A sweet gum tree with orange/yellow leaves at the water's edge on the Huckleberry Trail at Don Carter State Park

A sweet gum tree at the water’s edge on the Huckleberry Trail at Don Carter State Park.

It’s time to turn over a new leaf as another hot, humid summer around Lake Lanier dissolves into fall. The only state park on the lake and others in the mountain headwaters offer miles of hiking trails to get surrounded by fall color. The new season provides an incentive for the summer-weary to get into Georgia State Parks’ 2022 theme: Turn Over a New Leaf. Instead of motoring scenic byways and backroads to peak at changing leaves this season, why not get out of the car and take a hike? There are plenty of options, including paved paths, rugged trails, and ranger-led rambles.

Hikers can pick their trail at Don Carter State Park in Gainesville, where easy paved paths, short natural surface trails, and a network of backcountry hiking loops showcase the season’s brilliance against the lake’s backdrop. Park Manager Steven Emery described a fall palette of red sourwoods and dogwoods, yellow poplars, hickories, and beech. Late-fall heralders, stately red and white oaks bid the season a russet farewell, usually in November.

For an easy hike with lake views, Emery recommends the .75-mile natural surface Huckleberry Trail. The loop hike starts and ends at the north boat ramp and romps around a peninsula forested by mixed hardwoods overlooking the lake. In mid-September, several sweet gum trees at the water’s edge already blushed deep red.

Another easy option near the park beach is the 1-mile Terrapin Cove Trail that links the day-use area with the cottages. It meanders along a cove creek before rising to a vantage point with lake views. It also connects with Hiking Loop 2, which accesses an impressive 9-mile network of well-marked backcountry trails. Emery suggested fit leaf-lookers try Hiking Loop 3 with its expansive lake views along a double-knobbed peninsula.

Ranging from easy to moderately strenuous, the four hiking loops and Whale Tail Spur can tire a hiker’s legs as much as a mountain trek can. On weekdays a lone hiker may not see another soul, save whitetail deer, squirrels, and an occasional turtle. The terrain rolls from upland wild red-flecked blueberry shrubs and breezy hickory studded knolls above the lake to low-lying coves and fern-lined bridged inlets. Deer abound in the oak-rich forest dotted with sourwoods. Hikers are advised to download or pick up a map at the visitor’s center to plot a course that can circle back on the loop of their choice.

Park visitors looking for an easy walk or carriage stroll might enjoy the paved 1.5-mile Woodland Trail or 200-yard Overlook Trail, both ADA accessible. Emery noted that neither has a lake view, but both will be asplash with color this season. Speaking of splashing … four water trails along the park’s shore await the dip of paddles on lake’s quiet northern reaches. Emery suggested paddling to the lake’s northernmost island, Flat Creek, where leaf-lookers-by-water can get out and explore the wild terrain. Kayak rentals are available year-round at the visitor’s center. Another option is leaf-looking on horseback via 14.5 miles of equestrian loops and spurs. Get a map at the equestrian parking lot kiosk or visitor’s center.

Yellow leaves on a tree branch hang over rushing water.

Fall leaves dance above rushing waters at Moccasin Creek State Park in Clarkesville.

About an hour’s drive north of Don Carter State Park, a beloved mountain park beckons leaf-lookers on a smaller lake with a babbling trout stream. Moccasin Creek State Park on Lake Burton in Clarkesville will change colors earlier than the lower elevation Lake Lanier respite. Park manager Daniel Henderson plans several leaf-looking programs focusing on tree identification, forest ecology and southern Appalachian history. He described the 17,000 acres of National Forest land as “later stage hardwood growth … white oaks, hickories, poplars, red maples.”

On the 1-mile Wildlife Loop, Henderson will guide visitors through once pastoral farmland reforested by the Forest Service in the 1980s. The flatland, planted with black walnuts and mixed oaks, meanders along Moccasin Creek to an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp where the area’s early tree planting crews resided. “This area in Rabun County was deforested by logging a century ago,” Henderson said. It’s hard to imagine the current beautiful woodland as raw, barren territory mauled by saws, hatchets and horse teams. “They cut about 95 percent of the trees,” Henderson said, often leaving cedars and a few trees on ridgelines. Near the creek, beech trees clad with pale golden leaves throughout the winter, are likely off-spring of old growth. The CCC’ers planted primarily oaks.

Henderson said it took a century to finally raise a canopy of mixed hardwoods. Park visitors will see the fruit of CCC laborers and resilience of nature in the colors of the leaves. Trout in Moccasin Creek are also beneficiaries, as are anglers who flock to one of the most popular trout fishing streams in Georgia. The hardwood and hemlock canopy keep the creek cool enough for trout to thrive.

Henderson, who grew up in the north Georgia mountains, plans to share his knowledge and research about the forest in leaf-looking hikes this month and next. “I expect a lot of questions about trees,” he said, including how to identify various types by looking at leaf shapes, tree shapes, bark, and clues on the ground. He’ll also focus on how trees are beneficial to game, fish, and “anything that eats acorns.”

A person standing on a deck overlooking the mountains with yellow leaves in foreground and colorful mountains in the background.

Black Rock Mountain State Park in Mountain City, Georgia’s northernmost state park, is one of the first to show fall colors.

Expect to get an interesting history lesson on how leaves you’re gazing at got so pretty.

Where to turn over a new leaf at Georgia state parks

Get out on a trail to be surrounded in fall color at north Georgia state parks. See Lakeside’s October Outdoor Calendar for upcoming activities or www.gastateparks.org for a full park listing.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Don Carter State Park, Gainesville

– 10.8 miles backcountry trails

– 2 natural surface easy trails less than a mile

– 2 easy paved trails less than .5 mile

– 14.5 miles equestrian trails

– 4 paddle trails 1-3 miles

  • Moccasin Creek State Park, Clarkesville

– 4 miles of easy trails

– Leaf-looking guided hikes with lessons in tree identification, forest ecology, and southern Appalachian history Oct. 8, 22, and Nov. 5

For more options in Northeast Georgia, check out Unicoi State Park and Smithgall Woods State Park in Helen, Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville,  Tallulah Falls State Park in Tallulah Falls, and Black Rock Mountain State Park in Mountain City for trail information and upcoming leaf looking activities. Get the latest on fall color predictions at Georgia State Parks at #GaLeafWatch @GaStateParks.

Photo of sweet gum tree by Jane Harrison, all others courtesy of Georgia State Parks