Active travelers are spoiled for choice in Georgia, home to 50 state parks abundant with outdoor adventures. Hiking trails climb to waterfalls and drop into gorges in the rugged northern mountains, while waterways draped in Spanish moss navigate mysterious swamps in the south.

Disc golf courses and archery ranges test concentration skills statewide. But opportunities for relaxing are plentiful too, with sandy lakeside beaches and cozy mountain cabins serving up big views and comfy spots for kicking back. Here are seven of the best state parks to get you started on a fun Georgia adventure.

Amicalola Falls State Park

Best park to enjoy waterfalls

The highest waterfall in Georgia and third-highest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi, Amicalola Falls drops 729ft down rocky cliffs framed by forest greenery. And the name? Amicalola is the Cherokee word for “tumbling waters”.

The falls are an inspirational sight, especially for backpackers hiking to the summit of Springer Mountain via the 8.5-mile Appalachian Approach Trail, which begins beneath a stone archway beside the park visitor center. Springer Mountain is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the legendary 2194-mile trail that powers north through the Appalachian Mountains across 14 states.

But the Approach Trail isn’t the only adventure in the privately managed park, which is 75 miles north of Atlanta. Day hikers tackle 604 steps on the two-mile loop trail to the top of the falls while guests staying at the Len Foote Hike Inn must hike five miles from the park through Chattahoochee National Forest – and cross several streams – before they can call it a night.

Ziplines whisk riders through the trees at the aerial park while three-dimensional targets line the archery course. Learn about birds of prey and reptiles during animal meet-and-greets in the comfy Amicalola Falls Lodge lobby on weekends.

A hiker walks down the red-soiled path into Providence Canyon
Pack your best hiking boots and go for a multicolored walk down into Providence Canyon © Jacqueline Nix / Getty Images
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Providence Canyon State Park

Best park for photographers

Providence Canyon looks like it belongs in the American Southwest. Layered with yellow, red, purple and white sediments, the park easily earns its nickname: the Little Grand Canyon. But the photogenic gullies here were not created by Mother Nature.

Nope, this wonderland of color was created by cotton farmers in the 1800s. Their poor farming practices destroyed the region’s topsoil, which exposed the sandy and erosion-prone coastal plain to the elements.

Photographers can take evocative pictures of the canyon from the Canyon Loop Trail along the rim, but the full beauty of the park is revealed after a descent to the canyon’s lush and soggy base. Here, bigleaf magnolias grow with abandon, their pink buds eventually transforming into striking white blooms.

Botanists flock to the park to see the rare plumleaf azaleas and their bright red flowers, which bloom here in July and August. The canyon walls can shimmer with 43 different colors, and the red Georgia clay provides a consistent ruddy glow – all of it catnip for photographers.

The park is 40 miles south of Columbus in southwest Georgia. The best time to visit? Fall, when lower temperatures cool off the canyons and foliage begins to change color.

Stephen C Foster State Park

Best park for stargazing

Pondering your place in the cosmos from the inky black heart of a swamp is primordially cool. It’s also rather spooky when you consider the alligators lurking under the nearby Spanish moss.

Certified a dark sky park by the International Dark Sky Association, Stephen C Foster is one of the best places for stargazing in the southeast, with minimal artificial light from urban areas diluting the visibility of the night sky.

The Milky Way is luminous in summer, and rangers often lead Night Sky astronomy talks on Saturday evenings. Why no urban lights? Because the park is surrounded by the 438,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

The park's western gateway to Okefenokee is also a paddlers' paradise, with easy-to-follow water trails navigating the cypress forest and connecting Stephen C Foster with the federally managed swamp.

Intrepid paddlers can reserve an overnight spot on one of the covered camping platforms perched beside the water trails in the wildlife refuge. To access them, rent canoes and kayaks at the state park then push off into the greater swamp.

Ranger-led boat tours at the state park delve into geology, history and wildlife – think raccoons, black bears and American alligators. The sunset cruise immerses visitors in the sights and sounds of the swamp at dusk and birdwatching at the park is top-notch too. There are 63 campsites in the state park campground

Cloudland Canyon State Park in Rising Fawn, Georgia, USA
Cloudland Canyon State Park has a trail for every level of hiking ability and views that can't be beaten © Alamy Stock Photo

Cloudland Canyon State Park

Best park for hiking

Hikers, welcome to your happy place. Sixty-four miles of trails crisscross Cloudland Canyon State Park in the rugged northwest fringes of Georgia. Trails in this forested playground – which sprawls across the western flanks of Lookout Mountain along the Cumberland Plateau – skip over creeks, pause beside waterfalls, meander through meadows and unfurl beneath sandstone cliffs.

And there’s a rewarding trail for every level of hiker, from the easy Overlook Trail and its rim-top canyon views to the strenuous Waterfalls Trail and its plunge to Cherokee and Hemlock Falls. Wild blackberries ripen along the Meadowlands Trail in summer, ready to be picked.

Hikers and backpackers are also blessed with a broad selection of camping and glamping options, making Cloudland Canyon a top pick for nights under the stars. Walk-in, backcountry, and tent and RV sites are available as well as yurts. Furnished cottages are also an option for those who prefer a few more home comforts. Cloudland is 120 miles northwest of Atlanta and 30 miles southwest of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The Tallulah River runs under a suspension bridge at Tallulah Gorge in Georgia USA.
Don't forget to bring your camera to capture the stunning views of Tallulah Gorge © Alamy Stock Photo

Tallulah Gorge State Park

Best park for spectacular views

A suspension bridge sways 80ft above the rocky depths of Tallulah Gorge, which carves a two-mile path through the hills of North Georgia. Part of the Hurricane Falls Trail, the graceful bridge is a popular stopping point for some of the most memorable images of the gorge and the Tallulah River below.

Nearly 1000ft deep and home to five waterfalls, the river gorge is undeniably spectacular, and tourists and landscape artists have flocked here since the 1840s.

Rim trails lead to viewpoints overlooking the various falls, but full immersion in the canyon’s rugged grandeur requires a hike into its depths. The Hurricane Falls Trail drops into the canyon via 300 metal stairs and shares high-elevation views of three waterfalls along the way.

After crossing the suspension bridge – hold on tight – the trail drops down another 200 or so stairs to a wooden platform at the thundering base of Hurricane Falls. From here, hiking along the bottom of the gorge requires a permit. One hundred gorge-floor permits are issued daily, but staff won’t let you have one unless you're wearing proper hiking boots – no flip flops or Crocs allowed!

Fort Yargo State Park

Best park for family-friendly activities

You might find yourself yelling at a tree instead of hugging one at Fort Yargo State Park, where the challenging 18-hole disc golf course is loaded with arboreal obstacles. The disc golf course is one of a dozen or so family friendly activities at the park, which sprawls across more than 1800 acres between Atlanta and Athens.

A swimming beach fronts the 260-acre lake, where families can sunbathe or rent canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and pedal boats to explore the coastline (Apr-Oct). The park is also a mountain biking destination, with more than 20 miles of singletrack well-suited for families. Other sports available on dry land include mini-golf and hiking.

A log blockhouse dating from 1792 is the park’s namesake attraction and its historic center – the Fort Yargo Living History Society – offers regular demos here. The six lakeside yurts don't date from Colonial days, but they do evoke an old-school sense of adventure for overnight stays. Furnished two-bedroom “adventure cabins” sleep six.

Female friends having fun swimming in a lake in summer
Bring your swimsuit and cool down after your hike with a dip in the lake © Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Red Top Mountain State Park

Best park for swimming

Relaxing on a beach doesn't require a five-hour drive from Atlanta to the Golden Isles. Nope, the newly renovated beach at Red Top Mountain State Park is a mere 40 miles northwest of the city. In a cove surrounded by woods, this pretty swath of sand fronts the 12,000-acre Lake Allatoona, which is dotted with parks and marinas.

Recent improvements include a new bathhouse as well as a new picnic area with grills. There are no lifeguards, but the lake is relatively calm in the protected cove.

Water skiing and boating are top activities on the lake, and boat rentals are available at the marinas. Fifteen miles of hiking trails ribbon through the park. Due to its high iron-ore content, the soil here is deep red – and the inspiration for the park’s name. This area was a mining hub in the 1800s but, today, the park is a hub for beachgoers seeking sun and sand, especially in summer.

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