When some think of Helen, Georgia, they think of a fairytale Alpine village on a tubing river with shops and in-town accommodations. Serious and amateur outdoor enthusiasts rave about hiking, mountain biking, tubing, fly fishing, zip-lining and more to be found just minutes away. It’s all so accessible, yet remote and rewarding that Alpine Helen and White County have been designated by the Legislature as “Georgia’s Official Outdoor Adventure Destination.”
White County, about an hour and a half north of Atlanta, surrounds the entertaining town of Helen with protected national forests, designated wilderness areas, state parkland, rivers, scenic highways, roads and trails and provides all the ways to enjoy them. If you’re looking for an active, cabin-in-the-woods mountain getaway, with room to wander, waterfalls and heart-stopping views, this north Georgia destination will satisfy your free-range soul.
Just five to 15 minutes from the excitement of the charming Bavarian village, outdoors-lovers can visit two rustic, upscale state parks, view waterfalls on easy or challenging hikes, mountain bike, zipline, hike a section of the Appalachian trail and work up a sweat while having fun.
Where to start? One of the advantages of this Northeast Georgia Mountains area is that two state parks offer everything in one place: easy and challenging hikes and biking, waterfalls and even accommodations.
If Smithgall Woods State Park appears to be a secret fishing and hunting retreat, it’s because it was, thanks to a noted conservationist. This less-traveled state property offers big rewards for its size, including luxurious “cottages” with high-end décor and amenities rarely found in a state or national park. Hikers and bicyclists can explore five miles of trails and 18 miles of roads. Among the hidden gems are the Cathy Ellis/ Chunanee Falls Trail, a one-mile out and back to a waterfall on a tumbling stretch of Dukes Creek. Dukes Creek is a top North Georgia trout stream, and is a favorite for catch-and-release fishing (via reservations, but overnight guests may fish any day during their stay year-round). 61 Tsalaki Trail, Helen Georgia 30545 (On Georgia Highway 75 Alt. between Cleveland and Helen); 706-878-3087 or 800-318-5248.
The largest state park is Unicoi State Park and Lodge, situated on 1,063 acres adjacent to the Chattahoochee National Forest. Trails lead to Lake Unicoi and, next door, to one of the most spectacular and popular waterfalls in North Georgia, Anna Ruby Falls where you’ll hear the thundering rush of the double falls well before you see them. Seasoned hikers can make it more of a challenge by taking the 4.6-mile Smith Creek Trail through Unicoi. Others prefer to drive and take the 30-minute walk from the falls parking lot.
Within Unicoi, Adventure Lodges of Georgia manages the accommodations and offers every outdoor activity possible, from an ADA-accessible interpretive trail and guided nature hikes around Unicoi Lake to heart-pounding ziplining and Olympic-level mountain biking. Try 3-D archery or take a level one fly fishing class. Take on canopy ziplines and bridges, kayaking, paddle boarding and more. With a tavern, on-site dining, 100 hotel-style rooms, 29 fully-furnished cabins, 51 RV sites and 82 tent campsites, including primitive camping platforms, it’s a popular retreat any time of the year. Book ahead for a stay in the unique mid-century-retro Barrel Cabins. Leashed dogs are welcome; check the website or call for details. 1788 Highway 356, Helen, Georgia 30545; 706-878-2201.
For panoramic overlooks and two more notable waterfall hikes, take the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway (Highway 365) northwest of Smithgall Woods State Park. Dukes Creek Falls starts as an easy .8-mile hike, winding downhill on switchbacks into Dukes Creek Gorge. You’ll see smaller cascades and the 300-foot falls from Davis Creek into Dukes Creek Falls. An observation deck on an ADA-accessible paved section near the trail entrance gives a bird’s eye view of the falls. The Raven Cliff Falls Trail is more of a challenge, at 4.9 miles out and back, but has special rewards: wooden bridges crossing streams, side trails to rushing, cascading water and one of the most beautiful waterfalls in north Georgia, flowing through a split outcropping and performing acrobatics as it tumbles into a pool. Even more hikes to waterfalls, including Horse Trough, can be found at the Alpine Helen-White County website’s waterfall guide. After peak leaf season through early spring, the waterfalls and trails are even less traveled and the views are even better.
That’s just the beginning of the trails to be found in White County. Within this 41,533 acres of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest are several protected but hikeable wilderness areas and a section of the bucket-list Appalachian Trail, which intersects GA75 and SR348 and offers parking at both locations. Experienced wilderness hikers can find even more challenges by using popular trail apps, along with details on safety and more. The easiest and most accessible trail is the Helen to Hardman Heritage Trail, a one-mile, pet-friendly and ADA-accessible trail following the Chattahoochee River from Hardman Farm State Historic Site to Helen. A ranger-guided hike reveals the story behind the notable farm and the iconic gazebo atop an ancient Native American mound across the road. White County’s most iconic natural landmark is Mount Yonah, a relatively challenging 2.7-mile climb to a rewarding panorama. Yonah Mountain is also one of the top three rock climbing spots in Georgia and is used by the U.S. Army Rangers for training.
Among the many biking trails in White County is the 24.6-mile Ramble Trail circling Helen that begins at the Visitors Center. Head southeast on Highway 17 past Hardman Farm, then northeast through moderately elevated grades with views of the rolling hills, farms, streams and forests to Highway 356 through Unicoi State Park and Lodge. Yonah Preserve, a 1,000-acre property, offers a 10-mile, multi-use trail system that circles a serene lake. Open to the public Thursday through Sunday, the trails were designed for beginners to intermediates by the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association. On weekends it’s favored by trail bike riders, even more so than hikers, when couples, teens, parents and kids head out with big smiles on their faces. 1054 Albert Reid Road, Cleveland, Georgia 30528.