Above the Waterline: Take the Trail Challenge in Our National River Park

Hiking in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

Four years ago, an energized group of park lovers and volunteers gathered in a room with flip charts, sticky dots and a facilitator to develop a plan to help one of the most-visited national parks in America – our Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA). The volunteers were board members and supporters of the park’s nonprofit friends group, now known as Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy (CNPC). 

With its staffing reduced from previous years and deferred maintenance projects totaling more than $15 million, the CRNRA was – and still is – in  dire need of help. Among other issues, the park’s hiking and multi-use trails were being loved to death and many park structures were well past their prime; in some cases, they were unsafe.

Based on input provided by then-Park Superintendent Bill Cox and his staff, CNPC determined to help the national recreation area become “an iconic park”– in addition to engaging the community more actively and strengthening its own effectiveness. The first priority: find the resources to restore and connect the sixty-six miles of official land trails in the park and upgrade priority facilities.

Encompassing a 48-mile section of the Chattahoochee and fifteen parcels of land along the river, the CRNRA offers outstanding outdoor activities for those living in the metro Atlanta region and beyond. About three million people visit the national park in a typical year; many more are crowding the popular areas now, as the pandemic-weary seek restorative doses of nature.

Hiking on Vickery Creek Trail.

Most of the existing trail system in the park consists of legacy social trails, relic roadbeds, and utility corridors predating the CRNRA’s establishment more than forty years ago. These legacy trails were never intentionally designed for a positive trail experience. They lack connectivity to neighboring trail systems and, in some cases, are degrading water quality through erosion runoff. Many of these trails are also difficult and costly to maintain.

With funds raised from private sources, CNPC matched those provided by the National Park Service (NPS) to hire a professional trail planning firm to develop the first-ever trail assessment and management plan for the park. The plan was completed in 2018 by Applied Trails Research with input from the public and government agencies. Its goals: improve visitor experience and sustainability of the trail system, and connect park trails to other local systems, such as the visionary Chattahoochee RiverLands Greenway. 

The NPS recently announced a public comment period – open until April 15 – for its draft comprehensive trails plan: a document that includes preliminary management strategies and actions that could apply parkwide to make it easier to implement the specific trails designs. Walkers, runners, hikers and bikers are invited to help make the plan and the CRNRA the very best it can be by reviewing and commenting on the draft plan at the link provided below. 

The most heavily-used and damaged paths in the park were identified as the nearly seven miles of multi-use trails in the Cochran Shoals unit (Sope Creek-Columns). With funds raised by CNPC from outdoor retailer REI, the nonprofit MTB Atlanta, and others, plans were developed to make the trails safer for all users and more environmentally-friendly through rock-armoring, machine work, and new directional signage. Completed a few months ago with assistance from professionals, volunteers and student interns, this successful project demonstrates the value of collaborative partnerships; it serves as a model for future trail rehabilitation work to be conducted in the coming years, as funds are secured. 

Mountain bikers on the multi-use trails will appreciate the new Text to Ride System. To avoid trail damage, most bikers know not to ride on wet trails, but they may not be aware if it has rained on the paths the previous day. This new system – developed by CNPC and managed by the NPS – allows riders to text for the status of the trail before they go to the park. To access the system, text “Ride” to 770-727-5061 and learn whether the trail is “Dry” or “Wet,” or if there is “Freeze Thaw.”

The West Palisades

For those who relish a challenge – or simply want to explore all of the trails in the fifteen park units – CNPC has developed HikeCRNRA, modeled after a similar program in other national parks. Everyone who hikes all sixty-six miles of official trails within the CRNRA (completed after Dec. 1, 2020) will be recognized and receive a free CNPC membership. There is no deadline – you have a lifetime to finish! Trail maps and forms are available at the link provided below.

As you are out and about in the park, you may notice several facility upgrades: the impressive staircase in the Vickery Creek unit, a new fishing dock for kids at the pond in the Island Ford unit, and new observation decks at Jones Bridge Shoals and at Cochran Shoals (in process). New and improved dog waste stations are visible at nearly forty sites throughout the park with the catchy message – Bag It and Bin It! Generous park supporters, working with CNPC and the National Park Service, have helped make these projects possible. 

Put on your walking shoes – it’s time to get back outside! 

Enjoy and Help Your National Park

Find the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area: nps.gov/chat

Read the Proposed Trail Plan and Comment: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=76722

Take the HikeCRNRA Challenge: chattahoocheeparks.org/hikecrnra

Get Multi-Use Trail Condition Report: Text “Ride” to (770) 727-5061

Volunteer and/or Donate: chattahoocheeparks.org and nps.gov/chat/getinvolved/volunteer.htm

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.

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