Cloudland Canyon: An Autumn Hike into Georgia’s Best Kept Secret

Before heading up north, I decided to take an autumn hike in one of the south’s top obscure attractions: Cloudland Canyon.

Despite the many activities that have made Lookout Mountain famous, most residents in the region seem unaware of the unique canyon it forms in northwestern Georgia.  It features unique rock formations and lush plant life, both offering incredible views during fall.  The park also offers visitors hiking, biking, and back country trails, as well as a variety of accommodations for extended stay.

The entrance to Cloudland Canyon actually rests on top of Lookout Mountain.  Visitors are able to visit a nice park area featuring picnic tables, vending machines, an educational area, and breathtaking views, all without the necessity for a strenuous hike.  I also found this an interesting start for my autumn hike.  At its higher elevation, the park offered more vibrant fall colors than those found in the canyon below.  Various signs offered descriptions of the local plant and animal life.  I was surprised to find that flying squirrels were native to this area, though they are also (and unfortunately) nocturnal.  Overlooks to the north and west offered views of different sections within the canyon and the fall foliage that was beginning to break through the rock formations.  However, it was the canyon floor that was particularly curious.  Looking down, it seemed that only trees lined the bottom.  Yet the sounds of crashing water revealed a clue to the world that would be revealed after descending.

Fall Colors on the western wall of Cloudland Canyon

A view of of the western wall of Cloudland Canyon, featuring colorful fall foliage.

From the park at the north end, a trail leads visitors down the side of the canyon.  The descent quickly offers clues to the hidden treasures below.  Unique, ancient rock formations line the path, offering a look at the local geological history and even a few resting spots.  Small streams of water can also be found along the trail.

Cloudland Canyon Trailhead

The trailhead leading down the eastern wall of Cloudland Canyon

As I descended the many staircases and stone paths, I began to see the difference in fall foliage between the higher and lower elevations. There appeared to be a definable line between the end of fall colors and the beginning of thicker, greener flora.  In addition to capturing this line, I also wanted to take more pictures of the stairways so others could know what to expect.  This, however, was a particularly crowded day.  I prefer to respect the privacy of others, and was limited to capturing pictures on the few empty clearings available.

Cloudland Canyon Staircase

One of the many staircases leading to the bottom of Cloudland Canyon

About halfway down, the trail splits to the left or right.  The trail to the right continues my journey to the canyon floor, while the one to the left provides access to the west side of the canyon.  I decided to head over there first and see how the canyon looked from the other side.  Along the way, I soon found that Cloudland Canyon is easily home to some of the rockiest trails I have ever encountered.  This is particularly cumbersome during an autumn hike, as even a thin layer of fallen leaves will easily conceal prominent and sharp rocks.  I had to choose my steps carefully, especially as the path began to narrow.

Cloudland Canyon's rocky terrain

Some of the rocky terrain that comes with a hike through Cloudland Canyon’s Trails

The south side of the canyon actually flattens to some extent, making access to the other side surprisingly easy.  A small wooden bridge completes the link, and I soon found myself on the western wall.  The path became increasingly narrow and steep as I continued my autumn hike into this new area.  I also noticed a significant thinning in the crowds and soon found myself alone on the trail.  As I continued hiking upward, I found some interesting rock formations, including one with small streams of water flowing from above.

Cloudland Canyon rock formation

A rock formation along the western wall of Cloudland Canyon that features small streams of water

The path beyond this formation looked treacherous (and may not have even been a trail at all).  Though I wanted to see the view from the other side, I decided to just drive there later and headed back to the original trail.  I continued along past the split and was soon greeted by a rather large rock outcropping with a stone bench tucked underneath.  Naturally, the bench was crowded with daring hikers, so I continued down the steep stairway.

Jutting boulder at Cloudland Canyon

If you dare, you can relax on a stone bench placed under this massive boulder.

By the time I reached the canyon floor, the trees and shrubbery largely resembled those found during summer.  Tucked underneath the fall leaves, however, was a world that shattered expectations.  A large creek flowed quickly through an abundance of rock formations, and the nearby sounds of falling water promised multiple waterfalls.  And it was all hidden from the higher views by a thick canopy of trees.   There were many new sights to see, as my autumn hike had only just begun.  I was greeted by a sign offering a view of the Cherokee falls to the left or Hemlock falls to the right.  Given the loud shouts of a few (likely) drunken people to the left, I decided to head for Hemlock Falls.

This is actually a park that I have visited once before, and as I neared Hemlock Falls, disappointment began to set in.  The raging river that flowed through this canyon during the summer had trickled down to a creek.  I could easily make out the areas once covered with water that now boasted sharp rocks.  I had a feeling this would hinder the majesty of the waterfalls I had seen earlier this year.  After taking the semi-transparent bridge over Daniel Creek, I descended a path leading around Hemlock Falls, where my suspicions were confirmed: the waterfall was, indeed, significantly smaller.  This, unfortunately, is a downside to any autumn hike, as many tributaries, creeks, and rivers seem to diminish, sometimes completely.

Hemlock Falls in Cloudland Canyon

What’s left of Hemlock Falls in Cloudland Canyon. Sadly, my camera doesn’t do such a great job of taking waterfall shots.

Despite my disappointment, I still veered off of the trail (and broke an important safety rule) to get a closer view of what was left of the waterfall.  I had to climb down a steep embankment, relying on the gnarly roots of a nearby tree for support.  At the bottom, I found large stones jutting out of the water, providing convenient access from nearly any angle.  I was able to get surprisingly close, inhibited only by slippery rocks and the threat of getting soaked in the midst of cool temperatures.

Back on the path, the Waterfall trail connects with Sittons Gulch to the north.  This trail offers autumn hikers a view of a much smaller waterfall that forms from the rock infested pool of Hemlock Falls.  Unfortunately, this once vibrant waterfall had diminished to barely a trickle.  It left little hope as I continued on my way to Sittons Gulch falls, which was also significantly reduced.  However, by the time I reached this waterfall, a familiar occurrence began to take shape.  Despite the Weather Channel’s promise of no rain, I began to feel light drops while observing what remained of the nearby falls.  It served as a disappointing reminder of my last shortened autumn hike at Fort Mountain, but I still persisted on my way to see Cherokee falls before ending my autumn hike.

Cherokee Falls in Cloudland Canyon

What’s left of Cherokee Falls with fall foliage across the top.

When I reached the intersection between the two falls and the main trail, the shouting at Cherokee Falls seemed to have ceased.  This was confirmed as I made my way around the mountainside and through a wooded area, though my anticipation for disappointment was not disappointed.  Cherokee falls, despite its height, was still reduced to a trickle, though the fall foliage just above still made for a serene setting.  Unfortunately, the precipitation became heavier, leading me to once again end an autumn hike early.  By the time I finished my ascent to the top, the weather had given way to a full-blown rain storm.  Fortunately, the thick forest canopy shielded me from most of the rain heading up, so I wasn’t too wet by the time I returned to my car.

Cloudland Canyon rainstorm

Rain sweeping through Cloudland Canyon, cutting my autumn hike short.

Comparative shots of the waterfalls can be found in the gallery.

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4 thoughts on “Cloudland Canyon: An Autumn Hike into Georgia’s Best Kept Secret

  1. Pingback: Deeper into the Woods | Adventures of an Expat Returned

  2. What a spectacular place, and not so different from parts of the Appalachian Trail near my house. I’ve just a post on autumn foliage on my blog, and at the end I included this article of yours in a list of links to other posts on autumn foliage from around the world. I look forward to reading more from you.

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