwalk. I could still hear the loud family below me, but they seemed to be growing distant. I wondered if they would attempt the climb; it seemed a bit much for the littler ones.
Looking down from the boardwalk, I saw the creek cascading a few feet down some rocks, and I took a picture.
It never crossed my mind that this could be “Sweetwater Falls”. When I hear “falls”, I expect a waterfall–something tall. So I kept walking, wondering when exactly I would find the falls.
I knew that the red trail had ended and that I was now on the white trail; when I’d climbed up the hillside, I’d been met by a sign indicating that the blue trail was to the right and the white trail was to the left. I’d gone left, thinking the right would just go back to the parking lot (which, as I discovered much later, was correct). I didn’t remember that the falls were supposed to be at the end of the red trail. So I kept walking and walking and walking. And of course, I never found any “falls”, though I did enjoy the views of the creek to my left and the rocky cliff face to my right.Eventually the trail headed away from the creek and into the woods, and I knew I’d missed the falls somehow. “If I hadn’t seen the mill, I’d be pretty disappointed right now!” I said aloud. I decided to see where the trail went rather than turning around. I didn’t remember anything about the white trail; I was assuming it was one-way and that I would eventually have to go back, and I decided that when I did, I would take the blue trail to avoid having to climb down the side of the hill.
But the white trail kept going, eventually coming to a bridge and some very helpful signage. The bridge, apparently, led to a residential area; I was at the very edge of the park. The white trail continued in a loop that would eventually end back up near where I parked. It was quite a distance, but so was the way I’d come…not to mention that the way I’d come was rough, while the white trail seemed smoother. I continued forward.
After a time, the white trail stopped being as obvious. Occasionally the forest cover would break and I’d emerge into a meadow; sometimes white strips were affixed to various plants along the way, and sometimes there was no sign of which way to go. I find it easy to follow established forest trails, whether marked or not, but I wanted to make sure I was headed in the right direction. Sometimes different trails would intersect with the one I was walking, and I was never quite sure if I should take them. I consulted RunKeeper’s continually-updating map to help me decide; somehow the GPS kept working even when I was out of my service area.
For the most part I made the correct decisions, but at one point I was flustered by the fact that the sun was going down and I needed to get north as soon as possible, so I followed an unmarked trail that seemed to be going in the right direction. At first everything seemed fine; it was a wide, clear path. My first indication that something was amiss was when I came upon a house. I was still within the boundary of the park, so I assume it was the home of a caretaker; there were two trucks in the yard, and one of them was marked “Georgia Department of Natural Resources”. I probably should have just turned around then, headed back to where the trail split and taken a different branch…but instead I kept going.
The path turned into what was obviously a service road, and that turned into a wild mess of rutted dirt and fallen trees. As I tramped through, a deer looked up, startled, and before I could raise my camera, it bounded away. Another one disappeared into a stand of trees just beyond it. I was a little unsettled, but continued walking; GPS informed me that I was at least heading in the right direction, so I hoped I would come upon one of the marked trails shortly.
After awhile, the service road seemed to die out, and I was again walking a forest trail. This trail, though, was unmarked, and often unclear; it may not have been a human trail at all. I was having no trouble following it, though, and it was still going in the right direction, and the day was growing ever darker. I couldn’t see turning around at this point, not if I wanted to get to my car before the sun was completely gone.
For the last stretch of woods, there was hardly a trail at all. At one point, a thorny branch seemed to wrap around me, hooking itself to my clothes, and I had to wrestle myself free. The leaves crunching under my feet made me paranoid about snakes; I watched every step like a hawk.
And then, finally, blissfully, I spotted a clear trail running directly perpendicular to my current vector. I plunged out of the wilds and back into human space.
It was the blue trail. I turned left, and it guided me back towards the park entrance.
The trail was simple and mostly flat. I walked briskly, not daring to run in the dying light but knowing I needed to get out of the woods fast. At one point I stopped for a photo; the flash went off and two deer I hadn’t even noticed bounded away, perhaps the same pair I’d seen earlier.
As the trail wound around, I groused at it inwardly for not leading straight back to the parking lot. But finally the trees opened onto the back of a building I recognized as the Visitors Center, and the trail guided me up past it to a gently curving sidewalk. At the very end of that sidewalk was the parking lot, and directly across from it sat my car…the only vehicle left in the lot.
I had made it!
I slid into my Yaris and turned up the A/C. Taking deep drags from the spare water I’d left in the cooler, I drove my winding way out of the park and back to I-20.
In all, the hike lasted five hours. Here’s the RunKeeper map. Towards the end I could tell my legs were tired, but at the same time I felt like if I’d only had more water and sunlight, I could have kept going forever. When I got home and started cleaning up, I discovered thick rings of dirt around both ankles, evidence of my day of hard fun. I also discovered I’d taken a whopping 408 photos, which I later culled down to 377. Click here see them all.
This amazing adventure was just what I needed. It left me so energized and happy. I’ll definitely have to remember to go hiking the next time despondency tries to set in!