The gentle rapids of the Chattahoochee River have long played a defining role in Sandy Springs life. It’s a natural boundary between counties, a major source of drinking water for the city of Atlanta and its suburbs, and an enclave for wildlife and outdoor recreation. Today, more than 10,000 acres of land is protected around a 48-mile stretch of the river, forming the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA), a wilderness reprieve amid the towering hustle and bustle of the city nearby.
Stretching from Atlanta’s northern perimeter to just below Buford Dam, these protected green spaces follow the bends of the river, creating a vast patchwork of parks, trails, paths, and woodlands pulled together by the brisk waters of the Chattahoochee. Originally brought into the national park system by president Jimmy Carter in 1978, the CRNRA has helped protect a vital waterway and preserve the wilderness that abounds in this sprawling metro area. Today, this natural corridor is a huge draw for locals, families, and out-of-towners who enjoy a wide variety of activities.
Because the CRNRA is broken up into 15 individual land units, it can be a challenge to make sense of what to do and where to go along the river. Luckily, Sandy Springs packs in three of the best units into one manageable area: Island Ford, Powers Island, and East Palisades. Altogether, these units represent some of the most beloved spots in the entire recreation area.
Whatever you’re looking to do, this guide to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area—featuring all three Sandy Springs land units (plus one bonus unit north of the city)—will provide ample opportunities.
Island Ford, in the northeast corner of Sandy Springs, could be considered the heart of the CRNRA. It’s home to the National Park Service headquarters and visitor center, and it’s a big draw for all types of outdoor fun, including hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing. The Chattahoochee is a stocked trout stream, and you’ll likely see fly fishermen trying their luck out in the water.
At Island Ford, you can spend your time soaking up history at the Hewlett Lodge visitors center or hike the easy-to-moderate 5.5-mile trail that hugs the banks of the river before cutting back through woodlands. As you walk, you’ll encounter several beautiful spots to cast a line or just sit and look out over the river. You might spy great blue herons, and keep your eyes peeled for beavers and river otters, especially in early morning.
Cochran Shoals - Powers Island
Cochran Shoals is by far the most extensive and most-frequented unit in the CRNRA. It’s composed of four areas: Sope Creek, Columns Drive, Interstate North, and Powers Island.
Powers Island is one of the most serene (and underrated) sections of the recreation area and sees much less traffic than its popular neighbor, Interstate North, just across the Chattahoochee River. A narrow trail makes a 2.5-mile loop as it follows the riverbank, offers broad views of the Chattahoochee, and climbs through dense forest to explore a portion of a ridge. If you’re looking for a quiet escape, this is a prime destination.
Aside from the trail system and a watercraft launch, Power Island is also known for its fascinating history. It was named after James Powers who in 1835 established a ferry to connect Sandy Springs with Cobb County. Union soldiers also used the island in the Civil War during General Sherman’s march on Atlanta.
East Palisades - Indian Trail and Whitewater Creek
The Palisades unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is the southernmost unit in the park. It’s broken up into east and west sections which are divided by the river. West Palisades, on the opposite side of the river from Sandy Springs, is a more casual experience with a 4-mile out-and-back paved trail ideal for leisurely strolls, nature viewing, and no-nonsense runs. East Palisades, in the southeastern corner of Sandy Springs city limits, is more rugged, with all-dirt trails that have rocky sections and steep inclines that lead to several overlooks of the river and woodlands.
Featuring an abundant number of trail segments and sections (conveniently numbered and easily navigable using various trail maps and posts sprinkled throughout the park), the East Palisades is a place where visitors can tailor a run or hike to their abilities and interests.
Beginners, families, or dog-owners can park at the Whitewater Creek parking area (technically in Buckhead, but close enough), and take a simple stroll along the flat, sandy banks of the river to Long Island Shoals or beyond to Thornton Shoals, where gorgeous views of the river unfold through many window-like openings in the trees.
Hikers and runners looking for more of a challenge can park at the Indian Trail Road section. Start with the long downhill charge on a path studded with log staircases and soft pine needles, and then combine any number of looping, swooping trail segments that travel up and over a series of heavily-wooded ridges. The uphills are punchy and lung-busting; the downhills are exhilarating and reminiscent of a roller coaster.
Additionally, a popular tubing route passes through both units of the Palisades, starting from Johnson Ferry and ending at Paces Mill. Be sure not to miss your exit if you’re floating the river, as Paces Mill is the last pull-out point. During the summer, tube rentals and shuttle services are available through local outfitters, such as Nantahala Outdoor Center’s Chattahoochee Outpost at Powers Island. If you’re going it alone, be sure to place cars at the put-in and the takeout points.
After a day spent exploring the Sandy Springs sections of the CRNRA, there’s nothing better than a post-adventure bite or brew. Luckily, Sandy Springs is in no short supply of either. Porter Pizza and Brewery combines two of the best things in life: artisan pizzas and delicious craft beers. The perfect way to end your day outdoor.