Sweetwater Creek: Atlanta’s Surprisingly Accessible and Beautiful State Park
Once the site of the South’s largest textile mill, Sweetwater Creek State Park is a city escape fit for the movies.
Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feels miles from home. So leave your passport behind and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
Don’t let your GPS deceive you—you think you’ve arrived, but you’re not quite there.
Nestled in an unincorporated area of Douglas County known as Lithia Springs, about half an hour west of the ever-bustling metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia, lies a stretch of land steeped in history known as Sweetwater Creek State Park. Opened in 1976, it encompasses more than 2,500 acres of land—including trails, streams, picnic shelters, a boat ramp, a bait shop and an abundance of natural plants and wildlife. “It’s so close to the interstate, yet you don’t hear the interstate,” explains Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites. “You’re so far away and out in the wilderness, but you didn’t have to drive far to get there.”
Speaking of ‘getting there’: typing the park’s general address into your GPS or maps app will take you to a spot on the edge of the admittedly beautiful George H. Sparks Reservoir, where you’ll often see people picnicking or fishing. Give them a polite Southern wave, and then keep going.
Up the road you’ll see signs for the Interpretive Center/Park Office. That’s where you want to be. Once parked and ready to hit the trail, first head inside the center, where you can snag any number of maps, gift-shop swag, snacks and helpful tips from the friendly staff. Also take a minute to peruse the displays of artifacts (Civil War buttons, pocket watches and cutlery), regional taxidermy (wild birds, foxes and deer) and landscape models that tell the story of the park’s storied past.
This gist is this: in the late 1800s, the park was part of an area called Factory Town. The Sweetwater Factory (later changed to the New Manchester Manufacturing Company), the tallest building in the area, was powered by the creek waters and produced about 750 pounds of cotton per day. In 1864, during the American Civil War, Union soldiers overtook the mill, arrested the entire group of all-female employees, and set the building ablaze. What remains today is the skeleton of a majestic brick structure and millrace, overgrown with wild flowers and protected by those who work to also preserve the park itself. If the mill ruins looks familiar, that might be because you recognize them from their cameo in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1.
But you don’t have to be a history buff—or a film fanatic—to take advantage of all that Sweetwater Creek State Park has to offer. “One thing that’s nice is that you can go for a fairly easy hike if you have children or a leashed dog with you, or you can go on a more challenging longer hike,” says Hatcher, “there are several trails to choose from.” For scenic views without an arduous trek, the Red Trail (spanning one mile, one-way) will lead you to the mill ruins, perched alongside white-water rapids, jutting rocks and, at its end, the roaring Sweetwater Falls. If you prefer a more adventurous hike, the loop of the 5.2-mile White Trail may be more accommodating, with a remote view of the myriad wildlife and plant communities, as well as rapids and open meadows. The Yellow Trail features an elevation gain of 350 feet, plus a ravine descent that gives hikers a view of a large rock overhang that archaeologists say Native Americans used as shelter for thousands of years.
For those looking to delve a bit deeper, the park also offers up themed hiking events. Depending on factors like season and weather, adventurers can choose from a history hike, a flashlight-led night hike, a twilight lake paddle, and a geology hike, along with kayaking and nature photography classes. Plus, Hatcher reveals that the park will soon be home to 10 lakeside yurts, which will be available to rent for overnight stays—complete with canvas and lattice walls, furniture, a locking door and a back porch, for those more into “glamping” than camping.
After talking to various visitors about the park, the common thread of what draws people seems to be the accessibility of an expansive, natural place where you can disconnect from city life and recharge.
“Living in a city that’s smack-dab in the middle of the state poses a problem for a quick escape,” says John Carroll, a writer, web-solutions consultant and frequent park visitor. “Thankfully, a quick car ride can not only transport you out of the city, but to a place that seems hundreds of miles away.” Carroll adds that he actually deems the sometimes-spotty cell service a plus, allowing him to truly be present and take in his surroundings.
It’s not often a quick zip along the highway goes so quickly from a high-energy city to a tranquil greenspace largely untouched by modern advancements, but that’s what you get when you take a trip to Sweetwater. One afternoon spent trekking dusty terrain, lounging creek-side on a sloped rock scribbling in a notebook, skipping smooth stones across a tranquil creek or exploring the remains of a piece of Southern history, and you’ll see why so many Atlantans and out-of-towners alike are flocking here to get back to basics.