Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Chattahoochee NRRA: East Palisades Trail (Blog Hike #203)

Trail: East Palisades Trail
Hike Location: Chattahoochee National River and Recreation Area
Geographic Location: north side of AtlantaGA
Length: 2.5 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: April 2014
Overview: A loop hike through mature forest featuring a fantastic overlook of the Chattahoochee River.

Directions to the trailhead: On the north side of Atlanta, take I-285 to Northside Dr. (exit 22).  Exit and go south.  Take Northside Dr. 1.2 miles to Indian Trail and turn right on Indian Trail.  The paved Indian Trail turns to gravel as you enter the park.  0.3 miles past this transition, the road ends at a large gravel parking lot.  Park in this lot.

The hike: Established by an act of Congress in 1978, the Chattahoochee National River and Recreation Area protects land along 48 miles of river on the north side of Atlanta.  Looking at a satellite map of the region, the recreation area appears as a green island within metropolitan Atlanta.  Indeed, even the drive into this area reveals the stark contrast with the surrounding area.  3 miles from the area you are zooming along congested I-285, 1 mile from the area you are admiring multi-million dollar homes along wide, quiet residential streets, and as you enter the area you roll carefully down a single-track gravel road.  Try telling someone from out of town that you drove on a gravel road 10 miles from downtown Atlanta!
            The recreation area is divided into 14 districts, each protecting a separate section of the river.  All of these districts offer river access, either by people or boats, and many of the districts also offer other recreation opportunities such as picnicking and hiking.  Of all of the recreation area’s many hiking trails, perhaps the finest can be found in the Indian Trail district, one of only two districts located inside the I-285 loop.  This district contains the East Palisades, a section of high, rocky bluffs offering spectacular views of the river.  Fortunately, a well-developed trail system provides easy access to the bluffs as well as close-up, more intimate views of the river.
Trailhead at Indian Trail parking area
            The trail begins at an information board at the far end of the parking lot as it enters the second growth hardwood forest.  The first 0.2 miles are level, but soon the trail begins a fairly steep descent toward the river, using a pair of broad switchbacks to ease the descent.  The trail loses 160 feet of elevation over the next 0.4 miles as it arrives at the floodplain of Long Island Creek, which soon comes into view on the left.  The trail crosses a small tributary on a wooden footbridge and then begins running parallel to Long Island Creek, heading downstream toward the river.
            At 0.6 miles, just before reaching the river, a spur trail exits left, crossing a bridge and leading to the Whitewater Creek parking lot, an alternate starting point for this hike.  Our trail curves to the right and begins traveling in sight of the river on the left, heading upstream.  At first the area by the river is congested due to the close proximity to the parking area, but as you travel upstream, the crowds will thin out and solitude will prevail.  In fact, this section of trail through the mature forest along the river is my favorite section of the preserve.  The two interstates, I-75 to the south and I-285 to the north, are too far away to be heard, and the hilly terrain by the river gives the hike a Big South Fork, Smoky Mountains, or north Georgia mountains feel.  Indeed, if not for the low buzz of a few airplanes overhead, you would have no idea you were only 10 miles from downtown Atlanta.
Chattahoochee River
            After 0.6 miles of traveling along the river, the trail climbs moderately to arrive at an intersection.  The trail heading straight ahead and downhill dead-ends back at the river, so turn right and continue climbing away from the river.  The trail climbs the hillside, using some broad switchbacks to keep the grade reasonable.  Ignore a trail that exits to the right, tackling the hill directly, and stick with the wider trail which continues climbing via broad switchbacks on a moderate grade.  Views of the river downhill to the left open up during the leafless months.
Climbing away from the river
            At 1.6 miles the trail enters a sunny and deep side ravine and, after one last switchback, arrives in a small clearing at the top of the hill.  In quick fashion the steeper trail you passed earlier enters from the right and a short connector trail exits to the right.  At 1.9 miles, you reach a major intersection marked by a small map posted on a wooden trail sign. 
Turn left here and descend 41 wooden steps to arrive at a spectacular wooden overlook that marks the highlight of this hike.  From this point some 150 feet above the river, the river appears as a blue streak sprinkled with yellow patches of rocks.  The river rustling over the rocks can still be heard; unfortunately, so can I-285 just to the north.  Spend some time here to observe everything there is to observe, which will take awhile.
River overlook
            From the overlook, take an unlikely path that exits to the right (north) side of the overlook.  The narrow trail clings perilously to the hillside at first, but soon it widens to the width you have become accustomed to on this hike.  This trail traces a semi-circle around the hill and avoids re-climbing the 41 steps you just descended.  Ignore a side trail that exits downhill to the left and, at 2.0 miles, join the trail descending the hill from the right. 
The wide combined trail maintains a ridgetop course offering nice views downhill into the mature forest on both sides.  The trail drops moderately into a slight saddle then climbs moderately to intersect the gravel entrance road at 2.4 miles.  Turn right on the gravel road and walk 0.1 miles along the narrow road, taking care to keep an eye and ear out for vehicle traffic, back to the parking area to complete the hike.

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