The front view of the new Visitor Center at Amicalola Park. It has a wide sidewalk leading to the front door of a stacked stone and green and gray board-and-batton building.

The new Visitor Center at Amicalola Falls State Park awaits thousands of Appalachian Trail hikers expected to take the Approach Trail to the Southern Terminus at Springer Mountain this month.

Thousands of backpackers will tread under the rock arch at Amicalola Falls State Park this month on the Approach Trail to the Appalachian Trail southern terminus on Springer Mountain. For many, the park’s well-appointed new Visitor Center may be the last vestige of civilization they see in days or weeks.

And what a great place to start a journey! The Visitor Center, opened last fall, will welcome AT hikers from all over the world with a cup of hot latte, a quick sandwich, and a chance to honor their forebears in a modern facility the much-loved park deserves. The old facility, built more than 50 years ago from a picnic shelter, may have launched special memories, but it could not muster the hospitality worthy of a Georgia State Park crown jewel. The 829-acre park between Dawsonville and Dahlonega ranks among the top three Georgia parks for visitation. Many come to gaze at one of the highest cascading waterfalls in the Southeast, dine at the Cascades restaurant, camp, or spend the day hiking park trails. Some aim to walk more than 2,000 miles on the AT to Maine.

Park General Manager Robert Berrey expected about 1,000 visitors at the March 1-3 Appalachian Trail Gateways festival, a hiking extravaganza that kicks off the AT thru-hiker season. Most will see the new center for the first time. It’s likely to be a “wow” moment.

The structure greets guests with an aesthetic nod to the mountains and water that bring throngs to the park. Three steep-pitched aluminum-topped gables shine atop gray board-and-batten and engineered cedar shake siding grounded solidly in stone resembling the rocks of the famous arch.

A view of the inside of the new Falls Cafe showing its beverage counter, snacks and ice cream.

The Falls Cafe inside the new Visitor Center State Park is a popular stop for coffee, ice cream, sandwiches and more.

Inside, a coffee bar and mini-market with deli sandwiches and snacks offer refreshments and picnic supplies. Berrey observed this feature, a common amenity at state parks, is a popular draw. While sipping a latte, visitors can mosey over to the Georgia AT exhibit and a topo relief map to press buttons spotlighting AT shelters along Georgia’s approximately 78 miles of the trail. A history of the trail, beginning with its inception in 1921 by forester Benton MacKaye, includes photos and examples of the bulky gear that the first thru-hiker, Earl Shaffer, toted in 1948. A tribute to Gene Espy honors the first Georgian to walk the trail to Mount Katahdin three years later.

Another exhibit spotlights Dawson County’s heritage of moonshine and fast cars. A 65-gallon copper pot still, thump keg and white lightnin’ recipe looks back on the north Georgia county’s 150-plus year history of running ‘shine from prohibition until its current prominence in the same building with Dawsonville City Hall and the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. Photos trace the origin of NASCAR with high-performance cars, revved up to outrun the “revenuers,” across the Southeast.

A side view of the moonshine still and photos of NASCAR's origins.

An old moonshine still and photos depicting NASCAR’s origin are part of an historical tribute to Dawson County at the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor Center.

Live snakes common to north Georgia reside in glass enclosures of a wildlife exhibit. An Eastern King Snake and several varieties of rat snakes laze in miniature habitats. Visitors curious about bird songs or even raccoon chatter can push buttons to hear a cardinal call or other wild animal sounds.

The Visitor Center also houses a multi-purpose meeting room and staff offices, including a dedicated office for the Len Foote Hike Inn, a rustic lodge accessible via trail. The new restrooms in an adjoining building provide much nicer facilities than the former outdated ones.

Staff at the center’s information desk are available to answer questions about trails, lodging and more. They also keep an annual registration book of hikers setting out on the AT on the Approach Trail. As of mid-February, 129 hopeful thru-hikers signed their intent to finish in Maine. They hail from as far away as Honolulu and as close as Gainesville. They hoisted packs weighing between 20 to 65 pounds. Statistically, only about 25 percent of an estimated 4,000 prospective thru-hikers complete the trek each year. Hikers are not required to register, Berrey said, but some like to record their start.

Berrey noted that although the famous trail actually starts on Springer Mountain at the edge of Dawson and Gilmer counties, many northbounders relish a send-off at Amicalola Falls. They stay at the park lodge the night before their trek, eat breakfast at Cascades restaurant, and transfer supplies into their backpacks before they bid farewell to friends and family seeing them off. The 8.5 mile AT Approach Trail gives them a good preview of the mountainous miles to come.

A view from the ground looking up at the falls with white water streaming down over the rocky cliff.

Amicalola Creek drops 729 feet, making Amicalola Falls the third highest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River.

“Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge continue to amaze 350,000 Georgia residents and regional guests annually,” said Charles Burton, Executive Director of the North Georgia Mountains Authority. Speaking at the Visitor Center grand opening in October, Burton remarked that the new facility “is a perfect complement to Amicalola’s beautiful mountain lodge, 829 acres, the Appalachian Trail, and Georgia’s tallest waterfall. The Visitor Center provides Coral Hospitality and their Amicalola team a world-class facility to ensure guest expectations are being exceeded for decades to come.” The state contracts with Florida-based Coral Hospitality to manage the park.

Much of the funding for the center was provided through a $2.5 million Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Program “Conserve Georgia Grant” approved by the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund Board of Trustees, Board of Natural Resources, and the Appropriations Subcommittees of the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate over Georgia DNR’s budget. Additionally, financial support and contributions were given by The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, The Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, Friends of Amicalola State Park, Len Foote Hike Inn Board, and more.

Photos: by Jane Harrison