Secret Vistas: Camping, Hiking and Photography at Cloudland Canyon State Park

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Cloudland Canyon falls. [Click for a photo essay]

By Glynn Wilson

CLOUDLAND CANYON, Ga. – It now seems like nearly an eternity ago, at least in technology time, but about 12 years ago I came up with this idea for a magazine feature called Secret Vistas. Here is how I explained it then.

The Southland is rich in secret vistas — little-known places that touch the heart and stir the spirit. Secluded Gulf of Mexico beaches in the off season. Quiet Appalachian hiking trails and glistening streams thick with trout. Hidden forests with trees dating back to the time of Christopher Columbus. Pools and caves alive with the spirit of Cherokee medicine. Little-known views as stunning as anything in the North or West.

Sometimes it’s not just the setting, but the time or season making a scene special. Wild flowers in a meadow in spring. An albino fawn feeding streamside, spotted through the mists of a summer dawn. The Monarch butterfly migration on the Gulf Coast in late fall. A camp site in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a winter morning, with just a light dusting of snow, the clouds hanging low in the spruce fir.

You don’t go out looking for vistas that will haunt you forever, but sometimes you find them. Especially if you live or spend time in the South.

Everyone should know a special place like this in nature. Some of us with a heightened sense of biophilia know many. This is probably more important for mental and physical health in modern society than the strongest of perscription drugs or annual checkups.

Here we share a select few of these with the rest of the world, knowing full well most people will never actually disturb the places. But they are always in search of somewhere to go, many for this inner fulfillment.

Why do 10 million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park every year, for instance? To view the scenery, say 95 percent of visitors surveyed by the National Park Service, especially in the fall. To see what others have seen and, perhaps, something that no one else has noticed. To marvel at nature’s bounty and to mentally relax.

This urge is endemic to the human spirit and predates the last ice age 10,000 years ago. But since the dawn of the industrial age, the longing to escape cityscapes for natural landscapes has grown more desperate as greenspaces give way to sprawling development. Perhaps we are losing this sense. Many seem content to read about these places or to view them through the television or computer screen. Our readers, I suspect, like to read about these special places AND experience them.

That is what this feature is all about, in addition to what admirers of Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams liked to call a “sense of place.”

The idea has to do with the historical development of our society on one hand and our evolutionary past on the other. That is, industrial development patterns and the crossroads of the nature verses nurture debate. Many of these places are not really all that secret. But they are special in Mother Nature’s locale, and timing is sometimes critical.

We opened with a piece by former Southern Magazine editor and Outside magazine contributing editor Donovan Webster: Heaven Can Wait: The timeless terrain of the Smokies screams eternity, but there’s more exploring to do.

Cloudland Canyon

Last week, as I sat on the porch in the suburbs of Birmingham waiting on the summer heat and humidity to finally subside and transition to the first cool breezes of fall, I found myself going a bit nuts. The sweat was still pouring into my eyes just moving about the yard. Longing for a few days and nights at a higher, cooler elevation, away from the city and even out of the state of Alabama, I did some Google searching and talking to friends to find a place within a short drive of Birmingham to camp.

The place I chose is called Cloudland Canyon State Park.

Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains on the western edge of Lookout Mountain in the northwest corner of Georgia, just across the Alabama and Tennessee lines near the town of Rising Fawn, there is an incredibly scenic camping spot. Showing off some rugged mountain geology from 800 to 1,980 feet above sea level with exceptional hiking, the park straddles a deep gorge cut into the mountain by Sitton Gulch Creek. Visitors come to see the twin waterfalls cascade over layers of sandstone and shale into the creek below in the middle of a hemlock forest. Stunning.

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A Chattanooga couple at one of the Cloudland Canyon overlooks after hiking to the water falls

While there, I ran into a number of couples from Chattanooga who come to hike to the falls as a Sunday afternoon day trip. One couple passed me on the way down near the end of the day but still beat me back to the top of the 1,200 stairs traversing about 900 feet from bottom to top along the The Waterfalls Trail. We stopped at the top to exchange information and photos.

Both waterfalls cascade off of sheer faces at 60 and 90 feet, and are among the most beautiful in the state of Georgia, according to the park’s Website. As proclaimed, it was a strenuous and time-consuming hike, more than two hours if you go to both falls and further down Sitton Gulch Trail as I did, since I was searching for the geocached treasure.

I stayed in the West Rim Campground, since one of the park rangers said it was the most wooded and secluded. The East Rim Campground, however, is closer to the trail head and the falls (see park map), although I found the entire area very compact and easy to negotiate.

There’s even a great local restaurant just down the road called Geneva’s with plenty of local color. They advertise the hamburger steak for $5.99. For Sunday lunch, it was turkey and dressing with mashed potatoes, green beans and broccoli with cheese sauce, cornbread and sweat tea.

Georgia’s state parks are some of the best run and maintained in the country, while Alabama’s state parks have been allowed to run down over the past decade or more under largely Republican leadership and management, although at $28 a night, Georgia’s parks are also a tad pricey.

One of the weaknesses of the park’s Website is that there is no detailed discussion of the local wildlife. I didn’t see any bears, but I did catch a glimpse of a white-tailed deer family by the road. Not much in the way of birds to photograph, but I did see a scorpion on the campsite and a very large black spider in the bath house on the last day, so be careful.

On a positive note, while the park only has WiFi by the ranger station and welcome center, the cell phone service was excellent. Using the Verizon Mobile Internet dongle, my connection was almost as fast as the wireless router hooked up to a cable modem at home. You don’t find that much in the wilderness.

Thanks to the state of Georgia and the nice, helpful folks at Cloudland Canyon State Park for an enjoyable and memorable weekend camping trip. I will stop in this place again sometime. Well worth the visit.

© 2011 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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