Growing up in the heart of Atlanta in the 1970s, nature was something we really only saw on school field trips.
Whether it was the Atlanta Zoo, the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, or Stone Mountain Park, these magical places offered a taste of peace and serenity we rarely experienced in the city.
The first time our class visited the Chattahoochee Nature Center in the early ’80s, I remember a visceral feeling of excitement.
Getting to see the center’s hawks, eagles and other Georgia birds of prey up close, and getting to hold a snake for the very first time, had a dramatic influence on my future as a diehard nature-lover.
Located right on the Chattahoochee River in Roswell, the center has evolved a bit over the last 40+ years.
But what hasn’t changed at all is its dedication to connecting people with nature, and educating visitors on why environmental preservation and conservation matters.
Though it’s located about an hour south of mountain towns like Blue Ridge, here’s a look at why the CNC is a must-see for anyone interested in the nature and wildllife of North Georgia.
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CHATTAHOOCHEE NATURE CENTER INFO
• The CNC’s Wildlife Department rescues and/or rehabilitates 600+ injured and orphaned raptors, reptiles, and amphibians each year. There are currently more than 75 non-releasable animals that call the Center home.
• The CNC’s quarter-acre Unity Garden serves as an outdoor classroom for local schools. Everything grown there is donated to the North Fulton Community Charities food pantry, and typically totals over 500 pounds of produce per year.
• The CNC has been recognized by the Federal Highway Administration for helping to build “the sustainable road of the future.” Known as “The Ray,” this 18-mile stretch of flowers along I-85 is crucial for pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
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DIRECTIONS TO CHATTAHOOCHEE NATURE CENTER
Directions from Metro Atlanta
Take I-75/I-85 North, using the left lanes to take exit 251B for I-85 N toward GA-400/Greenville.
In 2.3 miles, use the right 2 lanes to take exit 87 for GA-400 N toward Buckhead/Cumming. Continue on GA-400 N for 6.3 miles, then keep left to stay on US-19 N for 4.9 miles.
Take exit 6 for Northridge Road. Keep right at the fork, following the signs for Roswell Road/Dunwoody Place, then merge onto Dunwoody Pl.
In 1.2 miles, turn right onto GA-9/Roswell Rd. In .6 miles, you’ll turn left on Azalea Dr, then go 1.7 miles and turn left onto Willeo Rd. Look for CNC signs on the right in less than a mile.
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Directions from North Georgia
Follow US-129 S/US-19 S until the roads split (about 5-6 miles south of Vogel State Park), then turn right to stay on US-19 S.
Follow US-19 S as it turns over the next 16 miles. Take a left onto Damascus Church Rd, go 1.2 miles to a right on Frogtown Rd. then just over 3 miles to a right onto Town Creek Church Rd.
In 2.1 miles you’ll turn left onto Cavender Creek Rd, then go 1.1 miles to a right on Copper Mines Rd. Follow that for 1.5 miles until it turns into Long Branch Rd, then go 6.8 miles until it becomes US-19 S again.
From there you’ll follow US-19 S another 38.5 miles. Use the right 2 lanes to take the GA-140 W/Roswell exit, then get in the left lane to merge onto GA-140 W/Holcomb Bridge Rd.
In .2 miles, turn left onto Dogwood Rd, which turns into Riverside Dr after a mile. Go another mile and it turns into Azalea Dr, which you’ll follow for 1.7 miles and turn left on Willeo Rd.
The Chattahoochee Nature Center will be on your right in under a mile.
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Chattahoochee Nature Center History
Stretching 430 miles, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia to the Florida border, the Chattahoochee River has been a vital water source for more than 3000 years now.
Used by indigenous peoples since at least 1000 BC, the Chattahoochee River historically divided the Muscogee/Creek Indians from the Cherokee. It was also of great strategic import to General Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign during the Civil War.
By the 20th century the river was being used for commercial traffic and hydroelectric power. Growing environmental concerns led Jimmy Carter to create the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in 1978.
With a mission to connect people with nature through environmental education, the 127-acre Chattahoochee Nature Center was created in 1976.
Located directly across from the river in Roswell GA, the CNC was co-founded by local citizens and designed by iconic conservationist John Ripley Forbes.
A longtime resident of Sandy Springs GA, Forbes created hundreds of interactive nature museums in 200+ communities spanning 30 U.S. states. He also founded the Southeast Land Preservation Trust to preserve and manage conservation areas in the region.
The Chattahoochee Nature Center has emerged over the last 45 years as one of North Atlanta’s most beloved places for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city, attracting more than 130,000 visitors each year.
And from the LEED-certified interpretive center opened in 2009 to the Aerial Adventure & Zip Line Course opened in 2020, the Center continues to find new ways to encourage children and adults alike to embrace nature.
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EXPLORING THE CHATTAHOOCHEE NATURE CENTER
The CNC offers five interconnected hiking trails (total distance 1.24 miles) that explore the main features of the property. There’s also a .5-mile River Boardwalk Trail that offers excellent views of the wetlands along the Chattahoochee River.
The Beaver Pond Trail and Kingfisher Pond Trail are great for spotting birds, turtles, and other wildlife. The latter trail also offers great views of the bald eagle aviary.
The Homestead Trail features remnants of 1940s-era cabin, while the Forest Trail passes by a gravesite of a family who settled in the area sometime in the 19th century.
The Stone Cabin Trail offers access to the Unity Garden, where local students learn about agriculture while helping to farm food that is donated to local charity organizations.
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Kids and animal lovers will adore exploring the paved pathways just outside the center, which feature numerous Raptor Aviaries, Butterfly Gardens, Beaver Habitat and more.
More than 600 animals are brought to the CNC’s Wildlife Clinic each year, and not all of them can be rehabilitated well enough to return to the wild.
The aviaries offer a chance to see some of the center’s permanent residents up close, including bald eagles, red shouldered hawks, turkey vultures, and several different species of owls.
And don’t miss the Butterfly Gardens: CNC’s Horticulture Director, Henning von Schmeling, received a 2019 Environmental Excellence Award for his work in creating pollinator habitat.
His garden is a great place to see butterflies feeding and flying during the warm spring and summer months!
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The Discovery Center
The Discovery Center is the hub of the Chattahoochee Nature Center, as well as a focus for much of its endeavors in environmental education.
On the main level you’ll find the ticket window, gift shop, and a gallery featuring artwork exhibits from the Georgia Nature Photography Association and the Roswell Fine Arts Alliance.
Downstairs you’ll find the education center, including the permanent Explore Your Watershed exhibit. This is where you learn about the wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife that make up the Chattahoochee River watershed.
River Resource Kiosks are a wealth of practical environmental education. But there are also live animal displays featuring fish, turtles, lizards, snakes and owls (all of whom were originally brought to the Wildlife Clinic as rescues).
This is also where you’ll find the Cowie-Weiss Theater, where you can view the 20-minute documentary, The Chattahoochee: Reimagine Our River.
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The Chattahoochee Nature Center hosts a broad variety of special events (including their beloved summer camps) throughout the year. These are just a few of the most popular ones:
Enchanted Woodland Trail
Running from mid-December through February 28, this annual exhibit finds 40+ Fairy Houses and Gnome Homes installed along CNC’s woodland trails. Built by local artists, with an emphasis on natural elements, it’s a great way to get kids connected with nature in the winter.
Sundays on the River Concert Series
Held the second Sunday of every month from May through September, this concert series brings live music to CNC’s Ben Brady Lakeside Pavilion. Guests can bring a picnic, chairs and blankets, and chill on the Great Lawn. There’s a cash bar available, and animal encounters at intermission.
Flying Colors Butterfly Festival
Held June 5-6 in 2021, the 22nd annual Butterfly Festival features education on pollinators, a walk-through Butterfly Encounter (which remains open through August 2), and a sale/fundraiser of nectar plants you can use to attract butterflies to your home garden.
On Oct 22/23 and 29/30, visitors can see Fall colors and take guided night hikes through the CNC forest. There’s music, crafts, a campfire and costumed characters such as the Barred Owl and Kingfisher. It’s a nature-focused, family-friendly alternative to traditionally scary Halloween attractions. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted