The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is one of the most visited parks in the national park system. Last year it saw about the same number of visits as Yosemite, according to the National Park Service.
As beloved and well-used as the park’s trails are, there really isn’t much intent behind the 65-mile trail system as a whole. Most of the trails predate the park itself.
Today, for the first time, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is working on a overall plan for the trails of its 15 units that extend 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 cross.
“We’ve never done a trail management plan,” said Ann Honious, superintendent of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. “Most of our trails were inherited from the property that became part of the national park; social paths or old road platforms.
The problem with social trails – the paths that people travel over and over again, until a trail forms – is that they may not be the best way to hike, uphill all straight, for example, or hugging close to an edge.
On the Vickery Creek Trail in Roswell, Honious pointed to a path down a steep hill that was washed away by water.
“You can see the path the rain has come down and how it erodes as the trail goes up,” she said.
This adds up to a trail system that is difficult to maintain and can be dangerous in places. It’s also not ideal for natural areas that the Park Service wants to protect.
In its new plan, the park proposes modifications to existing trails and the addition of approximately 30 miles of new trails, including accessible trails.
At some locations, including the Vickery Creek unit, officials are proposing a total trail overhaul. One of the parking lots for this unit, off Riverside Road, would be closing. Honious said this plan is in conjunction 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 when it comes to trail maintenance. It will also allow the park to better connect with its neighbours, creating links with other local and regional parks and greenways.
“Instead of being a standalone park, we have the opportunity to work with others to improve what this park brings to people,” Honious said.
For example, the Park Service is working with the town of Johns Creek on a trail that would extend into the National Recreation Area. This project is part of a much larger effort, the Chattahoochee RiverLands, which aims to connect more than 100 miles of trails and parks along the river in metro Atlanta.
Phillip Hodges, board member and former president of the Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy, said the review and redesign is a long time coming. The Conservancy is the park’s philanthropic partner and helped with the trail review.
“If we could go back, it should have been done over 40 years ago,” he said.
Even now that this is done, however, it will still take up to 20 years to implement.
“Don’t get too excited because it will take a lot of time and a lot of money and the National Park Service is moving slowly and deliberately,” he said. “It’s really big, it’s really good for the park, but it’s going to take a long time.”
The plan itself is not yet final; the national park service is collect written comments from the public on the proposal until the end of this month.