Friday, January 4, 2019

Sweetwater Creek State Park: White Trail (Blog Hike #729)

Trail: White Trail
Hike Location: Sweetwater Creek State Park
Geographic Location: east of Douglasville, GA (33.75335, -84.62945)
Length: 4.9 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2018
Overview: A loop hike, mostly moderate but with a few short rocky sections, featuring the New Manchester Mill ruins and cascading Sweetwater Creek.

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Atlanta, take I-20 to Lee Road (exit 41).  Exit and drive Lee Rd. south 1 mile to Cedar Terrace Road; there is a sign for Sweetwater Creek State Park here.  Turn left on Cedar Terrace Rd.  Drive Cedar Terrace Rd. east 0.8 miles to Mt. Vernon Road and turn right on Mt. Vernon Rd.  The signed park entrance that leads to the Visitor Center is 0.3 miles ahead on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the park entrance fee, and drive the main park road to the parking loop in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: More a river than a creek, interesting Sweetwater Creek flows for 45.6 miles through western Georgia.  The creek rises in southwestern Paulding County, flows east into Cobb County, then turns south through Douglas County before emptying into the Chattahoochee River west of Atlanta.  Hiking along Sweetwater Creek is very enjoyable and very similar to hiking through the Chattahoochee River palisades, which are only a few miles east of here.
Less than 4 miles north of its mouth Sweetwater Creek bisects its namesake state park, a 2549 acre major recreation destination on the west side of metro Atlanta.  The park features a 215 acre man-made lake for boating and fishing, 10 yurts, and 7 picnic shelters.  The park’s location and amenities make it the most visited state park in Georgia, so try to plan a weekday or off-season visit here to avoid the crowds.  I hiked here the day after Christmas with plenty of company on the trail, but I still had a good hike.
For hikers, the park offers 7 trails totaling 15 miles that explore all areas of the park, but the park’s best hiking is along Sweetwater Creek.  The park’s most popular trail is the Red Trail, a 1 mile one-way out-and-back that leads down the creek’s west bank to the New Manchester Mill ruins and beside some whitewater rapids.  This hike describes the White Trail, which forms a 4.9 mile loop.  The White Trail takes you to all of the sites the Red Trail does, but it avoids some rocky areas, the retracing of steps, and the major crowds the Red Trail makes you endure.
Start of White Trail
The first and only real route-finding challenge is finding the start of the White Trail.  From the information kiosk beside the Visitor Center that marks the start of the Red Trail, walk behind the Visitor Center and look for the white carsonite post at the edge of the woods that marks the beginning of the White Trail.  Henceforth large numbers of white paint blazes and white plastic diamonds keep you on the right route.  The White Trail heads into the forest, which is dominated by the usual midlands mix of loblolly pine, beech, maple, and oak.
Almost immediately the White Trail splits to form its loop at a signed intersection.  To get to the scenic creek quickly, this description angles left and uses the trail going right as its return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The trail descends into the first of several side ravines that feed into Sweetwater Creek.  These ravines are about 100 feet deep, but for the most part the trail grades are gradual to moderate.  Wooden bridges get you across the side creeks, and benches provide opportunities to rest if needed.
Climbing out of a side ravine
            1 mile into the hike, the Green Trail exits right.  The Green Trail is one of two connector trails that could be used to reduce this hike’s distance, but this description angles left to stay on the White Trail.  Soon Sweetwater Creek comes into view for the first time as you approach the mouth of the side ravine.
At 1.1 miles, you reach an intersection with the Red Trail and the ruins of the New Manchester Mill.  Originally called the Sweetwater Manufacturing Company, the New Manchester Mill opened in 1849 and stood 5 stories tall.  The mill produced textile products until July 9, 1864, when the mill was burned by Union troops in the Civil War.  Today only a partial brick shell remains, and a black chain link fence keeps visitors away from the ruins except on guided hikes.  Take a few minutes to read the interpretive signs and view the ruins from the many viewing platforms that have been built along the trail.
New Manchester Mill ruins

New Manchester Mill ruins, south face
Both the Red Trail and the White Trail head south (downstream) from the mill ruins.  The two trails come back together less than 1 mile downstream, so you could choose either route.  The Red Trail stays closer to the creek, and it is shorter but rockier.  This hike will stay on the White Trail, which takes a more winding route and explores more of the side ravines.
After tracing around the next side ravine, the trail reaches a local high point before beginning the main descent back to Sweetwater Creek.  The descent is gradual to moderate at first, but the last few hundred feet are rather steep and rocky.  At 1.9 miles, you reach the south end of the Red Trail.  Turn right to continue heading downstream on the White Trail.
Big rapid in Sweetwater Creek
The trail descends a steep set of wooden steps with a big rapid in Sweetwater Creek visible downhill to the left.  The creek becomes more placid as you continue downstream, but some rock outcrops may require you to use your hands to clamber up and over.  The sandy soil under foot here reminds you that this creek is prone to flooding, and the tall hills on either side of the creek make this area feel like the north Georgia mountains or the plateau region of eastern Tennessee.
Placid section of Sweetwater Creek
At 2.4 miles, the trail curves right to leave Sweetwater Creek and head up Jack’s Branch.  At the midpoint of this hike, you cross the Brown Trail.  Turning right on the Brown Trail gives a second and final chance to short-cut this hike.  This description continues straight to stay on the White Trail.
The gradual climb up Jack’s Branch leads to a steep climb up the man-made dam that forms Jack’s Lake.  Built in 1972 to be a recreation spot before the park was formed, Jack’s Lake provides a wetland habitat for a wide variety of wildlife including frogs, fish, and snakes.  A bench located atop the dam allows you to sit, rest, and observe the lake via a partially obstructed view.
Hiking above Jack's Lake
The trail now joins a wide two-track path that appears to be an old road as it heads west above the north side of Jack’s Lake.  Due to a dam reconstruction, lake levels are lower than they used to be, and a thick area of brush sits between the trail and the water.  Near 3 miles into the hike, the trail curves right and begins the moderate climb out of Jack’s Branch ravine.
At 3.4 miles, you reach an area known as Jack’s Hill that marks the highest elevation of the hike.  The Brown and Green Trails enter from the right in that order as the trail assumes a ridgetop course through an old farm field that is still early in the process of reverting to forest.  Some interpretive signs describe the flora and fauna of this area, and a very informative trail brochure that describes some of what you will see on this hike is available at the Visitor Center.
Hiking over Jack's Hill
            3.8 miles into the hike, the trail joins the gravel driveway for the assistant ranger’s residence, which it will follow for the next 2000 feet.  Watch for the white plastic diamonds and paint blazes to find where the trail exits the driveway to the right, still following a wide two-track treadway.  At 4.3 miles, you reach the park’s main picnic area.  The trail crosses the picnic area loop road twice and spends most of its distance through the picnic area inside the loop.  This section of trail is surprisingly quiet and natural-looking considering it passes through a picnic area.
            After crossing the picnic area loop road the second time, a gradual descent brings you to the close of the White Trail’s loop.  Turn left to quickly return to the Visitor Center and complete the hike.  The Visitor Center offers some interesting exhibits on the area’s Civil War history and on life at the New Manchester Mill, so it is worth a visit either before or after your hike.

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