Once upon a time, you could amble from a country road up the side of Kennesaw Mountain, then look south and east over a green carpet. In those days, metro Atlanta truly was what some liked to call it: "a city in a forest."
Today, subdivisions creep within rifle range of Kennesaw's pinnacle. A beige-and-gray jumble of stores, roads, office towers and parking lots lies shrouded in a monstrous ozone smog that screams: "I am what you've done to this once-fair city!"
Still, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park remains an island of nature in Atlanta's sea of asphalt — one in a surprisingly rich archipelago of green-ness. You can march eight miles there along the wooded spine that formed the battle line of the Confederacy's only true victory over Sherman. Beyond its bloody history, Kennesaw is the best example of the Appalachians so close to town. Steep slopes. Rocky gullies. Hardwood forests. It's a great place to take a run in the woods, to play on the rocks or simply to bird watch.
Other refuges from the humanity of it all lie scattered across the metro area. You just better get there soon, because many of them are slated for disfigurement. To the west, in Douglas County, is Sweetwater Creek State Park, where a tax-base-hungry government is encouraging vast new developments. Sweetwater is an under-recognized asset. A beautiful trail there wanders past an imposing old mill ruin and on to a vista over an exciting rapid. Though dirty because of development, the creek itself is a great post-rainstorm run for experienced kayakers.
To the east, lies Stone Mountain, where a shortsighted privatization scheme between the state and (the name says it all) Silver Dollar City is threatening to turn a world-class geological wonder into a theme park. The park is so popular that a walk up its famous rump can hardly be called "getting lost in the wild." Still, the granite behemoth is an awesome reminder of the power of nature.
Two less-awesome granite outcrops, south of Stone Mountain, are a lot less crowded and offer more solitude. Mount Arabia is a county park, and Panola Mountain a state park.
Directly south of the city, High Falls State Park does for water what Stone Mountain does for granite: It's a display of ancient power. You can stick a canoe in the Towaliga River below the falls and ride for a half-day between fairly unspoiled banks.
Another nice spot for a canoe trip is the Alcovy River, just downstream from Covington. It has at least one portage, around a rocky ledge. For most of the way, the Alcovy offers surprisingly pristine voyage. (Before heading down any river check a guidebook and ask experienced canoeists for safety tips.)
Of course, the most popular metro float is the Chattahoochee. For 45 miles, from Buford Dam to U.S. 41 (just above where Cobb and Atlanta sewage starts getting dumped into the river), the 'Hooch is a tree- and cliff-lined wonder. Construction silt makes the water murky but bearable enough to carry you along in raft or canoe.
You can actually sneak away from the crowds on the river by taking a hike instead. The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is comprised of a string of 13 forested units — most with lovely hiking trails. Our favorite is just outside the Atlanta city limits: It's at the dead end of Indian Trail Road in Sandy Springs. The trail, whose poor markings can make it adventurous, offers three options, each of which wanders through heavily forested ravines featuring oaks, dogwoods, rare bigleaf magnolias and other hardwoods. You can head downstream to a trail along the river, upstream to another trail along the river and the site of an old mill, or straight to an overlook about 150 feet above a dramatic bend in the river.
It's a rare view of Atlanta's astoundingly beautiful natural setting — a setting too often paved over or disregarded.