By REBECCA HAZEN
Cloudland Canyon State Park has a wealth of outdoor and education resources for the local community, but according to park staff and volunteers, most of the roughly 400,000 people that visit the park each year are from out-of-state.
“Cloudland is a great resource for Dade County families because we offer many free programs during the summer and throughout the year to park visitors,” Brad Gibson, manager of Cloudland Canyon, said. “Cloudland has over 60 miles of trails that range from easy to difficult. The park also offers over 45 miles of multiuse trails. Camping can be done is a variety of levels.”
Visitors are encouraged to check out the Interpretive Center where they can learn all about the park, its history, and the local plants and animals. The Interpretive Center is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is open weekdays seasonally as staffing allows.
Naturalist Jerry Wallace leads a variety of events at the Interpretive Center.
“I do programs here throughout the week and on the weekends. Sometimes I will bring someone in to speak on a subject. In the middle of July, I have a herpetologist with the Georgia Reptile Society coming to do a program about snakes, which is always very popular,” Wallace said.
A schedule of upcoming events at the Interpretive Center is put out about two weeks in advance. The schedule can be checked at Cloudland Canyon’s Facebook page.
“We want to try and reach the young people. We have parents who have gotten their children involved, but they had never been to the parks themselves before,” Wallace said.
Wallace continued, “We have a fantastic group of volunteers here and we’d like to have more people get involved. For the most part we’re all local, and mostly retired folks. We’d like to have some younger folks. We welcome everybody, from kids on up.”
The Friends of Cloudland Canyon State Park is a volunteer organization, which helps support the park through programs, trail maintenance, and more.
“I think this is the coolest state park in Georgia, and I’ve been to a lot of the other parks. It’s a unique place. There are people who have lived here their whole lives and they’ve never been here,” Friends of Cloudland Canyon president Jim Wilbanks said. “The real value is connecting with nature.
The Friends meet at the park the fourth Thursday of each month. Everyone is encouraged to join. A program is held during each Friends meeting. During the July meeting, members will hear from a young junior ranger who has decided on a park ranger career. In August, a representative from the Southeastern Cave Conservancy will speak.
Another effort that locals can get involved in through the Friends organization is the hemlock wooly adelgid program. The hemlock wooly adelgid is an insect native to Asia, which feeds on the sap and kills hemlock trees.
“Last summer, we inoculated 3,500 trees in the park. We continue doing that and we are always looking for volunteers to help with that. It’s the only way to stop them. It’s hard work,” Wilbanks said.
There is also an adopt a trail program, where people are given a stretch of trail that they maintain and walk regularly, about once or twice a month, reporting any issues back to the park.
In addition, the park is getting ready to offer cave exploration, which will be available to the public in the last two weeks of July. The cave will then close in August but be opened to the public again in September. Georgia Department of Natural Resources keeps the cave open five months out of the year, to help with conservation efforts.
“Cloudland Canyon is the only Georgia State Park with caves in it. It’s a unique challenge to administer as well as an asset to enjoy. The exploration will be in Sitton’s Cave, off Sitton’s Gulch Trail,” Wilbanks said.
The Barnard Astronomical Society will also continue to hold their summer Star Parties, on the first Saturday of the month in August and September, weather dependent.
Later in the season, Your State Parks Day will be in September, the date still to be determined.
It costs $5 to park at Cloudland Canyon. Annual passes are available for purchase. For more information visit friendsofcloudlandcanyon.org or gastateparks.org.