Until the “big dam” was built across Tallulah Gorge in 1913, people flocked from Atlanta and other Southern cities to stand on its nearly 1,000-foot high cliffs to see and listen to the rushing waters below, according to West Malenke, interpretive ranger at Tallulah Gorge State Park.
“There was a lot more water before the dam was built,” said Malenke, who’s worked for the Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites for five years. “It was called ‘the Niagara of the South.’ When people came to see it, they could hear the roar of the falls a long ways off.”
Malenke said when the dam first was built it stopped all water to the gorge. Then the federal government said they had to release at least 30 percent of the water.
Park secretary Toni King said the gorge became especially popular after the railway was completed to the town of Tallulah Falls in 1882. The railroad gave more people access to see Tallulah Gorge, which is the deepest canyon east of the Mississippi River, she said.
Even though the falls are not the magnificent churning waters they were 100 years ago, King said people still flock to the park and surrounding area to see the gorge, which has been featured in several movies, including “Deliverance,” a 1972 action film starring John Voight, Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty; and more recently, “Killing Season,” a soon-to-be-released action movie starring Robert De Niro and John Travolta.
Malenke said the gorge has been crossed twice by tightrope walkers. It was crossed in 1886 by “Professor Leon” (no last name listed) and in 1970 by Karl Wallenda, father of Nik Wallenda, who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 2012. Remains of the tower that held up Wallenda’s tightrope lie near an overlook on the north rim trail.
While Malenke emphasized hikes to the canyon floor involve risks and require a permit, King noted trails around the rim of the canyon are both safer and “easier on the joints.”
“The north-rim trail is particularly good for families with strollers (or older hikers),” she said. “There’s also less elevation change. The other trails have platform steps, which may be hard for some strollers. Most of the trails are covered in mulch, making them easier on the soles of your feet.”
When park visitors arrive at the park’s visitor center, most find they’re channeled through its two-floor interpretive center, named for conservation and environmental pioneer Jane Hurt Yarn.
A walkway leads visitors by realistic wildlife displays of critters common to the Southern Appalachians then through an interpretive gallery that depicts life in the Victorian town of Tallulah Falls. Black-and-white scenes of finely-clad ladies sitting on the cliffs overlooking the gorge lead many to wonder about concerns for personal safety in bygone days.
Additionally, a film takes visitors into the canyon for whitewater rafting and allows viewers to watch rock climbers hanging precariously from the canyon walls.
Tallulah Gorge State Park is huge — nearly 2,800 acres. Although the campgrounds are closed until April, there are more than 20 miles of hiking and biking trails. A suspension bridge sways 80 feet above the rocky canyon floor, and there’s a 63-acre lake with a beach.
In addition to the interpretive center, there’s a gift shop that offers snacks, toys, books and walking sticks.
Located in the far northeast corner of Georgia, Tallulah Gorge State Park is a six-hour drive from Hinesville. For more information, go to www.gastateparks.org/TallulahGorge.