Lovely Lula Lake
The terrain north of metro Atlanta is riddled with hundreds of hiking trails. In just a couple of hours you can be in the mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, or Tennessee. There is literally something for everyone, from the novice hiker looking for an easy afternoon amongst trees and streams to the hardcore adventurist ready to tackle the AT or challenging peaks found in Nantahala and the Smokies.
A couple of years back I came across some images of a truly stunning waterfall in north Georgia, quite nearly on the border with Tennessee: Lula Lake Land Trust. This is not a hike to undertake on a whim. Lula is a private preserve only open a handful of days each month. Reservations are required and sell out sometimes months in advance during peak season. I learned this the hard way when going to book a car pass in advance of a local getaway to Chattanooga. It’s on the way and would have paired perfectly. Alas, it was sold out. I did however quickly book a spot for November 1st, hoping to hit peak leaf season at the same time.
The preserve is super easy to reach, with no need for 4 wheel drive. Allow about 3-5 hours for your visit, depending on how many of the trails you want to explore. We went on a Sunday, when LLT is only open from 12-5. You must be back at your car by 5 so plan accordingly. On Saturdays they open at 9 so you have more flexibility. LLT also sits a mere 20 minutes from the perennially popular Cloudland Canyon, which has its own stunning waterfalls and views. We elected to rise at 4am for a sunrise visit at Cloudland, clocking a good 3 miles well before 11:00 AM. Cloudland is always a terrific choice, and it was hard to leave on such a beautiful day.
Not wanting to waste any time, we arrived at LLT around 11:45. The gates weren’t open just yet, so we lined up roadside with several other eager waterfall chasers. They did open the gates about 10 minutes before noon, and parking for single ticket holders is right up front, it’s well maintained packed gravel. Annual pass holder get to park further in, cutting a good mile and change off the start of things.
Simple entrance sign to the preserve (L) and bridge just before the first falls when walking the gravel road
We elected to beeline to the falls first, taking the most direct route by walking the gravel road. You’ll come first to the smaller falls, where the water is an invitingly vibrant shade blue-green. Heavy rains had pummeled the area recently so water flow was truly impressive. This is where many visitors seem to stop first, as they're also more easily accessed than the second falls.
The water is an even more amazing blue-green than this funky pano will have you believe!
Since more visitors were arriving (though hardly crowded) and the light wasn’t especially favorable for photos, we pressed on to the main attraction. With the aforementioned rains, the main falls positively thundered, throwing off a cloud of cooling mist. Shoes with good tread are recommended, as the trails down are steep, rocky, and damp.
After exploring a bit, we decided to spend the next few hours exploring the other trails before returning later on. Using the Sun Seeker app, I could tell the light would improve as the day went on. The Adventure Trail (challenging but fun) will get you to the Bluff Trail where you can look eastward towards North Carolina. It’s a great spot to stop for lunch and just relax. Because I didn’t want to rush the return visit at the main falls, we meandered the Jedi Trail for a bit before looping back to the Middle Trail and popping out by the first falls.
At this point it was around 3:30, so mindful of the 5:00 exit time, we decided to just while away our remaining 45 minutes at the main falls. There were only a handful of people left, and I was able to really take my time shooting a variety of angles and techniques.
A staff member does come by around 3:45 to remind you that you need to be back at your car by 5:00. If you hustle, you can do it in less than 30 minutes. After clocking 8.5 miles for the day, we felt more like ambling so we headed back just after 4:15, still making it with a few minute to spare.
A few tips to bear in mind when planning your trip:
Visit the Lula Lake website for information, maps, and reservations. When driving, enter 5000 Lula Lake Road, Lookout Mountain, GA 30750
The Bluff, Jedi, and Middle trails were pretty easy, so a good sneaker or basic trail shoe is fine. But the falls definitely require really good treads, especially on those slippery inclines and rocks. Waterproof shoes are definitely recommended if you’re the intrepid type. Hiking with soggy feet is a recipe for disaster.
There are basic facilities by the front parking, at the annual parking, and one porta potty at the bridge just before the first falls. Otherwise, it’s au natural. Remember to cover your business and pack out any paper/tissues/wipes you use.
Bring plenty of water, especially on hot days. If you use a lifestraw type device, you could easily fill from the river.
Definitely bring snacks or even lunch if you’ll be there more than a couple of hours. Again, pack out your trash.
For photographers, be very careful with your gear near the main falls. It would be less of a concern when the flow is lower, but if the falls are gushing like the day we went and you want to get up close, weather sealed gear (or at least a camera rain cover) is a must. Also a small cloth to continuously dry off your front element, and a small towel to dry yourself. I’d probably bring a larger plastic bag for lens changes next time too. For shots close to the falls I’d recommend a quality wide angle zoom (such as the Fuji 10-24) but don’t discount getting creative with the longer ranges either. I used my 55-200 from further back to play with compression and isolate details. The image on the right was shot with that lens at 83mm f/11and 1/80th sec, which is sharp thanks to the excellent image stabilization of that lens.
The Sun Seeker app is a great tool for planning your shots. Its 3-D view option lets you see in real time where the sun will be throughout the day. This is one of my most used apps for travel and landscape photography.
Scroll down for a few of the photos from LLT. Feel free to email or comment with any questions or additional tips from your own visit.