The start of school, football season, and apple harvest signal that summer’s fading for another year. Before it’s gone, there’s time for a last dash to the beach for sun, sand, and fun. There’s no need to pack up and drive six or more hours to the coast for a farewell ritual. White sand and water beckon just minutes from home at nearly a dozen beaches on Lake Lanier. From tiny sand-filled coves to wide expanses near main channels, there’s a beach to spread a towel on before the season ends.
Lakeside News sunned and floated at three beaches in mid-July to offer a sample of summer favorites. Here’s a look at Don Carter State Park, managed by the state of Georgia; Mary Alice Park, operated by Forsyth County; and Little Hall Park, overseen by the Corps of Engineers.
Don Carter State Park: The northernmost beach on Lanier is the main draw of the state’s only park on its biggest body of water. Park manager Steven Emery estimated 70,000 visitors came to the park in May and June, the latest count. “Certainly for day use, the beach has been the main attraction,” he said. This beach has it all, from nice sand to outdoor showers to SUP rentals and picnic tables in the shade.
- Beach width: Depending on water level, the left to right measurement runs about 100 yards. Also, depending on lake elevation, the water laps against the sand about 50 to 100 feet from bottom of the stone picnic shelter. Even when crowds flock in, there’s still ample room to pitch a shade umbrella.
- Sand quality: Great! Seasonal staff rake out debris and level sandcastles at least once a week, Emery said. The state schedules fresh sand delivery every other year. Last year’s haul left a thick powdery coat that extends into the water.
- Water/swim area/safety: The park made lemonade out of past droughts, when the swim buoy line lay on the ground. Spreaders pushed sand deep into the swimming area, nearly eliminating slipperiness underfoot. In mid-summer, the swim buoy line marked a midway depth of about three feet with lake elevation hitting 1,069 feet. As with other beaches, there’s no lifeguard on duty. But a uniformed park employee drops by regularly. Unusually, there are no loaner life jackets; however Emery said visitors may borrow one from the concession/rental booth when it is open. Life preserver rings hang for emergency use on both ends of the beach.
- View: Situated on Terrapin Cove, the beach faces the cove’s opposite edge. Beyond it an occasional fishing boat or personal watercraft cruises the upper reaches of Lanier.
- Amenities: The aroma of grilled feasts often wafts from the covered picnic pavilion overlooking the beach. Trees shade additional picnic tables and grills close to the beach. Bench swings offer pleasant perches. Folks who don’t like sand between their toes set up on the grass. A convenience center with clean restrooms and outdoor cold-water showers adjoins the pavilion. Beachgoers can buy candy, chips and drinks and rent aquacycles, stand-up paddleboards, and kayaks at a concession stand by the water most weekends and some Thursdays and Fridays.
- Cleanliness: Park staff rake and pick up trash regularly, leaving the beach mostly litter-free. Emery said the water is tested for e-coli every Monday. If the level tests higher than the acceptable threshold, an advisory is posted. Emery advises people to wait at least 48 hours after a major rain event to get in a natural water source due to run-off. The beach is never closed.
- Admission: $5 parking fee payable at pay stations or to the gate attendant. Georgia State Park pass holders get in free.
Mary Alice Park: Located on a peninsula minutes from downtown Cumming, this beach is the westernmost on Lanier. Forsyth County took over park management from the city early this season. The county cleaned and painted the pavilion, re-plumbed the restrooms, installed new, bigger trash cans, and put in credit card kiosks for fee collection. Also, importantly, staff layered on the sand! Seven weeks into the season, the county reported 15,000 vehicles carrying an average of three occupants had entered the beach lot.
- Beach width: The beach measures approximately 100 by 800 feet, according to Forsyth Assistant Communications Director Amanda Roper. Midday on a July Monday, the beach was nearly empty.
- Sand quality: Beautiful! Roper reported the county piled on two types of sand in the spring:125 tons of river sand for base and 325 tons of beach sand beach for topcoat.
- Water/swim area/safety: The swim area is one of the lake’s largest, with a buoy line spanning between two tree-lined banks with picnic areas. Expect to wade through some pebbles to get in the water. The lake floor drops steeply to about five feet deep at the buoy line. Swimmers share the warm water with fish and turtles. Two loaner life jacket stations stock at least two dozen new-looking life jackets provided by the Lake Lanier Association and community donations. Boats, some departing and returning to the park’s boat ramp, occasionally undulate the water, giving the sensation of gentle ocean waves.
- View: Undeveloped shores and Little Ridge Island lie across the water.
- Amenities: A large picnic pavilion with multiple tables and clean restrooms sit a short walk from the sand. A railed waterside walkway leads to the sand from pine-shaded picnic tables on the other end. Park workers serviced two portable toilets by noon Monday after heavy weekend use.
- Cleanliness: Ample trashcans help keep litter in its place. However, a flock of geese didn’t care where they made deposits. The dozen waterfowl left droppings on the grass above the sand and were shooed away from the swim area. Roper said the Forsyth County parks department is “monitoring the impacts of wildlife” on the park. She added the Corps “is responsible for testing the water for e-coli. We have not been alerted to any hazardous conditions that would require closures.”
- Admission: $10 per vehicle, payable at kiosks. Annual passes $60, $54 seniors.
Little Hall Park: This small beach between two outcroppings on the Chestatee River section of Lanier is a local favorite. On a hot, sunny July Saturday, almost no one lay on the sand. A couple dozen beachgoers chilled in the water. Others relaxed in shade on the grass. One could imagine having this beach to themselves during the week after school starts. Lakeside reached out to the Corps with questions about this tiny gem, but received no responses by deadline.
- Beach width: Guestimate … maybe 50 yards from one end to the other.
- Sand quality: The thick sand is dotted with twigs and natural debris. It appears not to have been raked in weeks.
- Water/swim area/safety. Water is dirt-stained at the entry, where small pebbles feel sharp underfoot. (Wear water shoes). A steep drop-off leads to the buoy line, which bobbed at seven feet. Almost all the children in the water wore life jackets, most from the loaner life jacket station. All were taken. Passing boats created big waves.
- View: Another forested peninsula juts out across the busy main channel.
- Cleanliness: Some litter dotted the sand, but not enough to mar the visit.
- Amenities: Picnic tables with grills and a restroom are located up the hill.
- Admission: $5 per vehicle, $40 annual Corps parks pass. Senior annual pass and lifetime senior passes are also accepted.