Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area proposes trail overhaul for first time in park's history

ann honious
Ann Honious, superintendent at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, said the units of the park closest to Atlanta are the busiest, and she hopes more people will explore areas further north towards Lake Lanier. (Molly Samuel/WABE)

The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is one of the most-visited parks in the National Park system. Last year, it had about the same number of visits as Yosemite, according to the National Park Service.

As well-loved and well-used as the park’s trails are, there’s not actually much intention behind the 65-mile trail system as a whole. Most of the trails predate the park itself.

Now, for the first time, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is working on a big-picture plan for the trails in its 15 units that stretch from Lake Lanier to inside the Perimeter, in order to make the trails safer and easier to maintain, and to better protect the natural environments they wind through.

“We’ve never done a trails management plan,” said Ann Honious, superintendent at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. “Most of our trails have been inherited from the property that became part of the national park; social trails or old roadbeds.”

The problem with social trails — paths that people walk over and over again, until a trail forms itself — is that they might not actually be the best way to hike, heading straight uphill, for example, or hugging close to a ledge.  

On the Vickery Creek trail in Roswell, Honious pointed out a path coming down a steep hill that was getting washed out by water.

“You can see the path that the rain came down and how it’s eroding as the trail goes uphill,” she said.

It adds up to a trail system that is difficult to maintain and can be unsafe in spots. It’s also not great for the natural areas that the Park Service wants to protect.

In its new plan, the park is proposing changes to existing trails and adding about 30 miles of new trails, including accessible trails.

In some places, including the Vickery Creek unit, officials are proposing a total overhaul of the trails. One of the parking lots at that unit, off of Riverside Road, would close. Honious said that plan is in collaboration with the City of Roswell, which is trying to improve traffic safety in the area.

Honious said the plan will help the park be more organized and intentional about trail maintenance. It will also allow the park to connect better with its neighbors, creating links to other local and regional parks and greenways.

“Instead of being a self-contained park, we have the opportunity to work with others to enhance what this park brings people,” Honious said.

For instance, the Park Service is working with the City of Johns Creek on a trail that would extend into the national recreation area. That project is part of a much larger effort, the Chattahoochee RiverLands, which aims to connect 100-plus miles of trails and parks along the river in metro Atlanta.  

Phillip Hodges, a board member and past president of the Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy, said the review and overhaul is a long time coming. The Conservancy is the park’s philanthropic partner, and has helped with the trail review.

“If we could turn the clock back, this should have been done 40-plus years ago,” he said.

Even now that it is being done, though, it will still take as much as 20 years to implement.

“Don’t get too excited, because this will take a lot of time and a lot of money and the National Park Service moves slowly and deliberately,” he said. “This is really big, this is really good for the park, but it’s going to take a long time.”

The plan itself isn’t final yet; the National Park Service is taking written comments from the public on the proposal until the end of this month.