Nature’s Path: A Cut Above

cloudland

photo courtesy Cloudland Canyon State Park

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Georgia’s Cloudland Canyon State Park boasts a 1,000-foot gorge with awe-inspiring views and amazing waterfalls atop Lookout Mountain.

by RANDY GRIDER

There are no fancy slogans or catch phrases to promote Cloudland Canyon State Park. Its mystical name is just enough to provide a hint that there is something different here. No need to cheapen its magnificence with clever marketing ploys that would fail to capture its overwhelming natural beauty anyway.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]The canyon around which the 3,488-acre park is centered is a 1,000-foot gorge cut into the western brow of Lookout  Mountain just above the small town of Trenton, Ga. It’s a wonderland of geophysical formations that requires the visitor to work just a little to discover its many hidden treasures. Even its speculator vistas are almost hidden until you are upon them. This includes the incredible overlook that offers the best panoramic view of the Y-shaped canyon just off the eastern-rim parking lot. It’s like the entire place wants to hold its secrets as long as possible before hitting you with the wow factor.

All along the canyon rim lie different vantage points that harken the visitor to take another picture or stand and gaze – and wonder. And then there are the waterfalls. These, too, require you to expend a little effort to witness; the two can’t-miss, cascading waterfalls that were the catalysts for canyon itself require a bit of a hike.

Cloudland Canyon is one of the largest state parks in Georgia and arguably one of its most scenic. In 2013, the park welcomed almost 400,000 visitors – with fall being its busiest season as many flock to the area to see the colorful foliage.

Park manager Randell Meeks says Cloudland Canyon’s unique geology sets it apart from other state parks. The elevation drops from 1,980 feet along the canyon rim to 800 feet above sea level at the bottom. “The way the canyon has been formed by the creeks is different from anything else in the state,” Meeks says. “Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia share the Cumberland Plateau and the geology of it, but it takes up a very small place in Georgia – compared to the Piedmont, Appalachian and Coastal Plains. Many people just haven’t see this type of geology up here.”

The canyon itself carves out only a quarter-mile swath leading into Lookout Valley, shared by Sand Mountain to the west, but the entire park offers miles of hiking trails, camping and other outdoor-recreation activities that keep many visitors coming back year after year.

While the park’s setting in a rural area gives visitors a true sense of “getting away from it all,” Meeks says its proximity to Chattanooga provides an extra draw and makes it a destination point. “It’s great for people who also like the city life,” Meeks says. “We are not that far to the major restaurants and shopping. A lot of people come and stay here for three or four days. They might walk the trails one day and then go to Chattanooga the next to go to the aquarium or Rock City. We’ve got several interesting tourist attractions within a 30-minute drive of here.”

History

Obviously eons in the making and inhabited by Native Americans for centuries, the modern history of Cloudland Canyon as a park goes back about three quarters of a century. Cloudland Canyon was designated a state park in 1938 when Georgia began acquiring land from private owners – some of whom still live in the area. The park was originally 1,934 acres, but expanded over the years as new properties became available. Prior to its christening as Cloudland Canyon, the rugged area was known as Sitton Gulch (colloquially Sitton’s) or sometimes Sitton(‘s) Gulf – and occasionally Trenton’s Gulf.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, a public works program President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated during the Great Depression as part of his New Deal, did much of the early work to construct the park, including building access roads and signs. According to Meeks, unlike some parks built at the time, no original CCC lodging structures have survived at Cloudland Canyon.

Interestingly, Dade County, where Cloudland Canyon is located, was virtually isolated from the rest of Georgia before 1939, when the east-west Highway 136 was constructed to give visitors access to the park. The only practical way to enter or exit Dade County was through Tennessee or Alabama.

During the Civil War, Union troops on their way to the Battle of Chickamauga found crossing steep and rugged Lookout Mountain a demanding task. Approximately 40,000 federal troops crossed the mountain using Johnson’s Crook – a water-worn depression just south of Cloudland Canyon. Charles R. Dana, journalist and assistant secretary of war, wrote
in a report to Washington: “This region is composed of long mountains with few practicable passes. It is about 30 miles from the head of Lookout Mountain to the first gap, for instance. The roads are worse than those over any other mountains in the country; not impassable, but very destructive to wagons…”

Hiking and Waterfalls

Cloudland Canyon’s scenic views from the day-use area might be the most popular and most photographed aspect of the park, but the waterfalls run a close second. Unlike the paved path at the east rim near the parking area, the waterfalls – Cherokee Falls and Hemlock Falls – require a fair amount of endurance (not to say you need a Sherpa guide or oxen to pack you in and out – this is not the Himalayas, but to see one or both you must be prepared to climb in and out of the canyon).

The two-mile Waterfalls Trail begins at the paved section of the east rim and progresses into the canyon on a 40-degree slope. Most of the trail is comprised of gravel and stair steps – numbering more than 1,200 in total if you do both.

Cherokee Falls drops 60 feet, and further down is Hemlock Falls with a drop of 90 feet into the floor of the canyon. According to park secretary Rene Everett, until just a few years ago, the two falls were generically referred to by numbers or first and second. A park-sponsored name-the-waterfalls contest resulted in their romantic-sounding monikers.

“We have a photo contest each year with photos taken from our visitors, and we asked them to help us name the waterfalls,” Everett says. “We have many regular visitors who think this place is the best-kept secret in the state of Georgia.”

Cherokee Falls is the most popular because it’s the easiest to access, Meeks says. “When people come to us and say they want to hike to the waterfalls and are unsure of the climb, we suggest going to Cherokee first and, if you still feel up to it, then go on to Hemlock,” he says.

Both waterfalls are along Daniel Creek, which later merges with Bear Creek to form Sitton Gulch Creek. Interestingly, Sitton Gulch Creek – unlike the majority of waterways that flow in a southerly direction – runs northwest before emptying into the Tennessee River.

Other popular hiking trails include the West Rim Loop Trail (4.8 miles), which offers scenic canyon vistas and views of nearby Sand Mountain and Lookout Valley; Two-Mile Backcountry Loop, offering access to walk in camping sites among beautiful hemlock groves; Sitton Gulch Trail (2.5 miles), a diverse pathway by numerous small waterfalls, wildflowers and
open woods; and Bear Creek Backcountry Trail, a permit-only, 9-mile loop that is subject to close when high water makes it dangerous to ford the creek.

“The Waterfalls Trail and West Rim Trail are reportedly two of the most popular trails in the state,” Meeks says. “I’m an avid hiker myself, and seeing the volume of traffic on the trails, I would have to agree.”

This summer, the park officially expanded its trails system to encompass approximately 60 miles through a partnership with the Lula Lake Land Trust and the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association. The Cloudland Canyon Connector Trail system is a combination of single-track and multi-use trails that allows the public to access to back country lands outside the park.

Caving, Fishing and Disc Golf

Cloudland Canyon State Park boasts two wild caves for those who want to explore underground as well as above. Sitton’s Cave is a horizontal cave with less than a mile of passageway offering soda-straw stalactites; cave bacon (sheets of brown and beige mineral deposits that resemble bacon), as well as living creatures including bats, salamanders, fish and crayfish.

Water levels change according to the amount of rain.
Case Cave is a vertical cave with a 30-foot drop that requires rappelling and ascending skills to enter and exit. In the past, the 3-mile-long cave was damaged and littered with graffiti. The entrance is now blocked to limit the number of visitors.
Cloudland Canyon officials require visitors to have proper caving gear and to get a permit to explore the caves. “We require a permit because we want to limit the wear and tear on the natural resources of the cave and for the safety of the public,” Meeks says. “I need to know when people go in and out to make sure no one is in danger.”

Meeks says he advises inexperienced cavers to use the park’s concessionary group, Georgia Girl Guides (G3) for a guided tour of the caves. Park-based G3 also leads guided hikes and other adventures in the area.

Meeks adds that caves are closed during certain times of the year to allow the caverns “to rest” and limit the stress on wildlife, so it’s best to call ahead if you plan to make caving part of your visit.

Cloudland Canyon offers a stocked fishing pond that is catch-and-release December 1 through Labor Day and catch-and-keep the remainder of the year.

The park also offers an 18-hole disc-golf course. Though disc golf – played much like regular golf only with Frisbee-like plastic discs of varying weights and sizes – has been around for several decades, its popularity has increased tremendously, with the construction of new courses in the United States doubling in the past decade. A round at Cloudland Canyon,
which is considered a good intermediate-length course, is $4, and the park store carries a complete line of disc golf supplies.

Diverse Ecosystem

Wildlife lovers will no doubt find plenty to enjoy at Cloudland Canyon. Visitors often spot whitetail deer and wild turkey on roadsides. You might also encounter raccoons, red and gray foxes, gray squirrels, red-tailed hawks and other winged friends. An occasional black bear sighting is sometimes reported in the general area, but Meeks says he is unaware of anyone recently seeing one in the park. A great place to watch the animals is the Wildlife Viewing Area, complete with a raised platform overlooking a pond and feeding plots. Just after dawn and before dusk are the best times to catch a glimpse of numerous species.

Plant life is just as diverse. Rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets are interspersed with sour gum, dogwood, large oaks, hickories, hemlocks and maples along the trails. The park sports an array of wildflowers and other plants including tulips, Spanish bluebells, irises, cornflowers, and larkspur. Stephanie Fischer, the park’s naturalist, says Cloudland Canyon boasts two ecosystems, which can be attributed to its location and vast elevation differentials.

“The ecosystem on top is very different from what you find in the bottom of the canyon,” Fischer says. “The soil up top is very sandy and acidic so you get a different variety of trees and plants that grow up here compared to the bottom of the
canyon where we have a rich limestone soil. For example, we have Virginia pines or “scrub pines’ that grow in the rocks in almost no soil up top, but not down below. And there’s a huge diversity of wildflowers down in the bottom.”

The convergence of two systems can lead to some interesting differences in the same plant species, according to Fischer. “Take the Cherokee Falls area, for example,” she says. “We have a place called the ‘spray wall’ where we have jack-in-the-pulpits plants that the leaf part is purple, but when you get further down in the canyon, they are green.”

Fall is a perfect time to witness firsthand how elevation change affects nature in the canyon. “Up here it gets colder much faster than in the bottom,” Fischer says. “The leaves start changing up here and work their way down. You can go down in the valley and look up at the sides of the canyon and the top of the mountain will look like it’s on fire and it just fades out as it goes down in elevation. It does catch up for about a two-week window, but it starts up here much earlier.”

Lodging and facilities

Cloudland Canyon provides several options for overnight camping and lodging to fit any almost any budget or taste. There are 72 tent and RV sites with water and electrical hook-ups. Each camping area has a comfort station with hot showers. Additionally, there are 30 walk-in sites without water and electricity, but they do feature tables and a comfort station with hot showers. There are 11 backcountry sites, also without water and electrical hook-ups, but with tables and pit privies available. Also available are pioneer campsites for organized groups. Central water and pit privies are available, but no showers.

The next step up in accommodations is a yurt. The yurt village contains 10 semi-permanent, 20-foot, rounded tent structures that offer basic furnishings minus kitchen or appliances. A fire ring, an outside water spigot and table are part of each site. There is no air-conditioning, but the roof opens above a ceiling fan. A heater is provided for colder months. A comfort station with hot showers is onsite. Each yurt sleeps up to six people. No pets are allowed in the yurt village.

Glamping

Yurts offer compromise between tent camping and traditional lodging.

There is no hesitation on my part when weighing the lodging options at Cloudland Canyon State Park. I ask Park manager Randell Meeks if he will set me up in a yurt for my visit to the park, and he obliges. I’ve stayed in tents, RVs, cottages, cabins and chalets, but this is something new. A yurt looks just as exotic as it sounds. Staying in one is often referred to as “glamping” – glamorous camping.

I arrive several hours before my wife Olivia and 14-year-old daughter Ansley can drive up to join me. (Our son, Caden, missed the trip because he was visiting Olivia’s parents near Birmingham during a rare break from his summer sports schedule).

I want the extra time to do interviews, take photos and, admittedly, enjoy the rugged ambience of the yurt before it becomes cluttered with all the stuff my family will surely bring along for an overnight stay.

It is only a couple of days following the Fourth of July holiday, and the weather is pretty warm. The first thing I do is to roll up the canvas and plastic covering the windows to allow the breeze to filter through the structure. Then, using the long,
hand-crank tool, I open the top of the yurt and turn on the ceiling fan. The air flow provides a bit of comfort – not cool like one would expect from an air conditioning unit, but it is pleasant enough considering the ambient temperature outside is in the high 80s and fairly humid.

Taking stock of the place, I am quite impressed. The 20-foot-diameter, rounded structure made of canvas and wood has a bunk bed with a full mattress on top and a futon on bottom. Another futon with a small table sits along the back wall opposite of the front door and becomes my temporary work station. An island bar/table and swivel chairs are situated just off another door that leads to a small deck. I am also impressed with the quality of the furnishings – all sturdy wood sure
to hold up to constant use.

Since Cloudland Canyon’s yurts were constructed less than two years ago, there has been a steady increase in the number of people renting them. Meeks says the park has seen a 7-percent increase in rentals compare to this time last year. “The yurts
often fill up before the cottages,” he says. That makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, the uniqueness of a yurt is a draw and then there’s the price – about half of what it costs to rent a fully furnished cottage during the peak season.

Without a kitchen area – no stove, refrigerator or sink – and no indoor bathroom – you are still roughing it in a sense. Each site does have an outside water spigot, fire ring for cooking and picnic table. A comfort station with bathrooms and showers is located in the yurt village. Knowing Olivia and Ansley will be arriving late, I opt to forego building a fire to cook and instead grab a few ready-to-eat items at a nearby convenience store. I know Olivia will come prepared with additional
food, so I feel adequately prepared to survive on the contents of the ice chest.

Olivia and Ansley arrive just before dark and, after unloading the car, we settle in – having snacks and drinks on the deck among the stars is a great stress-reliever. After Olivia and Ansley play a game of chess on a table with an inlaid chess board,
we make our beds (you must bring your own linens, pillows, towels, etc.). The yurt has become very pleasant with the night air. I find myself reaching for a blanket. The next morning after breakfast, we explore a little around the West
Rim Trail that runs just behind our yurt and drive through the park, visiting the scenic overlook near the eastern-rim parking lot, before Olivia and Ansley have to leave (work and majorette conditioning,  respectively).

I visit a family staying in a neighboring yurt while Olivia is getting their stuff packed. Alan and Staci Shaddix and their daughters, Erica, 7, and Anna, 13, are from Pell City, Ala., and have been staying in the yurt village for several days. “The
first time we visited the park, we stayed in a pop-up camper,” Alan says. “We liked the park and when we decided to return, we thought a yurt would be completely a different experience and it has been. We love it.”

I spend the rest of the day exploring the park, and, before I regretfully have to leave for a commitment back in Alabama, I give “my yurt” one last look as I pull away and make mental plans to return. I am forever hooked on glamping – where roughing it and rustic luxury meet halfway.

If You Go

GETTING THERE: Cloudland Canyon State Park is just off Georgia Highway 136 at 122 Cloudland Canyon Park Road, Rising Fawn,GA 30738.

HOURS: Gates are open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. EST.

ADMISSION: A daily parking pass is $5 for regular vehicles, and an annual pass is $50. Prices vary for larger vehicles like vans and buses. Discounts on annual passes are available for senior citizens and disabled veterans.

GUIDED TOURS: To schedule a guided adventure including area hikes and caving, visit georgiagirlguides.com or call 706-913-7170.

LODGING: For rates on campsites, yurts and cottages, as well as rentals of other facilities, visit gastateparks.org/cloudlandcanyon or call 706-657-4050 or 800-864-7275. The park also offers a wedding package with special rates on many amenities.

OTHER AREA ATTRACTIONS: Canyon Grill (canyongrill.com), a restaurant that draws patrons from all over the
region, is less than a mile away, and Lookout Mountain Flight Park (hanglide.com), less than a 10-minute drive, is a great place to watch hang-gliding enthusiasts soar from the western bluff of Lookout Mountain or to try it yourself.

MORE INFO: gastateparks.org/cloudlandcanyon
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