For many metro Atlanta residents, hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains can often mean a full-day commitment once you factor in driving times.
But hiking at the Sawnee Mountain Preserve in Cumming GA offers numerous opportunities for hiking near Atlanta, all within 40 miles of Downtown.
The other benefit of Sawnee Mountain hiking is that the roads to get to the trailhead are not extremely windy. This is a relief for those who suffer from motion sickness, but enjoy hiking to great North Georgia mountain views.
When I first moved to the Atlanta area 20 years ago, we lived near the base of Sawnee Mountain. I’d ride my bike to the undeveloped trailhead and hike trails that were maintained by the footprints of time more than anything else.
Now the area is maintained by Forsyth County Parks & Recreation, and includes a Visitor Center, two parking lots, playgrounds, picnic shelters, and well-maintained restrooms.
One of the drawbacks of being so close to the city is that Sawnee Mountain is one of the most popular Atlanta hiking trails, and it can get crowded at times.
However, as a female hiker with young children, I also find heavily trafficked trails to be among the safest, especially for people who enjoy hiking trails in Atlanta alone.
The most well-known trail is the Indian Seats Trail, but the Sawnee Mountain Preserve trail system encompasses 11 miles.
Hikers who want to reach the Indian Seats lookout can take a quick 1.5-mile out-and-back hike to the summit, or try the Indian Seats Trail Loop (which is about 3.2 miles).
Hikers with more endurance (and time) can opt for an all-day trek by combining multiple trails, which stretch across the ridgeline and circumnavigate the mountain. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed in the preserve.
Read on for our guide to hiking the Indian Seats Trail at Sawnee Mountain Preserve, including some history of the area and an overview of the other hiking trails you can tackle there.
READ MORE: The 25 Best Day Trips From Atlanta GA
Sawnee Mountain History
When white settlers moved into Forsyth County prior to the discovery of gold in nearby Auraria in 1829, a Cherokee Chief named Sawnee helped them establish homes and taught them agricultural practices proven to work in the region.
Following the forced removal of the Cherokee people on the Trail of Tears, local citizens who had lived alongside him remembered Chief Sawnee as a friendly, kind, and skilled leader.
They named the local mountain, which is located just 3 miles north of Downtown Cumming, in his honor.
Over the years since, Sawnee Mountain has seen mining operations, including pits and caves dug all over the mountain.
It has also been subjected to commercial forestry, which harvested the much of the land’s original timber following the removal of the area’s original inhabitants.
The lasting legacy of the Cherokee people on Sawnee Mountain includes three worn indentions in a large granite slab near the summit, now known as the Indian Seats.
This location was used as a lookout site used by both Creek and Cherokee Indians, and artifacts from earlier indigenous tribes have been evidenced from as early as 500 B.C.
READ MORE: 8 Civil War Battlefields in Georgia to Visit
Hiking Sawnee Mountain
There are two systems of Sawnee Mountain hiking trails: The Indian Seats Trail System and the Mountainside Trail System.
The entire preserve encompasses 821 acres, and the elevation of the mountain is 1,960 feet. Such a small footprint can make for some challenging elevation gains.
The Mountainside Trail system features longer routes for hikers seeking a more challenging distance and fewer crowds.
The Indian Seats Trail system is the more frequented of the two. It will have more hikers, shorter segments, and the most rewarding summit views.
The trails of both systems are well-marked, and most can loop around, allowing hikers to choose the distance most appropriate for their skill and interest level.
The trails are well-packed dirt or loose gravel, and some sections are rocky and have exposed tree roots. There are also switchbacks along the path to help navigate the ascent.
This can be challenging and slippery, especially after rainfall, if you don’t have essential hiking gear such as footwear with adequate tread.
While the relative shortness of the Indian Seats trail makes it appealing for beginning hikers, it’s important to prepare for steep terrain. Slow down, take a rest, or stop if necessary.
I’ve hiked these trails successfully a number of times with young children and reasonably active and healthy senior citizens.
The summit of the Indian Seats trail transitions from hard-packed dirt and soil to an open expanse of granite, with a few large drops and cliffs.
Hikers with younger children should keep an eye on their exploring for safety reasons. Those who want to eat a snack or relax with an expansive view beneath them will enjoy how the granite offers natural picnic areas.
Indian Seats View Atop Sawnee Mountain
Indian Seats hiking comes with the reward of a breathtaking westward view and a large wooden overlook built at the top of the mountain.
All of these mountains are 20+ miles away. So much of the view from the Sawnee Mountain Indian Seats is of a valley, including both farms and residential developments.
Fall in the mountains of North Georgia is a great time to see an expanse of dazzling Autumn colors in the valley below.
It’s fun to sit where generations of indigenous people would’ve sat and imagine how the land below looked to their eyes.
For hikers who are willing to pack a headlamp and risk a descent in the dark, the sunsets atop Sawnee Mountain are well worth the climb.
Because of the positioning of both the natural granite outcropping and the scenic overlook, the expansive views from atop Sawnee Mountain are unobstructed by any vegetation or foliage.
Hikers choosing a route on the Mountainside Trail system will be under the forest canopy the entire time. In the summer, this can provide a very enjoyable natural shade.
Because this system is less popular, its trails offer a sense of solitude you’ll rarely find on the Indian Seats Trail. As a result, the soothing sounds of various birds of Georgia and the breeze blowing through the trees are much more evident.
Sawnee Mountain Directions
From Atlanta: Take GA-400 North and get off at Exit 15. Turn left on Bald Ridge Marina Road and go 1.1 miles. Turn right on Tribble Gap Road and go 2.8 miles. This will lead to the trailheads off Bettis Tribble Gap Road.
There are three different Sawnee Mountain trailheads:
4075 Spot Road, Cumming: This is at the immersive visitor center, which is generally open Monday through Saturday (except on Christmas and other holidays) from 8:30AM to 5:00PM.
2500 Bettis-Tribble Gap Road, Cumming: This parking lot offers the shortest trail to reach the Indian Seats.
2505 Bettis-Tribble Gap Road, Cumming: This parking lot offers the best proximity to the Mountainside Trail System. To get to the Indian Seats trail, just cross the street.
All three parking areas offer restrooms and accessible drinking water. There is no charge for parking, to hike anywhere in the Sawnee Mountain Preserve, or to tour the Visitor’s Center.
The Sawnee Mountain hiking trails are open from 6am until dark, daily. -by Jennifer Worrel; featured image of Indian Seats at Sawnee Mountain Preserve by Jason Dominy