To help celebrate 100 years of service Aug. 25, the National Park Service invites everyone to get outside and help ring in the centennial anniversary of America’s national parks, historic sites and protected areas. The celebration will kick off a second century of stewardship of our nation’s parks and the National Park Service hopes to engage communities nationwide through recreation, conservation and historic preservation programs.
Check out our list of national parks within driving distance of metro Atlanta and the best ways for Atlantans — especially those new to the city — to discover the history in their own backyards and enjoy these nationally protected gems in the months leading up to this historic event.
Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
Spread over a 48-mile section of the Chattahoochee River, this national recreation area consists of the river and 15 land units that begins just downstream of Buford Dam at Lake Lanier and ends at Peachtree Creek in metro Atlanta. The park is home to more than half of metro Atlanta’s public greenspace and boasts 75 miles of trails for biking, hiking, running and walking, as well as 16 different park areas with boat ramps, step-down ramps, picnic areas and restrooms.
Springtime offers plenty of ways to celebrate the waterway, whether you choose to shoot the ‘Hooch on your own or rent a kayak, canoe, raft or tube from an authorized outfitter along the river. Cyclists can also explore 7.11 miles of bike-friendly trails within the Cochran Shoals and Palisades units. With a steady year-round temperature rarely reaching above 50 degrees, the river is also a great place to reel one in any time of year, offering ideal conditions for trout, bass and catfish fishing. More information on float times, bike trail maps, fishing and license requirements are available on the website.
WHERE: east of Georgia 400 along the Chattahoochee River
TRAVEL TIME: about 35 minutes north of Atlanta
MORE INFO: nps.gov/chat
Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park
The Battle of Kennesaw was a defining moment in the Atlanta Campaign, and Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park offers a multitude of resources from the knowledgeable rangers to detailed monuments along the trails to help guide you on the path the troops took on their way to Kennesaw during the Civil War in the summer of 1864.
Visitors can drive up the mountain on weekdays and take the shuttle bus on weekends, or hike on foot to experience scenic views of the entire metro area. From the main battlefield at Cheatham Hill to scenic Kolb Farm, Kennesaw Mountain offers 18 miles of trails to explore. Warm spring days are perfect for packing a picnic or bringing your binoculars to bird watch. It’s not uncommon for the park to host artillery demonstrations (beginning in April) or unique historical lectures, so check the park’s website calendar before you go.
TRAVEL TIME: less than 40 minutes north of Atlanta
MORE INFO: nps.gov/kemo
Martin Luther King Jr. Birth Home National Historic Site
Born Jan. 15, 1929, at 501 Auburn Ave. in Atlanta at the home of his maternal grandparents, Martin Luther King Jr. called this place in Sweet Auburn home for the first 12 years of his life. In honor of the centennial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site has designed an exhibit in the Visitor Center museum that will run from through January 2017.
While admission to the park is free and tours for facilities such as the Visitor Center, Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. and Mrs. King’s Gravesite, Freedom Hall, and Historic Fire Station No. 6 are self-guided, you must register to tour the birth home in person on the day of your visit at the visitor center. Daily 30-minute tours are conducted by rangers with the National Park Service every half hour and begin at 10 a.m. and end at 5 p.m., with special summer hours (Memorial Day Weekend – Labor Day) beginning at 9:30 a.m. and ending at 5:30 p.m. Only 15 people are allowed per tour, and tours fill up quickly on weekends and holidays so plan accordingly — weekday and early mornings tend to be the lowest-traffic times, according to the website.
WHERE: 501 Auburn Ave. NE, Atlanta
TRAVEL TIME: five-minute drive from Georgia State University
MORE INFO: nps.gov/malu
Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area
Just 20 miles outside of the city in Lithonia, Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area features two large granite monadnocks — extremely rare and awe-inspiring rock formations that have taken shape over the last 400 million years. According to the National Park Service, Congress designates National Heritage Areas as places where natural, cultural and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape — and in the rapidly developing DeKalb County, this fascinating area fits the bill.
Altogether, the lunar-like Arabia Mountain and its sister Panola Mountain along with several historic buildings within more than 40,000 acres of surrounding land area were designated as only one of 49 National Heritage Areas in 2006, thanks to the efforts of local activists who are passionate about preserving the stretch of historic land speckled with rolling hills and winding streams. Aside from climbing the granite mountains and discovering rare and endangered plant life, such as the bright red diamorpha plant that thrives in small pools along the monadnocks from November to mid-April, visitors can hike more than 12 miles of nature trails and over 30 miles of bike paths developed in collaboration with Atlanta’s PATH Foundation, and investigate the granite rock quarry ruins for evidence of 19th century human settlement and 20th century quarrying activities.