Sunday, August 26, 2018

Hiking Trails at Elachee Nature Center

Elephantopus tomentosus was one of the few flowers
This nature destination in Gainesville has been on my list of things to do for years and recently I used an available Sunday to give it a look. With 12 miles of hiking trails amid 1400+ acres, you won’t be surprised to learn that my slow pace only covered part of this north Georgia treasure on that day.

From their website:  "Elachee is a regional environmental education center and recreation destination to unplug, reconnect with nature and learn. For nearly four decades, Elachee and its devoted community partners have worked tirelessly to build a sustainable legacy for future generations to enjoy."

I started from the parking lot at the Aquatic Studies Center (2100 Calvary Church Road, Gainesville, GA 30504), hiking on the Eastlake Trail, turning onto Dunlap Trail and then crossing over the suspension bridge to the southbound part of the Westlake Trail for the return to the Aquatic Studies Center. I crossed five creeks in the process and passed through thick woodlands, packed with Piedmont plants that included an incredible array of plant species.

The number of woody plant species that I saw on my hike was phenomenal and almost every corner brought something new: maples (Acer sp.), multiple oak species (Quercus sp.), hickories (Carya sp.), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), ash (Fraxinus sp.), beech (Fagus grandifolia), and pine (Pinus sp.) were the canopy, at times providing thick cover and dense shade. Other areas were more open, sometimes due to recent storms, and large debris was on the ground, fungi blooming in their decaying carcasses. With all the recent rain, it was a great day for finding mushrooms. These six pictures are only a portion of what I photographed:

The understory layer of small trees and shrubs varied based on whether I was walking through moist low places or drier ridges. Some of the many things I saw were at least 3 species of blueberry (Vaccinium sp.), musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana), hawthorn (Crataegus sp.), horsesugar (Symplocos tinctoria), azalea (Rhododendron sp.), a huge grove of snowbell (Styrax grandifolius), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), dwarf pawpaw (Asimina parviflora), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), hobblebush (Leucothoe sp.), hazelnut (Corylus americana), alder (Alnus sp.) and so much more. I just kept thinking: “That too?!”

While the trails were well-marked, I carried a paper copy of the map with me so that I could anticipate the turn towards the suspension bridge. Another distraction along the way was an attempt to spot caterpillars. The many young sweetgums that sprout along the trail are perfect places to find some of our large moths and I was thrilled to spot one with a regal moth caterpillar.

Regal moth on sweetgum

Tiger swallowtail on ash

As I crossed the bridge, I spotted another caterpillar high up in the canopy of an ash tree next to the bridge. Resting on a silken hammock, it was the caterpillar of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. This was my first time seeing this caterpillar in the wild and I must admit that I squealed a bit. After a few pictures, I hurried on my way because raindrops showed up and I was only halfway through my hike.

A carpet of ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum)

As I approached Chicopee Lake at the end, the herbaceous layer was especially rich, with several kinds of ferns and thick carpets of ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum syn. Lycopodium digitatum). I even found a small population of groundpine (Lycopodium dendroideum perhaps and it probably has a new name too). This seems to be a good area for bird watching. The last part of the trail crossed over the dam by the lake, a hot and sunny stretch of meadow-like growth full of blooming plants like thoroughwort and partridge pea. Down at the water’s edge, I could see huge stands of Joe pye weed (Eutrochium sp.). Butterflies swirled around the area. At the parking lot, blooming plants included downy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) and ironweed (Vernonia sp.) and there was good butterfly watching there too.

Joe pye weed at lake's edge
Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

Viceroy on Helianthus mollis
According to their website, they have recorded “38 species of upper story trees, 18 species of mid-story trees, 44 species of shrubs, 25 species of vines and 197 herbaceous plants” and the preserve is “one of Georgia’s largest, protected green spaces”.

I certainly plan several trips back there. I need to hike the other side of the trails as well as visit in the spring to see more of the herbaceous plants in bloom (although the fall goldenrods and asters look promising for a good show along with great leaf color). Don’t wait much longer to visit this woodland treasure.


  1. Glad you enjoyed your visit to this treasure in our neck of the woods. We walk there often and always discover something new.

  2. Did you do this hike alone?
    Usually you mention the native plant group you hike with...
    I'd like to see what you could photograph down in Providence Canyon...