Lagniappe and hiking in Sandy Springs

If you’ve been to New Orleans, you may have heard the word “lagniappe.” It means “something given as a bonus.” It might make you recall that complimentary dessert you got at the seafood place where you ate dinner – or, if you’re driving Roswell Road through Sandy Springs any time soon, it might bring the Big Trees Forest Preserve to mind.

Big Trees is one of those urban surprises that you stumble across not nearly often enough. Located in the middle of Sandy Springs about four miles north of I-285, it’s a 30-acre oasis of woods, water and hiking trails just east of Roswell Road.

The preserve shares a parking lot with the North Fulton County Government Annex facility while nearby car dealerships seem to crowd in. In fact, in 1989, the land’s owners were about to market the property as an auto dealership site. Now, I like the thought of buying a new car as much as anybody, and car dealers have to set up shop somewhere.

But this tract got away, and I’m glad.

To make a long story short, it came to the attention of John Ripley Forbes, a conservationist who was instrumental in establishing other nature centers (including the Chattahoochee Nature Center) and in founding, in 1976, the Southeast Land Preservation Trust. Forbes looked at the property and saw not car dealerships but instead an urban forest education center. Eventually, through a partnership with Southeast Land Preservaton Trust, Fulton County, the State of Georgia, and private citizens, a total of 30 acres there was acquired.

As the Big Trees website puts it, “This special preserve is a living legacy to John Ripley Forbes commitment to conserving our natural heritage for future generations.”

“And for folks like me,” I told myself as I pulled into the parking area the other afternoon. I was about to experience some “new” wilderness, and I was excited about it.

New wilderness? New to me, at least. I’d been hearing about Big Trees for years, but somehow I’d never taken time to check it out. Today, though, the traffic on Roswell Road was just bad enough to make me want no more time behind the steering wheel. That’s when the Big Trees sign appeared, and so there I was.

I keep my hiking boots in the car. It didn’t take long to put ‘em on and tighten up the laces. Then I was off to see what I would see.

The site packs a surprising amount of hiking into that little 30-acre package. For most hikers, the highlight is the Backcountry Trial, a 0.75-mile loop which carries you around the back 20 acres of the site. The loop is easily hiked in either direction with no steep grades or tricky stretches, and the elevation change is only 140 feet (from elev. 920 to elev. 1040). That makes it a great trail to hike with the kids…or to limber up on if your hiking chops have grown a little soft over the winter. The trails are open only to foot traffic. Bring your dog if you wish, but signs remind you to keep the pup on leash.

What awaits you along that trail? Some surprisingly neat scenery, for one thing. Powers Branch flows through a gorge that is paralleled by a section of the trail, and the vistas up and down the branch are truly soothing to eyes made weary by seeing too much urban sprawl. Trowbridge Branch, a smaller creek, flows here too. The views are good. And of course there are trees –hardwoods, dogwoods, and more – that plus large patches of native azaleas, blueberries and sparkleberries -- and wildflowers.

“It’s nice now, but I really love it in the spring,” said Julie, a hiker I chatted with on the trail. “During spring the wildflowers will blow you away.”

There’s history here too. On the Trowbridge Branch side of Big Trees, for instance, you’ll encounter traces of the Bull Sluice Railroad. This forgotten rail line hauled construction materials in the early 1900s during the building of nearby Morgan Falls Dam on the Chattahoochee.

Elsewhere, the trail passes close to the site of the original “Roswell Road,” a wagon track dating from the 1800s. Before the current “Roswell Road” was built, it was the only way to go.

And then there’s the Christmas tree.

“Did you see the Christmas tree?” asked Zach, who was hiking the trail with Yonah the Dog. “It’s back there just off the trail.”

A Christmas tree? I went looking…and there it was, a small evergreen decorated with a few red and green balls and a garland of tinsel and what appeared to be a once-upon-a-time-white sock. I’m not sure what the official Big Trees stance is on decorated trees, but I hope this one will remain. It seems oddly appropriate, a sort of celebration of trees if you will, and I’ll bet there’s a good story there too.

In addition to the Backcountry Trail, there are a number of other shorter trails to explore here. These include the Spring Hollow Trail (which connects the Backcountry Trail to the Powers Branch Trail) and also the Jackson Overlook Trail (which leads to an overlook above Trowbridge Branch and which also follows part of old “Roswell Road” as well as part of the old Bull Sluice railbed). There’s lots of trail signage, though sometimes it’s a bit unclear what goes where. But that’s not really a problem in an area as small as this one.

In fact, at Big Trees, I’ll bet that the biggest problem you’re likely to face is deciding when it’s time to stop hiking and jump back into all that traffic.

Maybe just one more time around the trail!

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