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.

Sweet Hiking at Sweetwater Creek

view upstream lower rtOne of the goals of this blog is to encourage any one of any age to get out there and try some casual hiking. I believe most everyone can hike and that once you give it a try, you may find yourself hooked on something that provides relaxation, health benefits, great joy and freedom. But even if you have infirmities that may keep you from hiking or walking, my hope is that you can still find a way to get outdoors and just be present, enjoying nature at her finest. A few moments of sitting outside can provide interesting sights and sounds…the chirping of birds, the rustling of trees and the clean fragrance of the natural world…all of which serve to ground you and rejuvenate the soul.

Many of the places I will post about on this site are U.S. State and National Parks, all of which have handicap access to their visitor’s centers, assessable shelters for picnics and assessable viewing areas where you can sit and absorb the world around you. Many also have ADA compliant lodging and cabins available for longer stays. While visiting these parks, you might even stumble upon a fascinating and free raptor show at a nature center or a lodge, as we did one time in North Georgia!

Sweetwater Creek State Park is a great example of a park that everyone can enjoy. Along with Arabia Mountain, Sweetwater is on my list of top 10 favorite places to hike in and around the Atlanta area. With a location of only 15 miles west from the city of Atlanta, it’s the most visited park in Georgia and a prime destination for those seeking an outdoor picnic, hiking, bird watching, fishing, kayaking, pedal boating or even a camping adventure.

The park has 2,549 acres of land and includes an Interpretive Visitor’s Center that is one of the most environmentally responsible buildings anywhere, achieving the LEED-NC Platinum award from the U.S. Green Building Council. At the center, you can chat with a ranger, peruse the gift shop and pick up a map of the property that shows locations of the reservoir for boating and fishing, camping and picnic sites, and the trailheads for the 5 main trails here including elevation diagrams and degree of difficulty ratings. You can also check out a number of exhibits to learn about the historical background of the area, once the site of the town of New Manchester and the New Manchester mill, the ruins of which can be seen while hiking the first half of the Red Trail.

For the past four years, we’ve hiked here at least once a year on 4 of the 5 main trails including the Red, White, Yellow, and Orange trails and during all four seasons. This past Saturday, recent rains had made the water level extremely high in the creek, so our hike was a completely different experience from previous visits. It was a challenging day for kayakers negotiating the creek rapids and provided spectacular views for walkers and hikers.

The Red Trail
The Red Trail is a recommended favorite for first time visitors and is a “down and back” trail of 1 mile each way. The first half mile of this trail is wide and well marked, and is a very easy walk that takes you alongside the banks of the creek to the New Manchester mill ruins. The mill was burned during the Civil War and the ruins remain standing. You cannot go inside the ruins, but there are designated places to view them. Along the way you’ll see some trails that skirt the edge of the creek and a bridge that takes you across a stream and down a path with closer views of the water and wildlife. This is where we saw turtles sunning. You’ll have to back track and cross the bridge again to get to the ruins, as well as the second half of the trail.

Below is the first half of the Red Trail. Put your cursor over any photo to see a caption or click on any photo to get a slideshow with captions.

At this point if you want to continue to the end of the Red Trail (as we always do) the second half mile starts just downstream of the ruins where the creek begins to fill with rapids up to class IV+, and is accessed by taking the stairs located on the far side of the ruins down to the trail below. As you begin to head into rocky terrain and more elevation, the trail becomes more difficult, so watch your step carefully. The trail is full of interesting trees and has some magnificent views of the creek valley. The Red Trail connects to the White trail at the end of the 1-mile mark where you can loop back on the Red Trail to complete the 2 miles, or continue onto the more strenuous White Trail for a longer hike.

Above is the second half of the Red Trail. Put your cursor over any photo to see a caption or click on any photo to get a slideshow with captions.

The White Trail
The White Trail is a 5-mile loop which passes through some of the more remote areas of the park and is considered a moderate to difficult trail. It intersects the Red Trail at the New Manchester mill ruins, and it connects to the end of the Red Trail. Saturday we connected to it from the end of Red Trail at the 1-mile mark, and continued our hike on the White Trail to its end.

This scenic trail is all about streams, wildlife, birds, flowers and plants. Where it connects with the Red Trail you’ll view the largest rapids of the creek. Continue downstream past several stream coves and then turn west at the 2.5 mile marker towards the visitors center to hike uphill along Jack’s Branch and to Jack’s Lake, where there is a pretty little waterfall. You’ll climb out of the lake valley hiking alongside the lake first and lush forest, then at the summit you will come into an open meadow where you may see birds and other wildlife. Be sure to stay on the trail as the pasture is a habitat for the Timber/Canebreak rattlesnake. We’ve never seen one and I’d like to keep it that way! You continue on the White Trail, passing the Brown and Green Connector trails, until it returns you to the shelter areas and eventually back to the Visitor’s Center.

Above is the White Trail. Put your cursor over any photo to see a caption or click on any photo to get a slideshow with captions.

The Yellow/East Side Trail
This is a nice, shaded forest trail, great for when it’s hot, and it can be accessed by starting on the Red Trail at the Interpretive Visitor’s Center, then either turning left at the first Yellow Trail marker you come to, or continue down hill and turn left where the Red Trail meets Sweetwater Creek. It heads upstream to a bridge that crosses the creek. After crossing the bridge, take an immediate right and go downstream and across a wooden footbridge to the fork in the trail. The trail is a loop with an elevation gain of 350 feet. For a gradual ascent to the ridge, take the left fork. You’ll pass through beautiful hardwood forest as you ascend to the ridge, then you’ll descend into a ravine on the south side. Look for a large rock overhang used by Native Americans for shelter for many thousands of years, but please protect this archaeological site by not climbing the slope or on the rocks. As you leave the ravine and the trail levels, you’ll see Mountain Laurel (Rhododendron) in stands alongside the creek blooming in spring. In winter you can see the area where the bricks were made for the mill and the extraction pits. The loop ends at the fork and you return to the visitor’s center the way you came.

Above is the Yellow Trail last year when the water level was lower. Put your cursor over any photo to see a caption or click on any photo to get a slideshow with captions.

The Orange Trail
The Orange Trail is a lollipop trail that begins on the east side of the Yellow Trail. This moderately difficult trail is accessed by walking from the Interpretive Visitor’s Center to the Yellow Trail and taking the Yellow Trail up to the point right after you cross the bridge. The Orange Trail starts at the bridge and runs for 2.3 miles with 700 feet of elevation gain. In the past, we have continued on the Yellow Trail and accessed just the loop part of the Orange Trail from the halfway point of the Yellow Trail loop. It is a beautiful hardwood forest trail with high overlooks of the whitewater rapids of Sweetwater Creek.

***As of August 2018, a new section of the Orange Trail has opened, connecting to the lollipop loop without taking the Yellow Trail. You can start the Orange Trail by continuing straight after crossing the bridge and past the trailhead for the Blue Trail, until you see the orange marker on your right. When you reach the end of this new section, you can either continue on the lollipop loop Orange Trail, or pick up the Yellow Trail. I highly suggest picking up a revised map at the Visitor’s Center to see the trail connections.

The Blue Trail
This is a trail we have not yet hiked. It’s a 1.44 mile moderate loop trail beginning on the east side of Sweetwater Creek, which passes through varied terrain and habitats in the northeastern section of the park. Like the Orange Trail, you must walk the Yellow Trail to the point of crossing the bridge over Sweetwater Creek to reach the trailhead for the Blue Trail, then follow the blue blazes.

Sweetwater Creek State Park
1750 Mount Vernon Road
Lithia Springs, GA 30122

Additional Trail Tips:

Check out the Sweetwater State Park link in bold at the beginning of this post for directions and more information.

When hiking the through the pasture on the White Trail in hot weather and especially after a rain, (90 degrees+ F), it’s best to avoid walking through tall grasses if you can. Our first trek through there was after a torrential rain storm in 95 degree weather and we were attacked by chiggers.

You are in a natural habitat for many creatures including snakes, and this is true in any wooded area anywhere. Generally they are afraid of you and on those rare occasions that we see them, they are either playing dead or trying to get away from us. We saw a Copperhead trying to get off the trail and back to water on Saturday. We have not seen rattlesnakes here, but parts of the trail do go through their habitat. Just stay on the marked trail, keep a sharp eye out and all should be fine.

Due to the popularity of this area, arriving early means a better parking spot.

If you don’t already have a hiking stick and wish to purchase one, the gift shop in the Interpretive Visitor’s Center here sells them. They are fully equipped with paracord grips and loops, but are pricey. Sometimes they have plain sticks you can customize yourself for much less. See my section about hiking sticks on the Gearing Up For Fun page of this site for more information about customizing a stick.

expensive stick and cheap stick