Straddling a thousand foot gorge on the western edge of Lookout Mountain, Cloudland Canyon State Park is one of Georgia's most stunning natural landmarks. Established in 1938, Cloudland Canyon State Park encompasses 3,538 acres of rugged canyons, waterfalls, cascades, and wild caves. Of the 64 miles of hiking trails available to visitors, non is more picturesque than the 1.8 mile Waterfalls Trails. Traveling deep into the heart of Sitton's Gulch Creek, the waterfalls trail showcases two of its largest waterfalls, Cherokee Falls and Hemlock Falls. Drawn here by the promise of a strenuous day of hiking filled with some panoramic views not found anywhere else in the state, I set out a little after dawn on my first hiking trip in the Peach State.
Waterfalls Trail Map | Cloudland Canyon State Park
Google Maps | Cloudland Canyon State Park
Entering this state park requires a day use fee of $5 per car. Following the main road for several miles, we reach the Main Trailhead parking lot where most of the parks interior trail system is located. Walking out onto the Observation Trail, I get my first taste of just how incredibly gorgeous this place truly is. Situated on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau atop Lookout Mountain, this parks unique geological formations owe their thanks to the erosive force of Sitton's Gulch Creek and Daniel Creek, laying deep in the heart of the canyon.
The areas elevation ranges from 1,800 feet above sea level at its highest peak, to 800 feet in the lowest portions of the canyon. If you look directly ahead of the Main Trailhead post, you can spot the headwaters of Winter Falls streaming over the mountainside. The best way to see this waterfall is along the first half of Sitton’s Gulch Trail.
Turning left at the Main Trailhead, we travel 0.2 miles along the southern portion of the West Rim Trail to reach the start of the Waterfalls Trail. Squeezed between the rim of the canyon and some of the parks guest cabins, this section offers a few sneak peaks of the vast gorge below. Tucked behind stands of blooming magnolias and thickets of wild berry vines are visitor made paths that lead to several cliff overlooks.
While I see many folks walking out onto them to take in the incredible vistas, I don’t personally recommend doing so as the slick rock could lead to an untimely death. Though deaths due to falling off these cliffs occur sparingly, it is a real danger and guests to the park should always remain behind the railing at all times.
Winding our way down a few rocky hills just a few hundred feet from our start, we found the trailhead for the Waterfalls Trail at a trail junction marked on a tiny post. If you miss this turn, you’ll end up hiking the 12 mile West Rim Loop, wondering why you never saw a single waterfall. While this is one of the shortest trails in Cloudland Canyon, it is also one of the most difficult. With close to a 500 foot descent into the bottom third of the canyon, it makes for a difficult way down, and an even tougher time back up. The start of this climb is marked by an enormous boulder protruding off the side of a cliff, creating a rock shelter below it. Hikers generally stop here to contemplate wether or not to continue their journey, as they watch others stop to catch their breath on their way back up.
This stunning rock formation owes its origins to the ocean that once covered this area 200 million years ago. As the ocean dried up, it created small tributaries such as Sitton's Gulch Creek and Daniel Creek. Over time, the soft sandstone bluffs would fracture into the unique rock formations we see here today.
Stepping off into the abyss, we head down the 600 steps strewn along a dozen boardwalks making up the majority of the Waterfalls Trail. This is easy compared to what people used to endure just a few years back. Not long ago, the trek down to see the falls would have been along a hazardous, narrow dirt path navigating tightly against the side of this sheer cliff.
One of the least talked about aspects of the Waterfalls Trail are the hanging gardens adorning these cliffs. Just about every inch of sheer cliff along this trail is adorned with plants clinging to tiny nooks and crevices. Colonies of sedges, ferns, blooming foamflower and huechera, thrive due to the constant stream of water emanating from the upper ridges of the canyon.
The water supply moves downward through the porous stone until it reaches a less permeable layer of rock, forcing it to move sideways and eventually seep out of the stone and flow down the side of the cliff. Its a magical sight, especially in the heart of spring wildflower season. Near the bottom of the canyon we find large swaths of blooming trillium and Jacobs ladder thriving in the hummus rich soil.
Stepping off the last flight of stairs, we enter the heart of canyon created by Daniel Creek, where we become surrounded by the sounds of rushing water bombarding us from every direction. This boardwalk is directly in the center of a 0.5 mile stretch of the Waterfalls Trail with Hemlock Falls and Cherokee Falls located on opposite ends of it. Which one you visit first really doesn’t matter unless you plan on continuing the 6 miles along Sitton’s Gulch Trail further west. Turning left, we head to Cherokee Falls first. The path to the falls is adorned with countless smaller waterfalls streaming over boulder filled cascades. We easily got distracted following the many side paths leading down to Daniel Creek to get a closer look of the gorgeous scenery.
Rounding a bend on our path, we are finally able to see Cherokee Falls in the distance, just beyond a boulder lined beach. Plunging 60 feet over an arced rock outcropping, the stream feeds a beautiful blue lagoon that would rival any found out west. The scene is awe inspiring, making the hike totally worthwhile. Although posted signs prohibit visitors from swimming in the pool, hikers will typically sit out on the farthest boulders and dangle their bare feet in the water to cool off on a hot summers day. A reasonable compromise in my opinion.
Leaving Cherokee Falls, I head back to the opposite end of the Waterfalls Trail to reach Hemlock Falls. While we might have only passed about half a dozen other hikers on our way down, the trail is beginning to get crowded by all of the late risers. It really pays to get an early start in the morning to avoid large crowds, especially if you plan on taking lots of pictures.
Another thing to note is that the flow of the falls is weather dependent and mostly seasonal. Spring and Fall are usually the best time to visit to see these waterfalls at their peak. A quick call to the parks visitors center is the best way to find out what conditions might look like, especially if you’re driving from out of state.
Of the two waterfalls, Hemlock Falls is by far the biggest at 90 feet tall. Unlike Cherokee Falls, there is no access to the pool beneath Hemlock Falls. Due to the heavy spray coming off the falls, the boulder filled approach is considered dangerous to traverse. Still, visitors can get a pretty good view of the falls and plunge basin from the viewing platform situated at the end of the trail. Taking a rest on one of the many benches here, I sit back in contemplation of the beauty surrounding us. The scenery reminds me of so many other places I’ve visited and yet is totally unique at the same time.
For those not ready to head back, the start of Sitton’s Gulch Trail is just around the corner. This 6 mile out and back trail runs parallel to several small cascading creeks downwards to the mouth of Cloudland Canyon towards the town of Trenton. Along the way you’ll pass the small rain shower created by the bottom of Winter Falls, wildflower filled meadows, and several wild caves including Sittons and Case Cave. Regardless of what you chose to do at this point, you still have to contend with that 600 stair climb, back up to the main trailhead. Take your time, go slow, or run laps past people during your morning workout as we found one very fit guy doing.
This trail is totally worth it and even if it hurts going back up, it’ll be a little easier next time. Up next, we’ll be hitting up the Observation Trail to get some fantastic views of Cloudland Canyon, while learning a little bit more about its history. Join us on our cool down hike after coming back up those steps and until next time, see y’all on the trails!