A scene from the Chattahoochee River. (Special/Tom Wilson)

Under a new leader, one of the country’s most visited national parks is working on a plan to revamp its trail system.

The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA) spans 48 miles along the Chattahoochee and includes 15 land units. In 2020, it saw 3.5 million visitors, making it the country’s 16th most visited national park. It also contains about 20% of metro Atlanta’s greenspace and is home to hundreds of bird species.

“It is beloved by many,” said Sandy Springs resident Ann Honious, who in August 2021 was named superintendent of the CRNRA, which has its park headquarters in Sandy Springs. “This is a special place in the entire country.”

Ann Honious. (Special/Melissa Lyttle)

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Honious came to CRNRA after serving as the deputy superintendent at the National Capital Parks – East, a series of parks in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. She also previously worked at Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri, where she oversaw a $380 million rehabilitation project.

Now, she will help lead CRNRA through its first comprehensive trails management plan, which will provide direction for improving trail conditions within the park’s more than 5,200 acres (or about 7,000 acres if you count submerged areas).  

“I see taking this great, beloved park and elevating it for the future,” Honious said. “That is through strategic planning for projects, dealing with deferred maintenance, as well as creating awareness so that the community supports and appreciates what they have.”

Today, there are about 64 miles of trails that run through the park. Most are legacy social trails established before President Jimmy Carter signed the national park into law in 1978.

CRNRA has a long, interesting history. It was the culmination of years of advocacy work by a group that called themselves the River Rats. “In the 1970s, they were watching the development starting to occur in this area and worked very hard to protect the river and the land along its sides,” Honious said.

A scene from the Chattahoochee River. (Special/Tom Wilson)

But the park has yet to have a cohesive trail plan. As a result, the myriad of user-created social trails lacks connectivity and is prone to erosion, among other issues.

Now, the hope is to create a better experience and grow the trail network to almost 90 miles over the next 20 years. The National Park Service had started the trail plan in 2018. A draft could be ready in March 2022.

The trail plan also considers the Chattahoochee RiverLands project, a proposal to build a 125-mile multimodal trail running from Buford Dam to Chattahoochee Bend State Park. That would include a “Greenway” that follows the river, connecting 19 cities across seven counties. The Greenway is being proposed by the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Trust for Public Land, Cobb County, and the City of Atlanta.

“Our trail management plan is our plan and framework to then work with communities that want to build part of that Greenway and have it touch or go through the national park,” Honious said, adding they are supportive of the effort.  

As for CRNRA’s trail plan, a key group called the Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy (CNPC) will help raise money for projects once it’s finalized. The Conservancy was established in 2012 as the official “friends group” of the national park. In 2021, the nonprofit spent $180,000 on park improvements, including rebuilding three river outlooks in the Cochran Shoals unit. It has a big fundraiser planned for March 15 at SweetWater Brewing Co.

CRNRA will also seek funding from the National Park Service and volunteer help from various groups.

Amy Wenk

Amy Wenk is Editor of Reporter Newspapers. She can be reached at editor@reporternewspapers.net