Unicoi State Park is one of North Georgia’s outdoor jewels. You can hike, bike, fish or camp — and if you’ve exhausted all that, you can check out the Chattahoochee National Forest nearby.
Created in 1954, the Unicoi State Park stands on the original Unicoi Trail, the trading path that connected Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. Later called the Unicoi Turnpike, it became a wagon road across the Southern Appalachians. European traders brought axes, guns and cloth to remote Cherokee villages and came away with furs, deer skins and ginseng. The name Unicoi comes from the Cherokee word unega meaning “white,” which could refer to “place of the white man” or the “white man’s road.”
When gold was discovered in the area in 1828, life changed dramatically for this area. The Cherokees were forcibly removed from their homelands to present-day Oklahoma in what is referred to as The Trail of Tears. Thousands of miners came into the valley to dig the foothills for more than a century. Loggers followed. They built sawmills and cut trees until the 1930s when there was little left to cut. But with the creation of state and national parks, land once logged was allowed to regenerate.
The trails in Unicoi State Park are immaculately maintained with a compacted soil surface, so the walking is easy. The Lake Trail, which starts left of the visitor center, is a flat 2.5-mile loop around Unicoi Lake. You’ll go through an oak, maple and tuliptree forest where an outstanding display of color makes autumn the most popular time to visit. In the spring, the lake is ringed with pink and white mountain laurel. After passing a small sandy beach with a roped-off swimming area, you’ll cross Smith Creek above a dam where barn swallows circle.
Unicoi Lake, fed by a trout stream, was stocked 10 years ago with catfish, bass and bream, creating a great family place to fish. You can bring your non-motorized boat on the lake or rent a boat between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The popular hike into Helen, Ga., (6 miles round trip, 600 ft. ascent) starts at the lodge and goes down wooden steps. The Frog Pond Nature Trail peels off on the left. There are frogs and carp in that small pond along with signs that identify trees and explain what’s in the forest. The trail to Helen crosses Lower Smith Creek on a long wooden bridge and ends at Unicoi Hill City Park, a block from Helen’s restaurants, gift shops and ice cream parlors.
Most visitors drive three miles north from Unicoi State Park to Anna Ruby Falls Visitor Center in the Chattahoochee Forest, where they can pay a small entrance fee and walk the paved 0.4 mile to the falls. After the Civil War, Col. John H. Nichols bought the waterfall and the surrounding land and named the falls after his only child. The path follows Smith Creek upstream, passing multiple cascades and picturesque stone benches to the base of Anna Ruby Falls. Curtis and York Creeks, which start high on Tray Mountain on the Appalachian Trail, combine to create Ruby Falls. To the right of the visitor center, the Lion’s Eye Trail offers visually impaired hikers a short, paved nature walk by the stream. Braille interpretive signs explain the area.
You can also take a more strenuous day hike to Anna Ruby Falls on the Smith Creek Trail (9.6 miles round trip, 1,700 ft. ascent) from the park. At the trailhead opposite a camping area, information plaques explain the Sautee Ditch, part of the area’s gold mining past. The hand-dug ditch, visible from the trail, supplied water power to operate two gold stamp mills. The trail, blazed light green at the start, soon enters the national forest and changes character. The walking surface is peppered with roots and stones where hiking boots are needed. It’s a good, wet-weather hike since you’re under tree cover almost the whole way.
The park is well known for its lodge, buffet meals and barrel-shaped cottages. Campgrounds can accommodate any type of shelter from full-service recreational vehicles to a humble tent. But for unique lodging, stay at the Squirrel’s Nest, a set of open shelters built on a hillside. Each nest (which sleeps up to six people) has a wooden floor, back and roof. The base of the nest, with picnic tables and water, is a few minutes walk from the parking area. A long set of stairs lead to your individual nest. Plan ahead each time you leave your nest because those stairs are steep. The nest is perfect for a large group or for those who don’t want to bother putting up a tent.
Unicoi State park is located two miles northeast of Helen, Ga. From the Chattahoochee Bridge in the center of Helen, go 1.1 miles north on N. Main St. (Ga. 75/17). Turn right on Ga. 356 North. After 2.2 miles, turn left toward the cabins and interpretive center or right to the lodge. For more information, go to www.gastateparks.org or call 706.878.2201