Visiting the National Parks in the ATL
The Atlanta metro area National Parks Service units distill poignant moments in American history, including the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. As well, the ecological sites are strikingly beautiful, restorative, and ripe with recreational opportunities
Within the city limits, you can enjoy:
Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Park
Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park
A bit further afield, visit:
Little River Canyon National Preserve, the start of Appalachian National Scenic Trail
This site is a collection of buildings and locations in the Sweet Auburn district of Atlanta that mark pivotal moments in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. Among these are his childhood home and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he delivered many sermons that have echoed through time and defined his heroism and vision as a human and civil rights activist and advocate. King's birth home, where he lived until age 12, is recently renovated; free tours of the interior fill up quickly and are on a first-come, first-served basis. We highly recommend stopping off at the visitor center close to 10:00 a.m to place your name on the list, and then touring the rest of the historic park while you wait for your tour time. Arrivals after noon are less likely to secure a spot.
Before touring King's home, pause at the park visitor center for a comprehensive look at King’s life, accomplishments, death, and continued legacy. The museum is an emotional visit where you should plan 45 minutes (at the least). Depending on the season, the International World Peace Rose Garden may be in bloom. The garden is directly outside of the visitor center and features rose varieties from around the world. From here, a stop at the old Ebenezer Baptist Church is in order to see the location in which King and his father both preached. The church is also recently restored to its 1960's iteration, when both men preached actively. Do allow at least a half an hour to appreciate the church and the wonderful renovation work, as it feels like you have traveled directly back in time.
Depending on how much time you have before your tour of the home, you can also stop at the King Center, where both Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr lay, and pause at an Eternal Flame that burns above their burial site, which is beneath a recirculating pool. Next, visit restored Fire Station #6, a short walk away. The exhibits inside detail the history of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood during and after the Jim Crow era. Many preserved relics are fascinating, including a handwritten manual reflecting safe towns, homes, and roads for African-Americans to drive during segregation, and a (quite grand) 1930’s fire engine.
Just north of Atlanta, a series of land parcels form the 44 mile long Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. These parks are all connected to the river, and reflect a thriving riparian ecosystem while imparting the history of the region. Each park has its own unique identity, some abundant in hikes with overlooks into the Palisades, others with expansive vistas of Jones Bridge and the wooded overlooks of the Gold Branch. The park provides maps that are easy to interpret, and these are available along the trails—so, if you want to keep going past the unit where you picked up the paper map, it's easy to continue to the next unit and the continuation of the trails.
It’s also possible to rent a kayak or canoe and take to the water! You can navigate the entire 48 miles of river recreation area, from the reservoir Lake Sidney Lanier (named after the poet who wrote about the land), to the last portion in metro Atlanta, the Palisades. Short paddles are easily accomplished in a couple hours, and a fantastic way to explore on the water. Don't forget to stop and look for the bridge that was completely stolen! We found Chattahoochee River NRA to be quite amazing, and due to Atlanta’s rather mild winter weather, it’s possible to hike through most of the year (though you may wish to hike early in the day during the humid summer months.) Make sure to stop at the visitor’s center in the Island Ford district, in a 1930’s lodge, for great tips on which sections to explore. Rangers may share their favorite portions of the park with you, and you will develop a favorite too, after exploring here. Also make sure to check out the Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy, a non-profit partner that does extraordinary work to preserve and protect the park.
A major battlefield in the Civil War, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park preserves and interprets one of the final large scale battles before the fall of Atlanta and the end of the Civil War. Today, the mountain looms large over the Atlanta area. The mountain is made of metamorphic rock and was created when North America and Africa collided to make the Pangaean supercontinent hundreds of millions of years ago. You can hike up to the top of the mountain (and back down), a relatively steep mile, but if you aren’t interested in the exercise, the park does run a shuttle service on weekends for $3; the fare is waved if you have the America the Beautiful pass. You do need a ticket to board the shuttle bus. The museum and education display at the visitor's center follows the economic and war-industry value of Atlanta and Georgia, and offers a brief primer on the Civil War. The mountain is the main portion of the park, however you can drive to the other sites of the battle, including the terrible and infamous Dead Angle, where you can stand at the same point where Confederate forces held high ground in 1864, and peer down the steep incline that Union troops attempted (and failed) to scale. Many of the trenches, rifle pits, and earthworks established by both Confederate and Union troops remain to this day. Though they are now more overgrown and weathered, the battlefield is still quite present as it was when the fighting erupted here in 1865.
Little River Canyon N PRES the start of Appalachian NST
An easy day trip from Atlanta, the Little River Canyon National Preserve protects and celebrates the Little River, one of the largest mountaintop rivers in the United States. The river has cut a picturesque canyon, replete with many stunning overlooks and vistas. One easy way to see the site is via the 13-mile scenic drive that winds along the north rim of the canyon.
Also a short day trip from Atlanta is the start (or end, depending on your hiking direction!) of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Springer Mountain is located in the Chattahoochee National Forest, and marks the southern terminus of the trail. The trail crosses all manner of public land branches, though the National Parks Service is the main entity that manages the entire trail. If you’re not venturing north to Mount Katahdin in Maine, a journey up Springer Mountain will do for a good, moderate day hike. To get your passport stamp for the National Scenic Trail, head to the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor Center in Dawsonville, Georgia.