Running the South Peachtree Creek Trail
All across Atlanta, we’re encouraged by local efforts to reclaim wetlands and clean up streams. I grew up not too far from Decatur, so it was really exciting to find out about and run the PATH Foundation’s South Peachtree Creek Trail. This blog post will cover not only the developed South Peachtree Creek Trail, but also Mason Mill Park (where it starts), Ira B. Melton Park (a spur off the trail), Medlock Park (where the trail ends) and the nearby Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve. All those years of living nearby and I never knew these places existed!
About Peachtree Creek
When you think of Atlanta, you invariably think of “Peachtree” – which is the preferred name of many places, including the namesake Peachtree Creek. The creek flows due west right into the Chattahoochee River and is formed by two major tributaries – North Fork and South Fork. The South Fork of Peachtree Creek starts near Tucker and flows about 15 miles west, joining the North Fork near Ga-400 & I-85 at the new Confluence Trail at Cedar Chase (another trail we hope to explore soon). Keep checking back with our blog as we explore other green spaces, trails, paths and parks along South Peachtree Creek.
Our Journey along the Creek
We regularly use Google Maps to help scout out new places to run. If you turn on the “biking layer” it’ll show some of the area trails and that’s how we found out about this one. While scouting the nearby area, it looked like we could make a 6-mile run if we also ran a little on the roads and included Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve to the east, and so that’s what we did. Our route, as recorded by RunKeeper while we ran, is highlighted in the picture below.
In addition to using Google Maps to scout out new routes, we also use a few other resources to help learn about the area and get more details. Two excellent resources are the book Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out and it’s companion website Hiking Atlanta by Jonah McDonald. Another excellent resource is the very detailed and comprehensive website Atlanta Trails by Eric Champlin. Here’s the elevation profile of our route:
This ended up being a great in-town 10K run and included paths, boardwalks, bridges, trails, water crossings, quiet streets, and historic areas. There were no steep climbs, just rolling hills in and along the South Peachtree Creek Valley. Our starting point was the popular Mason Mill Park off Clairmont Rd. near the VA Hospital.
Mason Mill Park
Mason Mill Park is a large and diversified property of DeKalb County Parks and Recreation. It’s home to a library, activity center, playgrounds, activity fields, tennis courts, dog park, and also serves as the starting point to the South Peachtree Creek trail. The trail starts at the back end of the park, just past the DeKalb Tennis Center and is well marked. The picture at the top of this article shows Mary Catherine heading out at the trail start.
Because the park sits up on a ridge line, the first mile is downhill to get to the creek level. It’s a very impressive path with a substantial pedestrian bridge across the railroad tracks below and some ramps to ease the elevation change. There are many things to like about this park, but one of the coolest discoveries was the Old Decatur Water Works ruins. As you descend on the path, it’s there – graffiti and all off to the right. Here are some pictures I took of the ruins.
You can read more about the history of the area and the water works on this blog post by the Medlock Area Neighborhood Association and see some additional information here. As the South Peachtree Creek trail descends towards the creek, it winds around the water works ruins and crosses Burnt Fork Creek – which served as the water intake for the old water works.
Burnt Fork Creek flows into South Peachtree Creek on the other side of the water works and there’s a picture of the confluence later in this blog post. After you cross the stone bridge over Burnt Fork Creek (pictured above), there’s a dirt path immediately to the right (south) that parallels the Burnt Fork Creek. This trail isn’t officially part of the South Peachtree Creek Trail, but connects directly to the adjacent Ira B. Melton Park. If you visit the area, we highly encourage you to explore this connector trail to get an even better feel for the history of the area and the natural beauty of the Burnt Fork and South Peachtree Creeks.
The connector trail over to Ira B. Melton Park is very obvious (even if it’s not marked) and you’re likely to see people out enjoying the area. The terrain is flat as it follows Burnt Fork Creek south towards South Peachtree Creek. At this point in our run, we hadn’t even gone a mile yet! There’s a lot to see and enjoy in the area.
Ira B. Melton Park
Different maps show different boundaries and trail maps for Ira B. Melton Park. For purposes of this blog post, we’ll say that it begins at the crossing across South Peachtree Creek. The park is mostly single-track trails and is currently under development.
Although we enjoyed the entire run, we especially enjoyed this section of our journey along South Peachtree Creek. It was obvious the community has done a lot of work to clean up the area in and around the park. We enjoy running trails and this one did not disappoint.
As we’re writing this blog post (January 2016) there was a recent update about the park from DeKalb County District 2 Commissioner Jeff Rader about improvements to the trail. Here’s a few pictures of the creek crossing across South Fork Peachtree Creek over to Ira B. Melton Park.
Once over to the other side, you’ll find a diversified set of trails consisting of sand, dirt, and some mud (depending upon recent rains) all set within a valley down below the neighborhoods up along Desmond Drive. After we crossed the creek on the surprisingly durable sandbag crossing (pictured above), we veered right (west) to complete a counter-clockwise navigation of the trails. In general, the trail makes a loop around the park with connector trails in the middle of the park simply providing a short-cut. Since the park is bounded by the creek and the neighborhood, it’s hard to get lost. We reached mile one of our run near the confluence of Burnt Fork Creek and South Peachtree Creek pictured below.
The confluence of the two creeks is also where Ezekiel Mason built a flour mill in the 1850’s, from which Mason Mill Park and Mason Mill Road get their names. As best as we could tell, there’s no remnant of the mill left except for some alterations of the natural course of the water way. Clairmont Lake and nearby apartments are seen in the background, due west along South Peachtree Creek.
Just past the confluence, the trail (which is mostly unmarked, but has a few white diamond blaze markers) continues southeast and uphill towards Desmond Drive. There’s a park entrance on this end of the park, providing easy access to the adjacent neighborhood.
From the southern end of the park on Desmond Drive, we ventured downhill and back in the woods to the right (east) to complete our circumnavigation of the park. As we mentioned earlier, there’s some active trail improvements underway and you can see some of the markers for the landscaping company as you descend the trail back into the woods.
There are a few small water crossings of streams as you descend back down into the park, but most are just a hop across. We were running the park later in the day, so the sun was setting to our backs and really made for a cool lighting effect of the natural surroundings. Completing the main loop around the park brings you right back to the park boundary and water crossing at the South Peachtree Creek.
Once across the creek, we retraced our path along Burnt Fork Creek north back towards the main South Peachtree Creek Trail. The path rejoins the main trail back at the stone bridge. Turn right (east / northeast) to continue along the South Peachtree Creek Trail.
South Peachtree Creek Trail Boardwalk
Once back on the main path of South Peachtree Creek Trail, our journey took us uphill north and northeast climbing up the main ridge that serves as the natural boundary between Burnt Fork Creek and South Peachtree Creek. This was the first major climb of our run as we approached mile two just past the top.
As we said goodbye to Burnt Fork Creek nearing the top, our view became affixed to the spectacular views of South Peachtree Creek to our right and the boardwalk ahead. In preparing this blog post and doing research about the history of the trail, I know that many of the surrounding communities were originally opposed to it’s construction a few years ago. Now that it’s been built, I hope the community is proud of this spectacular section of the trail. At the top of the hill the trail becomes boardwalk and levels off as it heads due east following the contour of the valley and South Peachtree Creek below.
Sometimes when we run it takes several miles of running in order to catch a few glimpses of notable scenery. At the boardwalk we hit the two mile mark of our run and had seen so much already. This is a really neat section of the trail and it’s easy to forget that you’re in between Decatur-area neighborhoods following South Peachtree Creek down below.
The trail, mostly boardwalk at this point, heads in a generally east / southeast direction towards Medlock Park crossing over South Peachtree Creek once.
You know you’re getting close to Medlock Park after you cross the boardwalk bridge over South Peachtree Creek and approach the road crossing across Willivee Drive. The terrain is still relatively flat, with some gentle rolling hills in the area.
Medlock Park itself is rather nondescript and is a long-standing DeKalb County park mostly known for it’s athletic fields, swimming pool, and playground area. It is currently the eastern terminus of the South Peachtree Creek Trail. The trail curves around the western edge of the park and abruptly ends in the parking area along Scott Circle. We saw signs and course markers for a recently held 5K/10K and made note to investigate that later as a possible road race we might like to enter.
The South Peachtree Creek Trail main path is only a mile long from Mason Mill Park to Medlock Park, but including our venture into Ira B. Melton Park, we had accumulated just over 2.5 miles at this point. The next part of our journey included some running along lightly traveled roads over to Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve. We exited the Medlock Park parking area and ran along the adjacent Scott Circle.
The next major climb of our run had just begun. Heading uphill on Scott Circle, we turned left on Desmond Drive (the same Desmond Drive that forms the southern boundary of Ira B. Melton Park) and continued to climb up to Woodtrail Lane. There are sidewalks in the area, but the road is lightly traveled and so there’s not much problem running roadside either. The very top of the hill is the old Medlock Park Elementary School which is now the International Community School. Originally built in the early 50’s, the school has a “classic school” look and design to it and sits majestically high atop the hill. Passing by the school, Woodtrail Lane descends sharply – crossing a South Peachtree Creek feeder stream and dead-ends at the main entrance of the Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve. We were just past the three mile mark approaching the nature preserve.
Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve
The Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve, formerly known as the South Peachtree Creek Nature Preserve, is a 28-acre nature area including wetlands, pond, trails, rocks, wildlife, and even sheep in a self-described “oasis in the suburbs.” We were really impressed by the quality and diversity of the preserve – especially since it’s a totally volunteer-driven organization managing it.
There are several trails in the preserve and all of them are flat and easy to negotiate. The shorter trails are in the middle of the nature area, with a longer trail around the perimeter of the preserve. We decided to take the longer outer loop creek trail, which is about a mile in length. Here’s a picture of the map board posted near the front entrance of the preserve.
Just past the tool shed, our journey started towards the left (northwest) side of the preserve. Although it had rained recently, the low-lying wetlands were in good shape thanks to the preserve volunteers and a generous amount of wood platforms to make traveling a little easier.
The trail continues for a short way heading northwest directly towards the northern preserve boundary along South Peachtree Creek. The other side of the creek is a mix of residential areas on most of the northwestern side and North DeKalb Mall on the northeastern side. Needless to say, it’s very clear that the area needs a lot of tender loving care to keep it in such good shape.
Although we did see some trash and debris from run-off, it’s not nearly as much as it probably was prior to the establishment of the nature preserve. The trail along the creek was mostly sandy with just a few muddy patches. This was our favorite section of the outer loop trail. Just a short distance on our path along the creek, we spotted a sandy beach area with a tire swing, so we decided to make it a photo opportunity (part of the fun of doing these running blog posts).
Just past the tire swing, the trail continues along the southern edge of Peachtree Creek as it makes it’s way past a large beaver pond.
The pond is part of a larger wetlands meadow that includes an observation blind, reachable by the Beaver Pond trail that starts at the front of the nature preserve.
Apparently, this “oasis in the suburbs” is for both wildlife and humankind alike. What a cool place.
Just past the Beaver Pond area, we hit mile four of our journey as we continued along the sandy southern edge of South Peachtree Creek. In the picture below, you can’t quite see it, but North DeKalb Mall is just over on the other side of the creek. It’s hard to believe there’s so much nature here right next to an urban area.
The trail continues to follow the creek for a little longer in a southeasterly direction before reaching a forest high ground and turning sharply to the northwest – basically running parallel to the path we were just on. The trail climbs to a high ground area and joins the Wetland Meadow Trail near a large rock outcrop called “Indian Rock”.
There’s another smaller rock outcrop adjacent to Indian Rock called “Raccoon Rock” down the trail. Both are noted on the official trail map board. Just past Raccoon Rock, the trail becomes the Hardwood Forest Trail and you can veer right (northwest) to head in the general direction of the beaver pond, or stay straight and head back towards the park entrance.
Despite seeing the banner for it at the trail entrance, the most unexpected part of our journey in the nature preserve was seeing sheep grazing in the upland forest to our left (southeast). Yes, the entrance sign mentioned SheepsWork.com but we didn’t know what that meant.
Apparently, the sheep are used as a natural way to rid the forest area of non-native, invasive plants with prescribed grazing! Who knew? They clear out the non-native ivy, privet, and other plants.
The sheep seemed to enjoy our company as you can see in the picture to the right. There were even some baby sheep which you can sorta see in the background. The sheep were enclosed by a fenced area and appeared to be enjoying the nature preserve as much as we were. Being just past the turn around point in our run, we were pretty hungry too and considered joining them for a vegetarian feast.
Past the sheep enclosure (which is probably gone by the time you read this) the trail continues a gentle ascent back to the park entrance where we started. Reaching Pine Bluff Road again, we began our return trip home the way we came back over to Medlock Park and onto the South Peachtree Creek Trail again.
The Journey Back
Knowing what to expect on the trail back to the start, allowed us to take a little more time taking pictures. Here’s another shot showing the incredible board walk section of the trail between Medlock Park and Mason Mill Park.
After climbing the high point of the trail again, we made another descent towards Burnt Fork Creek and the old Decatur Water Works ruins. Here’s another picture of us on the bridge with Burnt Fork Creek behind us and to the north.
Although we tried to plan our pictures on the return trip back to Mason Mill Park, one unexpected photo opportunity became our favorite. As we were climbing the trail up from the water works ruins and up to the bridge over the railroad, we heard a train coming. Yes, we were tired but we wanted to catch the train (Mary Catherine’s idea). This was the end of our run and it was uphill! Despite that, we decide to sprint to the bridge and were able to catch this cool shot of a train passing below us.
Not only is it fun to share our adventures in these blog posts, but it’s also great to relive the adventure as we’re writing it up and looking over the pictures. Reflecting back to our run that day on January 2, 2o16, we’re hard pressed to name another 6+ mile route in Atlanta that includes so many things – path, trail, creeks, nature areas, water crossings, historic ruins, and even a train passing by. Go visit the South Peachtree Creek trail and surrounding areas – you won’t be disappointed. In upcoming posts, we’ll share about more adventures further west along Peachtree Creek – next up, the Emory area.