Sweetwater Creek: hiking the Orange Trail to Atlanta skyline views
Hike the new Yellow and Orange Trail loop at Sweetwater Creek State Park, catching views of the park's Civil War mill ruins, a prehistoric Native American cave, and seasonal views of the Atlanta skyline.
The towering, multi-story shell of a Civil War-era mill stand creekside, now in ruins. A wide, whitewater-filled creek tumbles and splashes and carves through a beautiful, densely forested valley. And mile after mile of prime, scenic hiking and running trails explore the many acres of this Georgia State Park near Atlanta, one of our favorite near-town outdoor escapes.
The staggeringly beautiful outdoor landscapes of Sweetwater Creek State Park are reminiscent of a remote North Georgia swath of forest, yet shockingly close to the suburban sprawl of Georgia’s largest metropolis. The Orange Trail, a just-over-one-mile loop accessed from Sweetwater’s cross-creek Yellow Trail, is the newest trail addition to the park’s already-impressive collection of color-coded hiking trails.
This hike follows the park’s Yellow Trail, crossing the park’s wide-flowing creek via a metal span bridge, and catching cross-creek views of the Hollywood-famous Civil War mill ruins featured in The Hunger Games. Before connecting to the Orange Trail, the hike explores a rolling, wildflower and creek-filled forest near Sweetwater’s banks, passing a large cave.
The Orange Trail’s highlight is an excellent (though distant) view of the Atlanta skyline, scored just before looping back to the visitor’s center by way of the Yellow Trail. Combined, the Yellow and Orange Trails explore 4.75 miles of Sweetwater Creek’s rolling terrain, making for a great middle-distance hike or trail run through some exceptionally scenic outdoor beauty.
Sweetwater Creek Orange Trail: the hike
The hike (or trail run) begins at the park’s visitor center (view maps and driving directions), hiking eastbound and following the red-blazed trail to the banks of Sweetwater Creek. Reaching the wide-flowing creek at just under .2 mile, the hike hangs a left, following yellow blazes as the Yellow Trail hikes upstream, trekking along the creek’s well-trodden banks.
The hike reaches a large, rusted steel bridge at .6 mile, crossing the bridge to Sweetwater’s eastern banks. Views from the bridge’s pinnacle are broad and sweeping, catching upstream views of the creek’s whitewater shoals and downstream views of its smooth flow through a wide meander.
After crossing the span bridge, the hike turns right, following the Yellow Trail downstream along the banks of the creek. The trail splits at .75 miles; this route veers right, continuing its trek along the banks of the creek. The trail dives through a grove of mountain laurel at 1 mile. The grove is particularly beautiful in late spring, when abundant blossoms of white and pink cover the gnarly-branched shrub.
The hike reaches a spur trail at 1.2 miles, following the spur to several jagged rock outcrops that offer great cross-creek views of the New Manchester Mill. The mill, once a manufacturing center powered by Sweetwater Creek’s powerful flow, was destroyed by Union troops during the Civil War and now stands along the creek as a fragile brick shell. (Fans of The Hunger Games trilogy will recognize the mill as a filming location for the movies; for an up-close view of the factory ruins, follow the Sweetwater Red Trail after this hike.)
The hike retraces the spur trail to the Yellow Trail and then hikes eastbound. The trail gains elevation quickly, crossing a small creek multiple times before passing a large cave on the right at 1.5 miles. The cave’s jagged rock juts skyward from the sloped forest terrain, creating a primitive shelter that archeologists believe was used by Native Americans.
The hike continues its upward climb, meandering through the forest. The trail reaches the Orange trailhead at 1.7 miles, turning right to follow the Orange Trail southbound, weaving and rolling through a forest of hardwoods. The roar of the creek’s whitewater rapids echoes through the trees as the creek tumbles and crashes far below.
Looping northbound at 2.5 miles, the Orange Trail begins a steady climb. Just before reaching the Yellow Trail, the hike catches through-the-treeline views of the Atlanta skyline at 3 miles, a view that’s best in the sparse leaf cover of winter and spring.
Reaching the Orange Trail’s end at 3.2 miles, the hike turns right on the Yellow Trail. The trail meanders through the forest, descending steadily, before reaching the banks of Sweetwater Creek at 4 miles.
The hike turns right on the Yellow Trail, retracing its outbound steps to the visitor center, re-crossing the span bridge and then following the creek’s flow downstream. At 4.6 miles, the hike reaches an intersection with the Red Trail, turning right on the Red Trail to return to the trailhead, and completing the adventure at 4.75 miles.
More Sweetwater Creek State Park hiking adventures
Atlanta’s favorite state park offers more than seven miles of well-maintained, beautifully scenic and wonderfully eclectic hiking trails that explore rolling forest, the creek’s sandy, rocky banks and catch views of its tumbling whitewater-filled shoals. Check out our Sweetwater Creek trail guide for more on-trail adventures at the park, and our Sweetwater Creek State Park destination guide for more ways to play and stay.
Sweetwater Creek State Park Orange Trail Map, Directions & Details
$5 (daily), or included with a Georgia State Parks annual pass.
33.752517, -84.628050 // N33 45.151 W84 37.683
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