When you're looking for outdoor recreational opportunities near the busy city of Atlanta, chances are you won't find much - but your best shot would be to take a look at nearby state parks, such as Sweetwater Creek State Park, Panola Mountain State Park, and the one this article is about: Fort Yargo State Park. While this state park has neither the solitude nor the remoteness of a wilderness area, you will still find a nice, easy day hike that is doable as an after-work hike or a short weekend outing. This hike occurred on Saturday, May 16th, 2015. My plan was to hike the loop trail around Fort Yargo Lake counter-clockwise, and also to hike the Winder Connector Trail roundtrip (I never found the trailhead for it though). Most of the loop trail was going to be open to both bikers and hikers, although a small section was going to be hiking only.
R/T Length of Trail: 8.8 Miles
Duration of Hike: 4 Hours
Type of Hike: Loop
Difficulty Rating: 2 out of 10
Pros: Lake views; easily-visible trail
Cons: Some presence of mountain bikers; crowded sections
Scenic Views: None
Water Features: None
Trail Blaze Color(s): Multi-Use Trail - Orange, Yellow, and Blue
Best Season(s) to Hike: Year-round
Beginning Point: Historical Fort Yargo
Directions: From Winder, GA: Follow GA State Route 81 South for 0.7 miles, and then, turn left onto Fort Yargo Road to enter Fort Yargo State Park. Follow Fort Yargo Road for 0.6 miles, and then turn left (just after a bridge) onto the parking at the historical Fort Yargo cabin. The trail is located just below the cabin, near the lakeshore.
This hike starts with a visit to the historical Fort Yargo cabin, right by the parking.area. Make sure to check out both floors - it's interesting to see the types of houses that people used to live in many years ago. Once you've explored the cabin, proceed to the lakeshore, and pick up the trail, heading away from the road. It is marked by a sign. The trail starts off as a flat, dirt path that meanders along the lake. For some reason, some of the lakeside paths were closed off when I was here, although I would suggest following the closest path to the lake - you are less likely to encounter bikers there and it is more interesting. At 0.5 miles, following a slight uphill stretch, cross one of the park roads. You will return to the lake shortly. Next, you will pass the state park's disc golf course on the right - try to follow the path that stays just to the left of the course. Then, you will reach a small peninsula. Here, the Fort Yargo Dam seems close, but a whole new area of the lake opens up on the right - the Marberry Creek section. Pass a parking area and a group shelter (just up the hill), and approach a confusing area amidst the park's most popular area. Pass a large shelter-type building on the left, and reach a large parking area and another road at 1.5 miles. Turn left onto the road, and then go down towards the beach area. Take a path that leads right, just above the lakeshore. Shortly afterwards, a spur trail leads left to a good lake view, and then, the bike trail comes in from the right. At 1.7 miles, reach yet another road (Picnic Area Road). Turn left here, and follow the road up a small hill and then down a one-way loop at the end of the road. At the lower part of the loop, where it turns left, continue straight onto a wide, dirt road at 2 miles.
The old road soon becomes a path as the trail follows the lakeshore, sometimes closely. At 2.3 miles, reach high-tension powerlines. A fishing pier is on the left right afterwards. It has a good view of the lake. After the pier, reach another parking area and the end of Yargo Area B Road. On the other side of the parking area, a footbridge heads left across the lake. This is a good shortcut, if you want to lessen the hike distance. You can also head out onto the footbridge for a view of the lake both up and down. Otherwise, continue straight on a path along the lake. The path soon curves to the right along a small finger of the lake. At the far end of the finger, keep left to continue following the path across a footbridge over a small creek. Take another left here. The trail will meander along the lakeshore. Make two left turns at junctions with bike trail alternatives. Then, pass some storage buildings off GA 81 on the right, and cross Marberry Creek on a steel footbridge at 2.9 miles. The creek is not large and is quite still. Following the steel footbridge, you will be generally paralleling GA 81 and cross a petroleum pipeline cut. Then, make a small ascent onto a hill with some maze-like twists, typical of mountain biking trails. After reaching the "high point" of this ascent, descend in a similar manner in the same area following the border of a powerline cut. Recross the petroleum pipeline cut and reach the powerline cut. Follow a wide, dirt path down the powerline cut to an unmarked intersection, where the a portion of the lake can be seen on the left. This intersection is at 3.3 miles. Keep left onto a dirt path heading into lakeside woods to continue following the route of this hike. The wider path continuing straight along the powerline cut is part of the bike only trail. Follow the path left into the woods along the shore of the lake to reach the other end of the wooden footbridge seen earlier. This footbridge is reached at 3.5 miles. This is where you would end up, if taking the shortcut over the footbridge earlier. Keep right along the lakeshore to continue following the loop.
The trail soon reaches a high-tension powerline cut. Cross the cut and begin a series of small ups and downs along the south shore of the lake, the biggest of which is roughly 40 feet, although it is steep both up and down (relatively). On the top of this small hill, there will be a junction with an old road heading right. Bear left to continue the loop. After more undulations near the lakeshore, the trail will reach the Fort Yargo Dam and a major trail junction at 5.8 miles. This is where you meet the bike only trail, and according to he bike map, it is the same trail that was at the powerline cut earlier.To the right is the Monster Mile Bypass. Straight ahead is a shot connector to the primary biking trail. To the left is where the route described here goes, continuing to follow the multi-use lake loop. Cross the long, wide, grassy dam. This is the best view of the lake on the entire hike, with an excellent view of the main body of the lake, and a partial view of the Marberry Creek section of the lake. To the right, the small creek that was dammed flows into a marshy area. The bike trail can be seen at the base of the dam. Once across the dam, bear left - a faint path heads to the right, likely connecting to the main bike trail. The wide lakeside path shortly reaches a bench on the left at what I consider the second best lake view on the hike. You can see much of the Marberry Creek section of the lake and much of the main body of the lake from here, as well as the dam itself. Following this view, continue following the lake with more views, before reaching a small boat ramp and a paved road at 6.3 miles. This is the most confusing area of the hike - keep your eyes peeled for blazes. Follow the paved road to a small parking area, and at the fork, keep left through the lower end of Campground #2. At the playground, turn left onto a wide old road and cross a small creek.
After following the old road a short distance, reach another paved road. The old road continues straight, but there is no point in continuing following it, as it ends at the paved road shortly. Continue following the paved road through Campground #1, and then keep left onto a gravel road to a gravel parking lot. The trail exits the parking area at the upper right corner at 6.8 miles. The longest ascent of the hike starts at this point, and in fact, it leads to the highest point on the hike. Also, the lake views you've seen up to this point are generally the last you'll see on the hike, besides a few viewpoints near the end. Follow the dirt path through dry woods up an easy incline to reach the highest point of the hike (946 feet high) at 7.1 miles amidst a pine forest. This pine forest has possibly been planted here, but it's hard to say for sure. At 7.2 miles, cross Boys' Home Road. On the left, this road ends at Philip H. Grace Group Home, a private area. The start of Winder Connecting Trail is shortly after the road, according to the map, but I never even saw any signs of any trail there. Later, I drove to a point where Yargo Camp Road crosses Boys' Home Road, and I saw the trailhead at the intersection. Maybe you have to walk up this road to that intersection? I'm not sure.
In any case, cross the road and continue on an easy trail through drier terrain.At 7.5 miles, cross a narrow, dirt service road, and then descend past some structures on the left that probably have to do with Will-A-Way Recreation Area. At 7.6 miles, cross the access road to Will-A-Way Recreation Area (for special needs groups only). Continue descending on an easy trail back towards lake level. Along the way, an overgrown spur trail goes to the left to an unusual feature - four trees growing out of one base. Don't miss this quadruple tree! The spur trail is right after a small "pullout" on the trail on the right, a spur trail on the right to a small creek, and a spot where the trailside looks like it's mowed (and it is mowed). After this, descend to a creek and cross it on a footbridge. This area is a garden, created for the Bird Berry Nature Trail. Reach a paved path. To the right is the end of the Bird Berry Nature Trail, where there is a gazebo and a small loop with interpretive signs. The main hike turns left down the paved path, where there are more interpretive signs. Cross a creek on a footbridge, and pass a spur paved path to the left that leads to a viewpoint of Will-A-Way Inlet. Meanwhile, the main trail continues straight to the end of the paved path at a large parking area. There is an observation deck on the left with a view of Will-A-Way Inlet. At 8.6 miles, continue straight through the parking area to another parking lot, for bikers and hikers, on the left, just before the main park road. Turn left, and pick up the trail from the parking lot. The trail descends along the road, and then joins the road, crossing a bridge over a small finger of the lake. Following the bridge, reach the trailhead and parking area where your car is at 8.8 miles.
To summarize, this is a great, easy hike, good for novice hikers or for a half-day hike. It is also good for joggers and possibly aquatic wildlife viewers - you have a shot at seeing some aquatic birds here. Below are my pictures.
Year 1: 540.0 Miles
Year 2: 552.3 Miles
Year 3: 518.4 Miles
Year 4: 468.7 Miles