Sometimes you need to get out and take a hike. This has been truer since the dawn of the pandemic when physical distancing is advised and travel is restricted. This was the sentiment when the kids are out of school for the holidays and staying indoors all day every day is not recommended. Even though it is winter and there may be colder and rainy days in the Southern USA, there could not have been a better day during the holidays to take a hike in the North Georgia mountains, the day after Christmas, Boxing day. We drove up with the kids to Dahlonega, Georgia for a four-day break. On the days leading up to our trip, our five-year-old son kept praying for snow, asking “Mama, will there be snow in the mountains?”, “I hope we get snow for Christmas.”. Living in Florida, the kids do not have memories of snowy winters unless we travel north which we have done a few times.
It was Christmas eve when the first flurries graced the outdoor deck in the backyard of the VRBO cottage we rented for the break. The kids excitedly ran out to feel the flurries which were more like big wet dewdrops which melted on contact with their warm hands and faces. However, come Christmas morning, those dewdrops had consolidated into about a half inch of snow. Just enough snow to see the edges of the dark brown fallen leaves of the poplar trees on the ground peeking through, just enough to dust the pavements and some parts of the street with frost and cold enough to turn icy. It was Christmas morning when we stepped outside and took those “white Christmas” photos for the day got warmer and most of the snow melted with the afternoon sun. The next day, we were not returning gifts as is suggested by “Boxing day”, we were heading out for a hike at the nearest state park, a 20minute drive from our Dahlonega cottage. We visited Amicalola Falls State Park.
The drive was simple enough, one can typically expect some windy roads and in the North Georgia mountains. There is a $5 entry fee at the gate which can be paid in cash or card at the reservation office where credit/debit cards are accepted. The Appalachian trail can be accessed in this park, but one would need a permit to hike this trail. With baby in the carrier on my chest and everyone else in jackets and winter coats, we chose to hike up the falls. The Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge is in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Dawsonville, one of the more southern locations of the North Georgia Mountains. Sitting on over 800 acres, the word “Amicalola” means “tumbling waters” in the Cherokee Indian language. The falls rushing over 729 feet of stony embankment is the 3rd highest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River with the second being Smuggler’s Fall in Vermont at 880 feet tall and Crabtree Falls in Virginia at over 1000 feet. There are several trails in the park that lead to the Falls. We chose the West Ridge Falls access trail and staircase because it involved paved trail with gravel and steps with railings which were a safer given the temperatures and the probability of ice on the trails hiking with our young hikers.
The hike is composed of uphill climbs and staircases and as one can imagine from the height of the falls, this is a strenuous hike, age and medical considerations must be taken seriously. Fortunately, at almost every staircase there is a short bench at the beginning and end of the stairwell but due to social distancing for covid-19 considerations one must be prepared to keep moving in case someone has occupied it upon your ascent or descent of the trail. We were masked for most of the hike as were most of our fellow hikers on the trail. However, given the difficulty of the climb most took the mask down to breathe periodically when there was no one else for several more feet on the trail. Realistically, this trail can be completed by a highly active six-year-old child and older. Otherwise, expect to pause for water breaks, or to catch your breath on a bench or even assist your young child up and down the trail. Mark had to alternate carrying our 3- and 5-year-old children up and down the trail, and I took frequent breaks with our 23lb infant I lugged in the carrier.
The views as we ascended simply became more breathtaking. The waterfalls gushed over the rocks and the blue hued mountains over the horizon visible through the leaf-barren trees were truly beyond fair description. At the top of the falls is a plateau and there is a road leading up to the falls such that if one is unable to hike, they can drive and park their car in the parking lot which is less than 100feet from the summit. The only restroom on this hike is at the summit and has one stall in the men’s and women’s, respectively. Further up is the lodge and restaurant which was not operational during the pandemic. We had drinking water in our backpacks and as on most road trips we paced our younger children making sure they stayed hydrated and took restroom breaks.
At the summit we indulged in scenes, taking photos of the landscape while the kids started a snowball fight on the grounds. The descent was noticeably steep, and we were holding on to the railings with as much grip as we did during our climb to ensure we stayed safe and did not slip down the steps. The descent took less than half the time it took to ascend and the walk downhill to our vehicle in the parking lot was quite leisurely. There are a few signs along the trail with information on the vegetation and wildlife native to the park, another great learning opportunity for the kids as well as a nice reason to stop and take a break on a rather strenuous hike.
It is worth noting the staff at this facility were extremely helpful and courteous. A map of the trails is available in the reservations office which also has a gift shop with souvenirs and treats peculiar to the area. In all, our visit to Amicalola Falls State Park was exactly what the doctor ordered. It gave us a chance to get outdoors and get some exercise which we could all use. We were able to explore a beautiful park in the North Georgia mountains safely while learning about our environment much closer to home.