Hidden Trails in Atlanta: Constitution Lakes and the Doll’s Head Trail


In the heat of summer, these amazing and quite large, blue dragonflies abound here in the wetlands. They are as curious about you as you are about them!

Until I read the wonderful book by Jonah McDonald, Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests Intown and Out, I had no idea just how many trails, streams, forests and birding areas were hidden in the midst of this city’s neighborhoods. In fact, hiking and walking in these areas can provide great insight into how the city developed over time, revealing its roots. I highly recommend this book as a guide to Atlantans or visitors to Atlanta who want to get out and enjoy nature without traveling too far from home, and especially to those who wish to see some of the fine, old trees still standing. Who knows? You may even discover a trail in your own back yard.

One of these hidden forests lies in south DeKalb County, south of downtown Atlanta and I-20 and just off Moreland Avenue. Constitution Lakes is a wildlife preserve and part of the DeKalb County park system. The area is unique and has an interesting history.

Above: Our first visit to the area in Fall 2015 and the always changing Doll’s Head Trail. 

Before the Civil War, this area was the site of the South River Brick Company, a major supplier of brick for Atlanta’s buildings from the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s. After the company was sold in 1915, the brickworks subsequently fell to ruin and the excavation pits filled with water to become what is now Constitution Lakes. Train tracks pass through one side of the area which provided materials and commerce for the brickworks in the past.

The next few decades found the area being used as a dumping site for old brick as well as refuse from people and trains passing through. In 2003 DeKalb County bought the land and added a parking lot, a paved walkway down to the lakes and boardwalks. A local carpenter who had often visited the area, became a driving force in helping to restore it to the interesting park that we see today. While doing extensive clean up work and trail blazing, he gathered a lot of the old terracotta brick, tiles and trash and repurposed them into “found art” pieces ranging from sculpture to poetry and historical markers. A dedicated section of the park called “The Doll’s Head Trail” now showcases this found art, and is always changing with recent additions. Visitors are encouraged to contribute their poems or creative works to the trail from found materials and debris within the park, as long as you follow the posted rules for doing so. At times you may even find Sharpie markers hanging along the trail to use for your contribution. This now infamous trail is definitely a “do not miss” part of any visit to Constitution Lakes.

Above: Different seasons, the aging of the old and addition of the latest artwork made our third visit to the area and The Doll’s Head Trail a new experience. Click on any image for captions and to see a slideshow.

The park as a whole consists of a series of paved trails, boardwalk trails and hard packed dirt trails, including the recently completed section connecting the boardwalks over the wetlands to a loop through forest and back to the parking lot. The lakes are a lively wetland habitat and host birds, fish, wildlife and a variety of plants which can be seen from the trails and viewing decks. Walking here at various times of the year we’ve seen deer, butterflies, turtles, fish, bullfrogs, tadpoles, blue dragonflies, heron, egret, geese, ducks, lily pads, cattails, wildflowers and various trees including willow oaks along the water’s edge—just to name a few things. And let’s not forget the artwork along the Doll’s Head Trail. Overall, Constitution Lakes Park is a unique and amazing place to see, and a favorite of ours.

texture low water

Above is a view of the marsh flora on our second visit the summer of 2017, during a drought and while the water was very low.

Below are scenes of the trails and wetlands from last weekend, May 2018. What a difference rain and a year can make! Click any image below for captions and a slideshow.

The whole loop through the forest, wetlands and Doll’s Head Trail is around three miles of flat terrain, making it a perfect short hike for a busy Saturday. We recommend starting on the hard packed dirt trail accessed to the right of the concrete seating area in the parking lot, and finishing your loop by coming out on the paved trail. The Doll’s Head Trail is well marked on approach from any direction. However, for handicapped access or if you just want to see the lakes, viewing decks and the Doll’s Head Trail, you should enter from the paved trail.

To find out more about Constitution Lakes as well as directions by clicking on this link and visiting the Friends of Constitution Lakes Facebook page.

Constitution Lakes
1305 South River Industrial Blvd SE
Atlanta, Georgia 30315

Additional Trail Tips: 

  Because this is a wetland area and habitat, the dirt trails may be muddy after rain and the mosquitoes will be out during warm months. Bringing and using some mosquito repellant on yourself if you aren’t covered up, might not be a bad idea.


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