The National Park Hidden in Atlanta's Backyard

The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area remains a national treasure.

Less than a mile from the traffic and commotion of Georgia State Route 400, there is stillness and serenity on a Tuesday morning. Schools are back in session, and the summertime crowds that seek out the cool waters of the Chattahoochee River, or “the Hooch” as locals know it, have thinned.

In these moments, the glory of an ancient ecosystem tucked in the backyard of Atlanta shines. There are only tiny interruptions to the quiet—the flick of a fly fisher’s rod, the flash of a trail runner or the flap of a graceful blue heron taking flight.

Island Ford Visitors Center
Island Ford Visitors Center (©CatMax Photography/National Park Foundation)

The National Park Service recognized the need to preserve this ecosystem in the 1970s when then President Jimmy Carter signed a bill creating the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA). The combination of its scenic vistas, urban location, geologic features and biodiversity qualified the area to meet the strict standards of becoming part of the National Park Service. Plus, the idea for urban national parks like CRNRA was starting to take hold in this era, emphasized by the formation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, California, and both the Gateway National Recreation Area and Fire Island National Seashore in New York. 

Remaining rich in natural and human history, the CRNRA today is an urban oasis winding 48 miles throughout four counties and nine cities and welcomes an average of about three million visitors each year. According to Bill Cox, CRNRA superintendent, that’s comparable to Zion National Park in Utah where he previously served as the assistant superintendent. Before joining the staff at CRNRA in 2013, Cox managed the Environmental Protection Agency’s wetlands, coastal and ocean programs in the country’s Southeast region.

Under his leadership, the statistics rank the CRNRA in the top 35 most visited national parks of 417 overall. Of that three million, Cox says about a million of those recreate on the water in activities such as tubing, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding or fishing. 

Chattahoochee River
Buford Dam releases cold water from Lake Lanier into the Chattahoochee River, which allows for year-round trout fishing. (©CatMax Photography/National Park Foundation)

“This park can still put people on some long-distance trails, both water and land, in some really beautiful natural areas of quiet and solitude next to an urban population of 5.5 million people,” he said. “That’s pretty rare, in and of itself, and another thing that distinguishes us as a national treasure.”

For those that prefer to stay dry, the CRNRA has more than 80 miles of hiking trails and ample places for people to unplug and reconvene with nature.

“The idea was to connect urban populations to parks and the park service as a bridge, so people could start to experience and understand the unique National Park Service this country has,” Cox said. “[The NPS] really connects them to the larger park system and maybe gets them excited about going out West, or to some of the historic battlefields and learn more about the country. We bill ourselves as the nation’s storyteller.”

In the peacefulness of the park, there are plenty of stories waiting to be heard for those who want to listen. There are accounts of passion and the people who took action, working with the Sierra Club and then Congressman Andrew Young, to push through the legislation that set the area aside as a unit of the NPS.

“They foresaw in the ‘70s how Atlanta was going to develop in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Cox said. “They said, ‘If we don’t do something to protect this river corridor, it is ripe for development.’” They were right.

Chattahoochee River watershed
Approximately 70 percent of the Atlanta area sources drinking water from this watershed. (©City of Sandy Springs)

In the decades since, Atlanta’s population has grown exponentially. That also means more visitors to the CRNRA, not only as the census continues to rise but as more people see the river as a destination.

While the metropolis evolves, so does the CRNRA’s goals for environmental education as the stewardship of this national gem for future generations remains crucial. According to Cox, approximately 70 percent of Atlanta gets its drinking water from the Chattahoochee watershed, meaning that even those passing through the city can affect—and are affected by—the river, even without realizing it. 

“When people dump their ashtray into the road, well, that’s all running to a stormwater drain, and those are all going into streams and our river,” he said. 

In partnership with various corporations and nonprofit organizations, CRNRA also coordinates many opportunities to clean trash out of the river, and volunteers discover anything and everything from basketballs and tennis balls to shopping carts. Getting people outside to interact with nature firsthand is a key to feeling connected to the land and wanting to care for it. 

For Cox, that personal connection runs deep.

“Both sides of family came to this area, coming through Charleston, South Carolina, in the mid-1800s,” he said. “My mom’s side of the family settled up in what is now Forsyth County in about 1834 and my great-grandfather married a Settle, and Settles Bridge is part of my great-grandmother’s family. He operated a ferry there on the river until the bridge was built around 1916. He had a cotton gin and a grist mill up there on Daves Creek.

"I can remember my uncles taking me to the ruins of that grist mill and cotton gin, and you could still see the water wheel that would power the stone to ground the corn. The other side of my family settled in what’s now Roswell in about 1840, and we live on a piece of that farm. I think our kids are generation six to live on that road.”

Superintendent Bill Cox of the National Park Service
Superintendent Bill Cox's family settled in the area in the mid-1800s. (©CatMax Photography/National Park Foundation)

2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the CRNRA, a relatively young milestone considering the National Park Service’s centennial celebration in 2016. In partnership with the Trust for Public Land, the NPS continues to acquire land and to encourage visitors to explore and enjoy. 

Perhaps the best part is that no small fortune is required to access this national treasure. Rather, the only charge is a small fee for parking at one of the various lots throughout the CRNRA. Visitors can also mark their calendars for various Free Entry Days at the National Parks, including Veterans Day Weekend on Nov. 11 and 12.

And while the park is opened from dawn to dusk throughout the year, Cox’s personal favorite time on the Hooch is the late fall. “The humidity is a little less, the temperatures have started to cool, school is back in session, so visitation is a little less during the week,” he said. “When the leaves start to turn, it’s just gorgeous.”

Regardless of the season, Cox says it’s important for anyone planning to get in the water to know it’s going to be cold. The temperature stays in the 50-degree range because of the way the Buford Dam releases cold water from the bottom of Lake Lanier—another aspect that distinguishes the CRNRA. In fact, the water temperatures are the reason the Hooch is the southernmost trout fishery east of the Mississippi River.

“We have trout that are stocked by the Georgia Department of National Resources—they have a hatchery on the river and they stock rainbow trout—but the brown trout are actually reproducing on their own,” Cox said. “So, we have quite a bit of fishing opportunity and the last two state-record brown trout were caught in the park and went over 20 pounds each.” 

Park on the banks of the Chattahoochee River
While the park is open from dawn to dusk throughout the year, Cox’s favorite time to be on “the Hooch” is during the late fall. (©City of Sandy Springs)

Just as it is important to be prepared for colder water and to know the dam release schedule, Cox suggests all parkgoers do their research ahead of time for safety rules, such as the prohibition of glass in the park and the requirements regarding personal flotation devices. The Island Ford Visitor Center in Sandy Springs and the website are also a good resource for first-timers, offering a wealth of free information and maps.

“We really want to connect not only urbanites but particularly young people and people who may not have had experiences growing up, visiting the parks like some of us did. We want them to feel like they have some ownership in this too, and that parks are relevant to them as well,” Cox said. “I’m convinced that if people are connected to the resource, they’re going to think more about being a steward of that resource, so part of our job here is to provide that meaningful connection.”