This wonderful bit of deliciously post apocalyptic used-to-be-radioactive forest land, (for more on its fascinating history see the other Dawson Forest posts), has one major drawback. The Etowah River, (read: massive, fast flowing water body), runs right through it.
So what do you do when you find out half the trails are on the opposite side of the river from you? You go in search of a bridge. Duh.
Is it goat approved? Probably. The park hosts a ton a horse back riders, allows overnight primitive camping anywhere on the property, and has biker/hiker/horse trails. I didn’t earn so much as a glance from two slightly tipsy women on horseback.
How you get there: Google it. Then know that Jewell Staton Rd. is closed to thru traffic. Instead, just stay straight on Hwy 9 and you will see signs and the crazy complicated intersection for Dawson Forest Rd. During your trip to the park be aware that Georgia refers to its rural highways by both a number (i.e. Hwy 369 E) and a name (i.e. Murray Hwy). What the road is called changes periodically, sometimes every other crossroads, so watch out for what number or name your road is called by to avoid getting lost if going without GPS. Remember that park closings and gate closings are common with this location, so check the website. Both sides of the gate you enter by may not be unlocked as well, requiring some negotiation. Roads inside the park are not big enough for two cars to pass comfortably at the same time. The best bit, though, is that the main parking area is actually on TOP of ruins! I parked my truck next to everybody else who parked on top of an old building foundation. Which is pretty freaking cool.
Time for hike: The distance for this hike is 6.7 miles round trip, (enough to wear a 3 month old goat out!), and utilizes the blue/red and red blaze trails as shown in the map below only.
Best season to do this hike: Except for the first week in August when the park is closed for maintenance, summer is probably the time to come. With park closings due to turkey season in the spring and deer season, (which devours the whole winter), summer is a blessedly park and gate closing free gap in the continual tasty carnage that occurs at this wildlife rich location.
Trails to Take
This hike does a loop utilizing the blue/red and red trails. Unlike most of the park which relies on gravel roads for hiking/horsing around/biking, this hike is mostly little skinny trails going up and down and out through the woods.
Starting off from the main parking lot which is just beyond the gate off Dawson Forest Road, (well marked with a brown sign that lists about a bajillion things you might want to do there). To get on the trail walk back towards the road you came in on, (from the main park gate). When you reach the tree line, turn left and follow the tree line along the road. A little skinny looks like a drainage ditch but isn’t trail will lead through the trees and down to the main road and trail kiosk. Walk out onto the main road and head for the gate you entered the park by. Just before you reach the main gate there will be a “road closed” gate to your left. Go around that and head off down the powerline cut. Congratulations – you are now on the trail! You do not want to know how long it took me to figure that out.
You will meander out through the power line cut and end up at a gravel road. Go left, and proceed along the edge of the woods. This gravel road crosses the Etowah on the namesake bridge. JUST BEFORE the bridge, on your left, is a tiny game path type trail half choked with thorns. If you go down this you will quickly find yourself at the fascinating pump house that once drained water from the Etowah to feed the nuclear facilities. This place is fantastic and worth a side trip.
Once you are back on the road watch for the red blaze to leave this road and go down another road that has a “road closed” sign on the gate. There’s a sign indicating that your new road only opens for hunting season near the gate. You will come up a hill with an open field/wildlife plot to your left, and the trail splits here to make its loop. The wildlife plot seems to attract turkeys.
If you take the right hand fork you meander out through densely packed woods, over a few streams, and dead end into a poorly maintained gravel road. Go left, and you are now on the red blaze only portion of the trail
The gravel road wanders up hill and down hill, then crosses a power line cut into what looks like based on tracks is some serious coyote country. The main gravel road makes a sharp bend left, crosses back across the powerline cut, (great spot to catch a breeze!), and back into the sweltering jungle of the southeast. There are a TON of little creeks that need to be crossed at this point, so ignore the stupid map. Its way more than 2!
Shortly before you reach the intersection of the trail with Beaver Dam Road keep a lookout on the other side of the Etowah for the remains of some bridge pylons that are nice to go check out. The red trail comes up out of the woods and hits the gravel Beaver Dam Road at the point these bridge ruins are visible.
The rest, as they say, is history. Just walk back to the truck from here.
- Bring the bug spray. Get those deer flies first or they will get you.
- The main paved road is roughly maintained and SINGLE LANE. Be prepared for downed trees and branches that haven’t been moved, pot holes, locked gates that were open yesterday, and know if you meet someone coming towards you you may have to pull off the road to one side to let them pass. Of course, since this road is at the time of my hike almost 70 years old and we’re still driving around on it with little to no maintenance I’d still call that a win for the guys who built it.
- This place was used to test nuclear aircraft. If you didn’t invest a couple hundred in a geiger counter, (though I was tempted to get one…after all, there could be a nuclear apocalypse some day and then me and the goats would be prepared!), just because some idiots cut a hole in the fence and dug into the ruins I didn’t feel adequately prepared to follow them. I read some of their websites though, and not one actually took a geiger counter with them…which after several years of working with radiation in research I’m not too comfortable with. But hey, it’s your life and your mutations/cancer/keloids, so go swim in the retaining ponds and play in the bunkers to your heart’s content. I would recommend checking out some of their videos on youtube though, which are pretty cool.
- You are parking ON ruins, driving over 70 year old roads, and down gravel “roads”, (and they deserve the quotation marks). If you have high ground clearance vehicles or four wheel drive this is a place for them to really shine, so bring ’em along.
- During my preliminary research for this trip I found a lot of postings about people disappearing in the forest, turning up dead, or hunters finding dead bodies, a la serial killer. This may be a nice hike to bring a friend for, and don’t do what we did in the mountains all the time – join up with people I didn’t know who are thru hiking.
- Hunting is BIG at this forest. They have deer (winter/fall) and turkey (spring) season gate closings and trail closings, including a few days were the entire park is closed to non-hunters. Plan accordingly.
- The park is closed the first week of August every year for maintenance.
- If you are a biker or horseback rider there is a $7 trail fee. Hikers, and maybe goat walkers but they didn’t list goats on the website, appear to be free.
- The park is very popular, especially with horse back riders. If you have the vacation days coming on a week day would be more fun than coming on the weekend.
- Watch out – the park service seems to only open one side of the main gate for some reason, (correction: because the other side of the road is sort of washed out – figured that one out!). If a truck is going through that side…you’ll have to wait your turn.
- I have the best cell plan short of owning a satellite phone and I lost service in the forest.
- In fairness, low levels of radiation below the amount considered harmful to humans are still present in areas of the forest. Radiation monitors are also in place to insure that visitors get a nice forest without a side helping of cancer.
In sum: If you have ever swam, rafted, used a homemade zip line, taken off all your clothes and put the pack over your head to wade, or in general made a fool of yourself crossing a river only to later find out there was a perfectly serviceable bridge 1/2 a mile down the road you will understand why I felt compelled to resolve this issue.