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Leaves changing: Make plans now for colorful autumn retreats
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Minnehaha Falls in Rabun County. Rabun County is dotted with waterfalls that bring out fall color in North Georgia. - photo by Scott Rogers

North Georgia’s hills will be awash in the reds, yellows and oranges of autumn come late October and early November, so it’s time to start making plans for your fall getaways.

The folks behind SmokyMountains.com, the tourism group covering the mountainous area from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to Asheville, N.C., are back again this year with their fall foliage map, which tracks the descent of fall color from the north as summer comes to a close.

While the website is focused on tourism to the Smoky Mountains, it tracks color changes throughout the United States. At worst, the online map is an entertaining look at the changing seasons but at best is a helpful planning guide to get the most from the month ahead.

Using temperature and the amount of daylight in early fall, the map predicts the stages of autumnal color from Maine to Key West, from Seattle to San Diego.

Leaf color trackers:

National: smokymountains.com

State: gastateparks.org/leafwatch

And based on the map, North Georgia will begin seeing hints of “minimal” color changes close to Monday, Oct. 8. By Oct. 15, color changes will begin spreading more thoroughly. Color will intensify to a peak between the weeks of Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, but will already be past its prime by Nov. 12.

For parents who want to turn the day or weekend in the mountains into an educational trip, the map at smokymountains.com also includes some fun facts about why leaves change their colors, why leaves fall and what happens to them out in nature.

Hint: The trees aren’t so much changing color as returning to their original color. It’s nifty stuff. Georgia State Parks also manages its own leaf watch page at www.gastateparks.org/leafwatch.

But science to one side: If you want to catch the colors, where to go?

By the lake

If the family doesn’t want to drive to the ends of the state, start in Gainesville’s Lanier Point at 1579 Lee Waldrip Drive. The city park is best known for its softball fields, but has a sneakily good strip of wooded trails laid along Lake Lanier just beyond the covered bridge in the farthest parking lot toward the back.

You won’t get mountains or the sweeping vistas of the north, but you’ll be wrapped in the flavor of fall underneath the lakeside canopies of the peninsula.

In Dawson County, Thompson Creek Park is a relatively tiny stretch of park at 570 Thompson Creek Park Road just off of Dawsonville Highway before it hits Ga. 400.

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Colorful trees reflecting on the water on Lake Lanier at Longwood Park. - photo by Scott Rogers

The patch of wood catches a good breeze from the lake most days, so pack a sweater — and it’s not a lot of area to cover, making the park a good diversion if headed to the North Georgia Premium Outlets or deeper into Dawsonville (into the Dawson Forest, for instance).

As with Lanier Point, don’t expect so many grand views as a rich sense of autumn — complete with the smell of wild muscadines that grow along the short trail in the park.

To the north

With soft mountains, unsullied forests and relative ease of access, it’s no surprise the North Georgia mountains are the place to be to take in the color coming this fall.

And one of the best of the best is Tallulah Gorge State Park, a pick that is, again, no surprise. The gorge, the falls and the state’s bridge overlooking both offer views that must be seen to be believed (it’s why pictures are paired with this story). The park sits about 45 minutes northeast of Gainesville between Habersham and Rabun counties.

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Fall color at Tallulah Gorge State Park between Habersham and Rabun Counties. The gorge is one of the best, and most popular, places to take in autumn color. - photo by Scott Rogers

For those who want near-panoramic views — and a hearty dose of exercise — head to White County’s Yonah Mountain, a 3,166-foot peak that requires a 2.3 mile hike. The trail itself rises about 1,500 feet from trailhead to the summit, a stone face that looks out over the valley below, which come late October will be aflame with autumn color.

And for those who’d rather not even get out of the car (or off the motorcycle), Cheryl Smith at the Georgia Tourism Division recommends the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, a 40.6 mile loop of road in the Chattahoochee National Forest that passes near Blairsville, Young Harris and Hiawassee in the north and Cleveland and Helen in the south.

To get to the byway from Gainesville, take Ga. 11/U.S. 129 to Ga. 75 in Cleveland, following the road through Helen. The byway begins at Ga. 75 Alternate past Helen.

And, finally, for those who want to wine and dine their way through fall, make plans to visit Wolf Mountain Vineyards at 180 Wolf Mountain Trail near Dahlonega. The winery sits atop a point overlooking the hill country, and with plentiful outdoor seating, including an outdoor bar and pizza kitchen, Wolf Mountain is one of the best spots to take in fall with the help of a little rosé.