A few weeks ago, we looked at the new boardwalk trail through some of the wetlands areas near the Chattahoochee Nature Center. I’ve enjoyed hearing from folks several of you who have enjoyed that neat and easily accessible hike!
But did you know that there’s more great hiking not far from the new boardwalk? There is indeed – and one place to find it is in the Gold Branch Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.
The Gold Branch Unit’s trails have a different feel than many of the other trails in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. There’s something about many of them that almost gives you a sense of being in the backcountry.
The unit’s trails crisscross and intersect to form a complex network, allowing you to combine them in a variety of ways to create just about any sort of hike you desire. We don’t have room here to describe all the great hikes offered at Gold Branch, though detailed maps of these and other CRNRA trails are included in the book “Hiking the Hooch.”
But we do have room here to take a look at the unit’s South Loop Trail. It’s one of my personal favorite trails in all of CRNRA. In fact, if you’re looking to get away from it all without having to drive a long ways to do so, then that South Loop Trail may be the perfect trail for you.
The South Loop Trail takes you far from the beaten track, at least by CRNRA trail standards, and that remoteness adds to its wilderness feel. The loop features some leg-stretching elevation changes as well as relatively level hiking along ridges or along the shoreline of Bull Sluice Lake. Some parts of this loop definitely lean toward the “rugged” category, so it may not be the best hike to choose if your party includes small children. But if you’re looking for a bit of challenging hiking, this is the trail for you.
You’ll start this and all other Gold Branch Unit hikes at the trailhead located in the back corner of the Gold Branch Unit parking area off Lower Roswell Road. To reach the parking area, follow Willeo Road to its intersection with Lower Roswell Road and turn left on Lower Roswell Road. The entrance to the parking area will be on your left about 0.7 miles beyond that intersection.
It’s worth noting that this parking area is paved with a special porous concrete that lets storm water percolate slowly through the concrete instead of running off all at once and potentially causing erosion or thermal shock to the nearby waters.
From the trailhead, you’ll enter the woods and descend to a boardwalk which carries you through a wetland area. Just beyond the boardwalk is intersection G2. These trail intersections are numbered by the National Park Service, which makes it much easier to keep track of where you are.
Turn right at G2 and continue to intersection G3; then turn right again and make your way to intersection G10. There, turn right yet again and continue to intersection G11. At last, you’ve reached the South Loop trail.
Now which way should you go? How about clockwise? Sure!
Begin the loop proper by turning left at G11 and making the long descent to intersection G12, where you’ll turn right and begin following the shoreline of Bull Sluice. Every yard of trail seems to take you farther from the bustle of urban life, and you’ll feel yourself relaxing with every step you take.
You’ll eventually ford a small creek in a scenic little cove, reminding you of a scene that you might encounter in the mountains of Northern Georgia. The murmur of the little creek and the whisper of wind just may be the only sounds you hear.
Beyond the ford, the trail follows the cove back toward Bull Sluice and then again turns to follow the shoreline. For the next 500 yards or so, the hiking is fairly easy, but you’ll eventually encounter about 75 yards of rough and rocky going. Take your time as you pick your way over that more challenging section of trail.
A small wet-weather branch crosses the trail near the end of the rocky stretch, and about 150 yards beyond that, you’ll cross another small branch which rises from the deep gully to your right. A third such branch crosses the trail a few hundred yards farther on.
Beyond that third branch is a bit over 100 yards of fairly decent trail. But then the trail undergoes a sudden change of character, turning to red clay and beginning a steep climb that continues for 150 yards or so.
After the climb, you’ll enjoy about 40 paces of fairly level hiking before the trail begins to climb again. Several hundred yards of hiking will eventually bring you a point where the trail bends right – and that’s where you may be able to spot a classic artifact of the southern woods: a rusted piece of bullet-riddled sheet metal. Exactly what that sheet metal might have been is open to interpretation, but part of an old car (or maybe a washing machine?) seems to be as good a guess as any.
The shot-up sheet metal is just one of the quirky surprises that await you along this section of trail. There are many. I could tell you what they are, but that would take the fun out of it. Keep your eyes open as you hike, and see what you can discover on your own.
Another 500 or so yards of hiking beyond that unfortunate piece of metal will ultimately bring you back to intersection G11. From there, turn left to backtrack toward the trailhead to explore other Gold Branch Unit trails or, if you’re ready for a break, to return to your car. Or you can turn right at G11 and hike the south loop trails again!