Red Top Mountain State Park

rock formations

Rock outcroppings.

Of Georgia’s many beautiful state parks, Red Top Mountain State Park is definitely a favorite. Situated on Lake Allatoona and the Etowah River, this delightful park is located in Acworth, Georgia just outside of Cartersville, and is about a 40 mile drive north from downtown Atlanta, making it a great place for a day trip. The park features over 15 miles of hiking trails, cabins for rent, campsites, picnic sites, a marina with boat rentals and lots of opportunities to swim, boat and fish.

Red Top Mountain was so named for the soil’s rich red color, which is caused by the high iron-ore content in the area. Iron ore mining was once important in this historic area and you can see evidence of the ore and the ruins of homesteads throughout the park.

Taking I-75 north from Atlanta, exit at Red Top Mountain State Park/Acworth to enter the park, then follow the signage to the Visitor’s Center for a parking pass. You must have a pass to park anywhere and the rangers here do check often, so get one if you don’t already have a Georgia State Park Annual Pass. A day pass is a bargain at $5.00 per vehicle and you can either deposit cash in a marked box and take your pass, or the rangers inside the Visitor’s Center will take major credit cards and issue you a pass. The Visitor’s Center also serves as a general store, has restrooms and is currently the check-in point for campers and cabin rentals as well as a source for trail maps and information.

The park contains six hiking trails of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty. We come here year round and have hiked them all many times, but the area never gets old with its many interesting sights and ever changing water vistas which can be seen from most of the trails.

Scenes from the Iron Hill Trail. Click on any image above for a caption or slideshow.

Iron Hill Trail
On our most recent visit a week ago, we decided to hike the blue-blazed Iron Hill Trail again. This 3.9 mile moderate loop trail (not including any branch-off trails) is one you can’t access from the Visitor’s Center, but it is only 1/2 mile down the road from it on the right and past the campground, and it has its own parking area. If you’re camping, you can access this trail from the campground by a short walk via the Campground Trail.

With its gravel and hard pack surface, the Iron Hill Trail is the only trail within the park that is accessible to both bicycles and hikers, and most sections of the trail are wide enough to accommodate everyone with ease. It’s a very scenic and fun hike, featuring a meandering loop that follows along the banks of the lake and through an area that was once the home of an active mining community in the mid-1800s.

On this particular day, we discovered some previously unexplored (by us) smaller trails branching off the main trail and leading to what appears to have been the location of the old campground, which we’ve jokingly renamed the “ghost camp.” While these “off-the-main-trail” areas have become a little overgrown and one must step lightly, the remnants of cement picnic tables, docks and open areas offer some pretty views of the lake and make a nice place to enjoy a picnic or take a break. As we entered an off-trail area, we disturbed several tree frogs, one of whom held its ground for the photo below. The entire Iron Hill Trail offers many opportunities to observe native wildlife and plants.

Tree frog

Little tree froggy says don’t mess with me!

Sweetgum Trail, Homestead Trail and Lakeside Trail
We often like to combine the Sweetgum, Homestead and Lakeside Trails for a longer hike, but each of these individually provides a nice hike or walk with lots to see and do. Facing the Visitor’s Center look for the Sweetgum Trail Sign on your right at the parking lot and pick up that red-blazed trail, or alternatively, pick up the Homestead Trail to the left of the front stairs of the center.

The Sweetgum trail alone is a moderate, 3.5 mile loop through beautiful woods and a cove, and it joins the Homestead trail in two sections. At its northeastern point, the Sweetgum Trail will take you past the Lodge and Park Office which recently burned and is under repair (there is more parking here as well). Here you can also pick up the short, easy .75 mile loop Lakeside Trail. The Lakeside Trail is a paved, ADA accessible trail for its entire length. A focal point of the Lakeside Trail is the 1869 Vaughn cabin where special programs are held and in front of the cabin is an open structure where an annual iron pour takes place. Additionally, there are lots of benches and picnic spots as well as a boat dock along the shoreline.

The 5.5 mile in total, yellow-blazed Homestead Trail departs from the left side of the Visitor’s Center, turns north through the woods for a mile intersecting the Sweetgum Trail at two points, then crosses Lodge Road and makes a 3.5 mile loop along the lakeshore for about half of its length. This trail runs through some of the most beautiful areas of the park and is named after the homesteads once located along the loop, where the ruins of one can be accessed from the trail. After completing the loop, the trail retraces back across Lodge Road and south for the mile back to the Visitor’s Center. This trail is classified as moderate, but has more elevation than the other trails in the park.

Scenes from the Sweetgum Trail, Homestead Trail and Lakeside Trail. Click on any image for a caption and slideshow.

The Visitor Center Loop Trail and the White Tail Trail
These two short trails share connections with the Sweetgum Trail on different ends. The .75 mile Visitor Center Loop Trail begins 100 yards down the Sweetgum Trail where you bear right and follow the green blazes through shaded hardwood forest and to a small spring-fed stream. The White Tail Trail is a .5 mile one way, out and back trail that starts at the Lodge end of the Sweetgum Trail and shares a trailhead there, then turns off and runs north to its end at a scenic viewing point on the edge of Lake Allatoona.

Red Top Mountain State Park
50 Lodge Road SE
Acworth, GA 30102
Bartow County
Park 770-975-0055
Visitor Center 770-975-4226
Reservations 800-864-7275

Additional Trail Tips:

•  Summer months are very busy here and parking can be at a premium at the Visitor’s Center. More parking is available at the Lodge on Lodge Road, and at the trailhead for the Iron Hill Trail.

•  Campsites and Cabins book well in advance. Check here for availability, reservations and more information about the park.



Waterfall Day Tripping at DeSoto Falls and Helton Creek Falls, Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, Georgia


Summer is a time when I always want to hike next to water. The cool spray of a waterfall, the breezes from rivers and the sounds of rushing water seem to make the heat of the day just melt away…or at least more tolerable!

For waterfall lovers, visiting DeSoto Falls and Helton Creek Falls is an easily doable day trip from Atlanta, and this area of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest is truly a delightful place to put together several short hikes of moderate elevation. On a recent trip to North Georgia, both falls at DeSoto and the falls at Helton Creek were at maximum capacity due to the heavy amounts of rain we’ve had so far this season, making them even more spectacular than usual.

DeSoto Falls Upper 1

DeSoto Falls, upper falls

DeSoto Falls
A piece of armor found here that was thought to be from Hernando de Soto’s expedition in the 1500’s, gave these falls their name. The DeSoto Falls Recreation Area is located just off Georgia Highway 19/129 and is south of Blairsville, Georgia. This scenic area is a popular spot for camping, trout fishing, picnics and hiking. At just over 2 miles to visit both falls, these well-marked and easy to moderate trails are great for families with children and provide diverse views of forest, rhododendron-lined rushing creeks and not one, but two lovely waterfalls.

The trailhead to the upper and lower falls is picked up at the paved parking area where you will have to pay a small fee to park if you don’t have a National Park pass. You’ll follow the trail down past a shady picnic area next to the rushing Frogtown Creek, then intersect with a paved drive in the camping area and head to the left for a few feet until you reach the signage and wooden bridge that crosses Frogtown Creek. Cross the bridge and follow the signage to the left for the lower falls and its observation deck, then retrace your steps back to the bridge and continue on the green-blazed trail to the larger, upper falls. Both picturesque trails run beside lovely old pines, rock outcroppings and rushing waters, and both have varying amounts of moderate elevation that provide breathtaking views of the falls on approach. As with the lower falls trail, you’ll retrace your steps back on the upper falls trail to the bridge over Frogtown Creek and then to the parking lot to complete the hike.

Lower DeSoto Falls

DeSoto Falls, lower falls

Helton Creek Falls2

Helton Creek Falls and swimming hole.

Helton Creek Falls
Slightly north of DeSoto Falls and before you reach Vogel State Park lies the somewhat hidden Helton Creek Falls. It’s a really nice one to see on the same day as DeSoto because of their close proximity off the same highway. The trail to Helton Creek Falls is an easy, short trail culminating in a well-sighted observation deck, making it a comfortable addition to the DeSoto hike. The caveat here is getting to the trailhead.

Heading north from DeSoto Falls on Highway 129/19, turn right at Helton Creek Road. The part graveled, part packed dirt and heavily pitted 2-mile long road to get to the trailhead can be a bit precarious and parking on a crowded day is at a premium. The road runs past rental cabins and like most mountain roads to cabins, it is very narrow in spots. If you aren’t comfortable with backing up to let someone else pass, you may not want to tackle it. We managed it in a regular, non-4-wheel drive vehicle as all the while I was expressing my desire for having a 4-wheel drive vehicle! My best advice is to go slowly, be aware of blind spots and be prepared to pull over to allow others to pass in less than ideal situations.

As they say, ‘Good things come to those who pursue…’ or something like that, and the payoff of dealing with the road is really worth the effort here because these falls are a massive sight to behold. And for those interested in swimming, they have a large and popular swimming hole at their base. The trailhead can be found on the right as you enter the small pullout parking area and it’s a .2 mile hike to the falls. There are a few abrupt changes in grade which allow for some wonderful views of the creek and rushing water over tiers of rocky outcrops as you make your way to the observation deck at the base of the falls.

lower Helton Creek Falls

View downstream of Helton Creek Falls.

While this area doesn’t offer picnic tables that we observed, the parking lot appears to be a happy place for tailgating.

For more information on DeSoto Falls Recreation Area, click here.
For more information on Helton Creek Falls, click here.

Additional Trail Tips:

  As mentioned above, be prepared for the road to access Helton Creek Falls.

  Want to fuel up before you go? Click on “Trail Mix” to check out this new section and get some delicious recipe ideas for before, during and after your hikes. New links will be continuously added.