Unveiling the Hidden Gems of the Georgia State Park System

It may be the National Park’s 100th anniversary, but here in Georgia we have something else to celebrate as well: the Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites’ 85th anniversary.

To kick off the year, the park system revealed its “hidden gems”—spots that the rangers know about, but are often unfamiliar to the general public. From waterfalls to old moonshine stills, to secret jail houses and bald eagle nests, here are some of the most hidden gems of the Georgia State Parks system.

To see the full list and find out about ranger-led programs, visit the Georgia State Parks website.

The Tallulah Gorge Witch's Head rock formation (vintage photo).
The Tallulah Gorge Witch’s Head rock formation (vintage photo).
Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Visitors frequent Tallulah Gorge State Park to revel at the two-mile, 1,000-foot deep gorge, but many do not know about the multitude of discoveries just off the trail. The hidden gems here are best discovered through the guided hikes, where rangers will take you to discover places like:

The Gorge Floor Cave: The cave entrance is well-hidden unless you know where to look. Rangers will lead you into the gorge and on a rock-hop across the river to the steep banks that lead to the cave.

Needle’s Eye: A strenuous hike down 310 stairs leads to the popular suspension bridge, but you will use a rope to climb down to an old trail system above Hurricane Falls that crosses through the “Needle’s Eye.”

Witch’s Head Rock Formation: The two-mile hike to the top of Tallulah Dam takes you off the trail down a steep slope to a rocky outcrop that looks eerily similar to a witch’s head.

The Old Jail House: The hike around Terrora Circle by the lake leads to the old jail house, and rangers explain the history of its existence.

Point Rock: Beyond Tallulah Lake lies a historical rock, which was a popular photography spot in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Want to camp near Tallulah Gorge State Park? Sugar Mill Creek RV Resort is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and offers 48 RV sites, 5 tent areas, and a variety of recreational opportunities.

Another state park with off-the-trail excursions is Panola Mountain State Park. You may have heard about Panola Mountain’s unique ecology and monadnocks, as it features a granite outcrop similar to Stone Mountain. But just beyond the trail you’ll find hidden cemeteries, whiskey stills, and remnants of the park’s farming history.

The Chocolate Plantation on Sapelo Island.
The Chocolate Plantation on Sapelo Island.
Andre Turner, Georgia Conservancy

If you ever visit the remote Sapelo Island off Georgia’s Coast, take a trip to the Reynolds Mansion and then travel to the north end of the island to tour cotton plantation ruins. The Chocolate Plantation is home to ancient Native American shell rings that date back more than 4,500 years. Continue South from here and check out Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Explore over 400,000 acres of untouched nature and then spend a night relaxing at Okefenokee RV Park.

James H. Floyd State Park is located in the hills of northwest Georgia, where mining operations were popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The park’s marble mine is located along the Marble Mine Trail, which follows an old road for an easy, flat hike. The spring and winter rainfall often create a small 35-foot waterfall over the marble outcropping.

Homestead at Red Top Mountain State Park.
Homestead at Red Top Mountain State Park.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Red Top Mountain State Park ’s 5.5-mile Homestead Trail is home to, yup, old homesteads. These homesteads can be hard for the untrained eye to find as they blend in with the pinewood forest, so keep your eyes peeled for the decaying brick structures in the woods.

During the prohibition era, early settlers in northeast Georgia smuggled moonshine, and remnants of old moonshine stills are evident on some of Tugaloo State Park’s trails. On the other side of the state in northwest Georgia, Amicalola Falls State Park , generally known for its cascading waterfall, hides an old blue moonshine truck. While drivers were racing to get away from “revenuers,” the truck slipped 200 feet down the steep incline to its current resting spot against a stand of Poplar trees.

Unicoi State Park is located in the North Georgia Mountains just north of Helen, and rests on a fault line. Find the fault line by hiking the 2.5-mile loop on the Lake Trail around Unicoi Lake. Keep your eyes peeled for the fault line, which is shown by a large formation containing mica (fool’s gold) and quartz. Camp nearby at Jenny’s Creek Campground and explore the Sautee Nacoochee Valley.

Georgia’s bald eagle population is shrinking, but at Chattahoochee Bend State Park, they are lucky to have a bald eagle nest inside the park. If you visit, ask the visitors center where the nest is located, as it is a short hike off trail. The nest viewing area is best seen with binoculars.

The rare Georgia Aster can be found at Pickett’s Mill.
The rare Georgia Aster can be found at Pickett’s Mill.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Another rare find is the wildflowers that bloom in Pickett’s Mill Battlefield Historic Site. This historic site, located in northwest Georgia, is home to four miles of trails that travel through rolling hills, wide-open fields, steep rocky ledges, and low-lying mesic areas. Among the hidden plant communities is the rare Georgia Aster.

Greasy Creek Falls.
Greasy Creek Falls.
Alexa Lampasona

Black Rock Mountain State Park has the highest elevation of any Georgia State Park and is known for its stunning overlook, where visitors can see much of the North Georgia and North Carolina mountains. But off the Edmund C. Backcountry loop on the north edge of the park is the rarely visited Greasy Creek Falls. The waterfall is not listed on the map, but can be accessed off Taylors Chapel Road, and is closest to the parking lot by Black Rock Lake.

Featured image provided by Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Tony Cain title: Author