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Backpacker Magazine – Online Only

Cloudland Canyon State Park

by: William Oglesby

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Little-Known Fact: Cloudland Canyon State Park straddles a deep gorge cut into the mountain by Sitton Gulch Creek.

Transfixed, I stand on the rocky outcropping, watching a pair of peregrine falcons soar, circle, and dive in the steady breeze. Are they hunters or lovers? Suddenly a gust of wind tears the hat off my head. I turn just in time to see it fall to the floor of Cloudland Canyon. It's lost, and when I turn my eyes back to the birds, they too have disappeared.

That's a sign to get moving, but I take one last look into the gorge. From this overlook I can see most of the Y-shaped canyon. Its 1,000-foot sandstone walls were carved over the past 30 million years to the west by Daniel Creek and to the east by Bear Creek. The trees at the bottom display all the muted colors of fall: rust and ocher and deep forest green. This is the focal point of Cloudland Canyon State Park, a 2,200-acre parcel in the northwest corner of Georgia. It's a natural wonder unlike anything else in the state.

I continue my hike along the 6.5-mile Backcountry Trail, one of two loop trails in the park. The trek begins with a steep descent into the canyon. After crossing Bear Creek six or seven times, the trail ascends the other side and heads into a deep forest. The ground is so uniformly covered with leaves that the trail is hidden, and I'm dependent on the red blazes to find my way. I manage to finish the day's hike without getting lost and settle in for a crisp, clear Georgia night.

On Sunday morning I try the second loop. The head of the West Rim Hiking Trail is at the main overlook near the parking area. (The first quarter mile is paved in asphalt and wheelchair accessible.) From here I have a magnificent view of Sitton Gulch, and I spend a moment contemplating the layers of shale and sandstone that reveal the geologic history of the area.

A short spur trail soon cuts off and leads down a long series of wooden steps and boardwalks to two magnificent waterfalls. At the upper falls a sheet of water pours over a bowl-shaped rock wall and plummets 50 feet into a large pool. Daniel Creek continues down to the lower falls, where it cascades over a 90-foot cliff. Despite the dazzling height, the most spectacular feature of this waterfall is the monolithic boulder that juts out of the settling pool.

After backtracking out of the gorge, I continue along the 4.5-mile West Rim Trail. In contrast to the more remote but less view-intensive Backcountry Trail, this one is almost entirely on the edge of the canyon, offering seemingly unlimited vistas and several smooth boulders for picnicking. Eventually the trail turns its back to the canyon and loops back through another stunning forest.

If you're looking for solitude, plan a trip during the winter, when the car-campers retreat and prime backcountry sites are there for the choosing. Trust me, the peregrines will be all the company you'll need.

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Sep 08, 2010

The backcountry sites are great year round, there's so much distance between them and they are a significant distance from the trailhead. This is one of my favorite state park primitive camping sites nationally. You're nowhere near car campers or RV's. Great in fall when the trees turn, but make sure you bring water, the creeks are dry.


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