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Panola Mountain, Hard Labor Creek state parks offer First Day Hikes

Panola Mountain, Hard Labor Creek state parks offer First Day Hikes

A group of Hikers crests Panola Mountain State Park for First Day Hike. (Special Photo)

A group of Hikers crests Panola Mountain State Park for First Day Hike. (Special Photo)

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Carriage rides will be part of the First Day activities offered at Hard Labor Creek State Park. (Special Photo)

Many of us will spend New Year’s Day massaging a hangover from the night before and watching hours of college football on the television.

But the state parks in Georgia – and all over the country – are offering a healthy alternative with First Day Hikes, an opportunity to begin the new year communing with the great outdoors.

First Day Hikes will take place at every one of Georgia’s state parks, including Panola Mountain State Park in Stockbridge and Hard Labor Creek State Park in Rutledge.

“It’s something we started doing a couple of years ago and the turnout has been pretty good,” Phil Delestrez, resource manager at Hard Labor Creek, said.

Activities at Hard Labor Creek will begin around 2 p.m. with a walk on the park’s equestrian trails, which Delestrez estimates is about a 4.5- to 5-mile walk. The park offered the hike for the first time in January, and Delestrez said the turnout was impressive considering the cold, rainy weather conditions.

“It’s a very pretty, scenic trail with some nice hardwood forests and there’s Lake Brantley that we walk by and a couple of creeks,” he said. “We usually have lunch at one of the creeks at the furthest point of the hike and then we head back.”

Hikers should bring their own lunches and wear comfortable shoes for the guided hike, Delestrez said, adding the walk should take about three or four hours, “depending on how talkative the group is.”

The Hard Labor Creek event continues after the sun goes down with carriage rides from 7 to 8 p.m. and from 8 to 9 p.m.

“There’s actually a new moon that night so we’ll be doing one carriage ride from 7 to 8 p.m. and another from 8 to 9 p.m. for people who want to come out and see some stars,” Delestrez said.

“We’ll have a clear sky by then. It’s been hard to find one lately. On the carriage rides, we’re far enough from Atlanta where we pretty much have a clear view of our constellations, so it’s lucky it’s a new moon on New Year’s Day – that will bring a dark sky, which will be good for looking at constellations. And we also point out some of the winter constellations. It’s kind of a neat way to ring in the new year.”

Cost for the First Day Hike is $5 and the cost for the carriage ride is also $5. Hard Labor Creek also has campsites and cottages (which sleep up to eight people) available. Delestrez asked that those who are planning to take part in the activities should call the park at 706-557-3001 to make reservations.

At Panola Mountain State Park, which is located where Rockdale, DeKalb and Henry counties meet, a short ceremony will take place before the 1.5-mile hike up the mountain.

“We’ll have a campfire going and we’re going to give people an opportunity to write down a burden from the previous year that they can burn in the campfire,” Hannah Penn, naturalist at Panola Mountain State Park, said.

“It will be ‘burn your burdens’ time since we’re starting out fresh. Then we’ll go on the hike and once we’re done, we’ll have hot chocolate, hot tea and coffee for everybody.”

Penn said the First Day Hike will be about half as long as a regular mountain walk.

“We will do a short version of our normal, 3-mile mountain hike,” she said.

“The whole hike will probably take about two hours. In the shorter version, we’ll get on the mountain faster and will give people the opportunity to spend more time on the mountain than normal. The 3-mile trip is pretty strenuous; it’s through the woods and is an up-hill, down-hill kind of thing.”

She added that the event will start around 2 p.m. and due to some logistics, it’s critical that hikers arrive on time.

“It’s important that people get there on time because we’re going to carpool from the nature center site to go to a separate entrance for this event,” Penn said, adding that the hike is $7 per person and parking is $5 per vehicle. Reservations can be made by calling 770-389-7801.

This is the third year Panola Mountain State Park has hosted the hike (although it was pointed out that last year’s event was rained out) and Penn said it’s a great way to get off to a “fresh start” in the new year.

“One of the main reasons we started this program is this is a way for people who are looking for a fresh start and it’s an opportunity for people to take a moment to reflect on this last year,” she said.

“And for a lot of people, their New Year’s resolutions are to lose weight and get exercise. This is a great way to do it and get back to nature at the same time.

“We have such a conservation-oriented mindset here with the mountain, that’s a great thing for us. And it may be that this is something new for people, that they haven’t tried hiking before, and it’s an opportunity to start the new years with a new activity that they are probably going to fall in love with.”

For more information, visit www.georgiastateparks.org.

Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens. To contact him, email cstarrs90@charter.net.