Sweetwater Creek State Park Red Trail




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Sweetwater Creek State Park




Red Trail



The first marker is south of the New Manchester Mill. From the parking lot, follow the red blazes to the stairs just beyond the mill.
This trail has RED markers.




[1] Introduction


This half-mile trail introduces you to the plants and animals found along the banks of a river, called a riparian forest. Sweetwater Creek is a typical small river in Georgia’s piedmont. Occasionally flooded, the plants and animals in the riparian forest are affected by wetness, scouring, deposition of sediments and floodwater nutrients. Early in the morning or just before sunset is a good time to see ducks or wading birds.

Common Birds


Ducks: Wood duck, Mallard

Wading Birds: Great blue heron

Songbirds: Catbird, Cardinal, Carolina wren, Barn swallow, Cliff swallow

Raptors: Red-shouldered hawk, Barred Owl

[2] Mountain Azalea

Thickets of mountain azalea (Rhododendron canescens), are common along the creek. This native azalea has clusters of light green elliptic leaves with a tiny tooth at the end. Its showy, fragrant pink flowers appear at the branch tips in early spring. This (plus other native azaleas) is celebrated as Georgia's state wildflower. These dense thickets provide roosting and nesting places for birds such as warblers, cardinals and wrens.


Look towards the river for a gnawed stump, the sign of a beaver.

[3] River Shoals (rapids)


Sweetwater Creek flows over a hard rock strata here. Multiple channels and pools of water provide spaces for fish and invertebrates to graze and hide from predators. The cascading flow aerates the water, enhancing water quality, and helping aquatic animals to breathe.

[4] High Bush Blueberries


The shrub with green stems and alternate elliptic leaves is a highbush blueberry, (Vaccinium corym-bosum). It has pinkish white urn-shaped flowers in the spring. Animals relish its blueberries in the late summer and fall.
[5] Hazel Alder

Hazel alder (Alnus serrulata) is a common understory tree. It has tapered oval leaves with prominent veins. The bark of young twigs is brown with speckles. Look for tiny cones from last year’s fruit. Thickets along the river are preferred nesting sites for cardinals. You might see a flash of red or hear a “chip” call.


[6] Mica Schist Rocks


The trail climbs over an outcrop of mica schist, a metamorphic rock (meaning it has changed form). Clays deposited on the ocean bottom hardened into shale rock. Heat and pressure from the collision of Africa with North America hundreds of millions of years ago transformed that shale into its current form. Notice the sparkle of mica flakes, hence its name, mica schist. Look for swirls of minerals in the rock, making it look somewhat like wood grain.

[7] Pignut Hickory


Pignut hickory (Carya glabra) is a common tree along the river and in the uplands. It has light green compound leaves with 5-7 leaflets. Hickory nuts are a rich food for squirrels and deer in the fall.
Looking towards the river, you might notice a deep pool on the right, called Indian Pool. A crack in the hard rock has formed a sheer rock face with a pool below. The deep shaded water is preferred by large fish such as bass and carp.

[8] Side Creek

This side creek cascades over rocks, emptying into Sweetwater Creek. A thicket of mountain laurel shades the water, keeping it cool in the summer. Pools of aerated water are a good place to find small fish, as they are safe from larger predators in the river. Stones and woody limbs in the stream channel provide habitat for many types of small aquatic animals (called macro-invertebrates) such as aquatic insects (damselflies and dragonflies). Other macro-invertebrates include crustaceans (crayfish, sideswimmers, and aquatic pillbugs), mollusks (snails, mussels, and clams), oligochaetes (earthworms and leeches), and arachnids (aquatic mites).


[9] River Overlook


Sweetwater Creek supports a riparian forest, a place where plants and animals can take advantage of the rich resources found along the river corridor. Look at the forest around you. There are many types of trees and shrubs, a sign of biodiversity. Various grasses, reeds, sedges and wildflowers grow along the river edge. Plants take advantage of the constant water supply and nutrients brought by river floods. Cascading river water is rich in oxygen, and high in quality, so it can support diverse macro-invertebrates. These are eaten by fish, which in turn are eaten by larger fish, birds and mammals such as raccoons. All of these interacting plants and animals form a natural community.

[10] American Beech

The large tree with smooth bark is an American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Its alternate ovate leaves are 1½ to 3 inches long, with prominent straight veins and doubly-toothed edges. The leaves turn beige in autumn, and persist on the tree over winter. Squirrels and deer eat the beechnuts when they ripen in the fall.


[11] River Flats


Looking across the river, you might notice that some of the water is flowing down-stream, other pools are quiet, and still other eddies are flowing upstream. Rocks and logs form a complex river bottom, so there are lots of places for organisms to feed, hide, rest and lay eggs. Predators regularly come to the river to feed. You might see a swimming banded water snake, a great blue heron fishing in a pool, swallows scooping up insects or a raccoon washing its food.

[12] Sandy Soils


During periods of flood, the river deposits sandy sediments such as those in the trail. Pick up a handful of soil. Do you see glittering mica flakes? They were eroded from the surrounding mica schist rocks. The coarse grains indicate the sands are near their parent rock, and the tumbling river water has lots of energy. You might have noticed sticks or logs lodged in the shrubs and trees. These indicate periods of high water. During floods rivers can move thousands of times more sediments than during more placid flows. These floodwaters bring a pulse of nutrients to the riparian forest.

[13] Rock Crevices

These tumbled rocks provide homes for wildlife such as snakes, lizards and salamanders. You might spot a green anole (Anolis carolinensis) sunning itself on a rock or branch. This lizard is 5 to 8 inches long, and may be either green or brown, changing color to better blend into its background. Males have a pinkish throat fan that is displayed in territorial rivalries or when attracting a potential mate. Anoles generally live in trees, and eat a wide variety of insects, spiders and other invertebrates.


This is a good area to see snakes sunning themselves, especially in the cooler weather. Look for king snakes, eastern black rat snakes, eastern rough green snakes, black racers, garter snakes, or the venomous copperhead snake. If you are lucky enough to see one, please leave it alone.

[14] Loblolly Pine


As you look around, you might notice that there is an occasional large loblolly pine, evidence that this area was disturbed many years ago. Loblollies are called “pioneer trees” because they are one of the first trees to grow in disturbed soils. Loblollies have three needles in a bundle, 6 to 9 inches long. Soils along the river are shallow and vegetation is prone to being uprooted and washed away. This magnificent tree is very old, and has survived river floods by anchoring its tap root in a rock crevice.

[15] Lichens

The splotches on the rock are several types of lichen. Lichens are a mutually beneficial combination of two species: a fungus and an alga. The fungus provides structure, protection and attachment, like a miniature greenhouse. The photosynthesizing alga makes food. Lichens get all the nutrients they need from the air and rain. They secrete acids that break down the rock into soil. The round, gray-green patches are called peppered rock lichen (Xanthoparmelia conspersa).


[16] American Hornbeam


American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) is a common understory tree. Its leaves have doubly-toothed edges, and grow from 1 to 6 inches long. Its droopy yellow male flowers are called catkins, and appear in early spring. The smooth bark on the trunk looks like a muscle. Another common name for this tree is Ironwood, due to its extremely hard wood.

[17] Cinnamon Ferns


A tiny spring flows out of a crack in the rock, creating a small moist area. There are numerous clumps of cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea), a common wetland fern. Its fronds are 2-4 feet high. Cinnamon-colored spores appear on a central stalk, hence its common name.

[18] Falls Overlook and Summary

The underlying geology controls the course of Sweetwater Creek. Notice how the river corridor constricts and the river bends as it flows through a ridge of extremely hard rock and tumbles over the falls. Sweetwater Creek joins the Chattahoochee River about three miles below here, eventually draining into the Gulf of Mexico.


While on the red trail, you have walked through a riparian forest paralleling Sweet-water Creek. Hard metamorphic rocks in the river bed cause the shoals and falls in this stretch of the river. There is a lot of energy to erode rocks, aerate the water, and (in historic times) drive the New Manchester mill. The riparian forest is a community of plants and animals well adapted to conditions along the river. There is abundant high-quality water and nutrients. River currents, eddies and deep pools, coupled with a complex river bottom offer many microhabitats for plants and animals. Diverse food resources support a wide variety of predators such as fish, water snakes, herons, and raccoons. However, the normally nurturing conditions can quickly alter during a flood, when rocks, trees, fish and animals can be drowned or swept away.


You are a few hundred feet from a trail junction. The white trail continues along the river another ½ mile and then loops back to the parking area (3 miles). Another option is to return along the blue trail walking above the river and into two coves to the parking area ( 2 miles).



Please recycle this leaflet in the red box at the trailhead near the parking lot.


Developed by naturalist Carol Schneier 6/07


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