Inside the Utterly Unique Unicoi State Park Barrel Cabins in Helen GA

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[Updated October 26, 2021] Georgia State Park cabins are arguably among the best deals you’ll find for cabin rentals in North Georgia. Most cost around $160 a night for a 2-bedroom cottage with a full kitchen that can sleep 6 to 8 people.
 
And when it comes to Unicoi State Park lodging, their rental cabins in Helen GA (many of which are pet-friendly) can’t be beat on price or scenic views.
 
Whether you choose the more remote and rustic Smith Creek Cabins or the cabins overlooking Lake Unicoi, both offer an immersive setting surrounded by the natural beauty of the Chattahoochee National Forest and nearby hiking trails
 
But the retro Barrel Cabins, which were built back in the ’70s and are easily the most unique state park cabins we’ve ever stayed in, offer an especially interesting experience you won’t find anywhere else. 
 
Read on for our full review of the Unicoi State Park Barrel Cabins, including some history of the park and the cabins themselves, a look inside the interior, and an overview of things to do in the Helen GA state park. 
 
 
Mary Gabbett at Unicoi State Park Barrel Cabins
Row of Unicoi State Park Barrel Cabins

Unicoi State Park & Lodge Info 

ADDRESS: 1788 Highway 356, Helen, GA 30545

PHONE:  706-878-2201

UNICOI STATE PARK RESERVATIONS:  800-573-9659

PARK HOURS: 7 AM to 10 PM daily

OFFICE HOURS: 8 AM to 5 PM daily

ENTRY FEES/PASSES: $5 parking fee for daily entry, or $50 for an annual park pass

WEBSITE: https://www.unicoilodge.com

RESERVATIONS WEBSITE: https://us01.iqwebbook.com/ULGA340/

ACCOMMODATIONS

There are 30 Unicoi State Park cabins to choose from, located in two different parts of the property.

The 2-bedroom, 2-bath Smith Creek Cabins are more remote and rustic, arranged in a cluster across from the creek. Each includes a full kitchen, wood-burning fireplace, heat/AC, and easy access to trout streams.

The Unicoi Barrel Cabins are arguably the most unique cabin rentals in Helen GA. Nestled in the forest around Lake Unicoi, these 1- and 2-bedroom cabins offer full kitchens, heat/AC, wood-burning fireplace, BBQ grill, and balconies with rocking chairs and great lake views.

Other Unicoi State Park lodging options include 3-bedroom, 2-bath Deluxe Cabins for large families and groups. Each features two king bedrooms, one queen bedroom, a sleeper sofa, full kitchen, fireplace, and more. 

DIRECTIONS TO UNICOI FROM ATLANTA

Take I-85 North to exit 87 for GA-400 N toward Buckhead/Cumming. Continue to follow GA-400 N for 6.3 miles until it becomes US-19 N, then keep left to stay on US-19 N. 

Follow US-19 for 41.8 miles, where it becomes GA-115. Continue on GA-115 for 4.8 miles, then turn right onto GA-115 N/GA-52 E/State Rte 52.

In two miles you’ll reach a traffic circle (a.k.a. roundabout). Take the 2nd exit to stay on GA-115 N and follow it for another 9.6 miles. 

Turn left onto Appalachian Pkwy/Cleveland Bypass and follow it for 1.6 miles, then turn left onto US-129 N and take it for 0.3 miles. 
 
Turn right onto Albert Reid Rd, then go 2 miles and take a left onto John Head Rd. In 0.3 miles, John Head Rd turns right and becomes GA-75Alt S. Follow that for 6.7 miles and turn right onto GA-17 S/GA-75 S.
 
In 0.4 miles, turn left onto GA-356 E. The Unicoi State Park Lodge entrance will be on your right in approximately 1.4 miles.
 
Beautiful scenery at Unicoi Lake-Smith Lake in Unicoi State Park, GA
Unicoi Lake (a.k.a. Smith Lake)

Unicoi State Park History

The 1,050-acre area we now know as Unicoi State Park was Native American land for thousands of years, as was most of the North Georgia mountains and southern Appalachia as a whole.

It’s located near the source of the Chattahoochee River at the foot of Jacks Knob, surrounded by the Chattahoochee National Forest. In the Muskogean language of the Creek Indians, Chatta means stone and ho chee means flowered or marked. 

The US Forest Service bought 31,000 acres of land (spanning Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, and Union Counties) from the Gennett family in 1911, and created what was originally known as the Cherokee National Forest in June 1920. 

In the wake of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal created more than 3 million jobs to improve American infrastructure.

It brought the Civilian Conservation Corps to North Georgia, where they built a camp along Smith Creek in the early 1930s, just north of the site where the Unicoi Lodge stands today.

The name Unicoi comes from the Cherokee word “unega,” which may mean “white” or “the New Way.” Some historians believe that Unicoi was the Native American name for the road that originally brought white settlers into Cherokee territory.

But it may also refer to the white fog often associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In the 1930s, local politician Charlie Maloof convinced the State of Georgia to replace the old Unicoi Turnpike (which dated back to the gold rush of the 1830s) with a highway to Hiawassee.

Now known as Georgia 75, the new highway soon gave birth to the town of Helen GA. 

Maloof eventually became the mayor of Helen, and proposed building a new mountain lodge just north of town. The 278-acre White County Area State Park opened in 1954, with just 8 campsites and a Visitors Center.

Soon they dammed Smith Creek to create the 50+ acre Smith Lake, which is also known as Unicoi Lake. 

In the 1960s, the park was known as the “Unicoi Outdoor Recreation Experiment Station.” Its mission was to “build some cool stuff” (including the unique Barrel Cabins) to attract more visitors to the North Georgia mountains.

Unfortunately, Maloof died before he could see his dream come to fruition, but the Unicoi State Park Lodge finally broke ground in 1982. 

It was the first of the Georgia State Park lodges, and Unicoi now ranks alongside Helen GA among the most popular places to visit in North Georgia.

READ MORE: The 20 Best Things to Do in Helen GA

Back Deck of Barrel Cabins at Unicoi State Park
Back Deck of Barrel Cabins

Unicoi State Park Barrel Cabins

The 20 retro-hip Barrel Cabins at Unicoi State Park were a product of the ’60s and ’70s era of experimentation and innovation. 

The uniquely shaped metal structures were developed by the University of Georgia, and designed to be as environmentally conscious as possible. 

The circular shape of the Unicoi Barrel Cabins is super efficient, using 15 to 20% less materials than a rectangular design with the exact same square footage. 

Putting the cabins on stilts (rather than a more permanent structural foundation) serves two different purposes.

For one, it creates minimum human impact on the flora and fauna of the Chattahoochee National Forest (one of the main principles of the Leave No Trace ethos). For another, it made the cabins much easier to transport. 

The cabins have been refurbished in the last few years, with new decks overlooking Unicoi Lake and updated appliances and fixtures. 

But the ’70s-era furnishings, fabrics, colors, and textures remain intact, making these the coolest of the many Georgia State Park cabins we’ve stayed in. 

READ MORE: The 10 Best Restaurants in Helen GA for Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner

Inside the Barrel Cabins at Unicoi

That vintage decor is the first thing you’ll notice when you enter the Barrel Cabins at Unicoi.

From the wood- paneled kitchen walls and plaid window treatments to the lime green couch and funky accent pillows, it feels a bit like walking into an episode of That ’70s Show.

Our 2-bedroom Unicoi cabin offered a 2-level floor plan. The living room featured a 3-person sofa, 2 chairs, and an open hearth wood-burning fireplace (wood is available for purchase at the park’s visitor center).

The eat-in kitchen had all the necessities (including a coffee maker and microwave), with ample counter space and plenty of room for up to four people to move around without feeling crowded. There’s also a charcoal grill in front of the cabin for the BBQ buffs. 

Upstairs you’ll find the two bedrooms on either side of the staircase, each with two extremely comfy (presumably updated) full size beds.

The only thing we didn’t like about the cabin was the fact that the only restroom was on the first level, so you had to fumble your way downstairs in the dark if you woke up needing to go in the night.

But our favorite thing about the Unicoi cabin rentals was the outdoor space. The new decks offered rocking chairs and nice views of the lake, and there were communal picnic tables and hiking trails just outside our door. 

READ MORE: 10 Fun, Festive Ways to Celebrate Christmas in Helen GA

Anna Ruby Falls in Unicoi State Park near Helen, GA
Anna Ruby Falls

Unicoi State Park Attractions

Anna Ruby Falls

Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Anna Ruby Falls Scenic Area encompasses 1,600 acres in the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest.

Accessible only through Unicoi State Park, the 1,600-acre Anna Ruby Falls Scenic Area includes a 0.5-mile paved trail to the waterfall, the Smith Creek Trail to/from Unicoi, and an ADA accessible interpretive trail.

One of Georgia’s National Recreation Trails, the Anna Ruby Falls Trail leads to twin waterfalls. Curtis Creek drops 153 feet and York Creek drops 50 feet, then they join to form Smith Creek (which flows into Unicoi Lake).

This is one of our favorite easy waterfall hikes, and a fantastic place to savor a picnic while soaking up the scenery. It gets crowded on weekends, but Anna Ruby is especially beautiful when the rhododendrons bloom in Spring and when North Georgia’s Fall colors begin to peak.

READ MORE: The 20 Best North Georgia Waterfalls (& How to Get to Them)

Mary Gabbett using Air Rifle at Unicoi State Park Target Range
Air Rifle Practice at Unicoi’s Target Range

Family Friendly Activities

As one of the “Adventure Lodges of Georgia,” this state park offers numerous family-friendly activities, including the Unicoi Zipline & Aerial Adventure course and the Unicoi Archery & Air Gun Range. 

Archers have two options here– a traditional target range or a larger range with life-size foam animals such as Buffalo, Deer, Wild Boar, Coyote, and Turkey. The 3D range offers the option to shoot from the ground or on a platform approximately 12 feet above the field.

While I got in some practice with my compound bow, Mary received private instruction from Unicoi guide JD Fincher on how to safely carry, load, cock, and shoot an air rifle.

The lodge provides a gun, ammo, and targets, but there is a $5 fee for daily range usage and an additional charge for private instruction.

READ MORE: The Top 10 Treehouse Rentals in the Georgia Mountains

 
Fly Fishing Lesson on Unicoi Lake in Unicoi State Park
Fly Fishing Lesson on Unicoi Lake

Fly Fishing 

Unicoi is also a great place for fly fishing. The park offers introductory lessons on Unicoi Lake, while Smith Creek (which is stocked regularly) offers fantastic trout fishing opportunities. 

JD started off by teaching us how to assemble and hold the rod, how to tie different knots in order to secure the flies, and what each specific fly was good for.

Then we walked out to the dock near the lake’s center, where Mary got a chance to practice her casting motion, eventually getting a handle on the beautiful technique pictured above.

Although it was much too cold during our late February visit to catch anything, the lake is known as a great place to catch bass, bluegill, and catfish.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Wineries in the North Georgia Mountains

Hiking the Unicoi Lake Trail in Helen GA
Hiking the Unicoi Lake Trail

Hiking Trails 

Unicoi State Park offers visitors four excellent hiking trails to explore, plus one that leads you from the park into downtown Helen.

The moderately strenuous Bottoms Loop Trail is 2 miles, plus an extra 1/3 mile if you take the Frog Pond Nature Trail loop. It passes through hardwood forest and across streams, with interpretive signs and wildflowers along the way in Spring. 

The 8.4-mile Smith Creek Trail is more intense, leading from the Unicoi State Park Lodge to Anna Ruby Falls and back. There are several creek crossings and a 1,663-foot gain in elevation, and possibly some downed trees or overgrown areas, so proceed with caution if you choose to hike it. 

But our favorite Unicoi State Park hiking trail is the 2.2-mile Unicoi Lake Loop Trail, which winds around the lake and offers loads of scenic overlooks.

We loved that it was just behind our pet-friendly cabin, making it a great place for morning walks as we sipped our coffee…  –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

The BRMTG was created by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, the award-winning team behind the world-renowned responsible travel website Green Global Travel. Bret grew up camping and hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia and North Carolina with his parents, and the couple both spent childhood summers on the water with their grandparents. After becoming empty nesters, they yearned for a pristine place where they could escape the hustle and bustle of the city, commune with nature and family, and embrace a sustainable lifestyle that leaves time to appreciate the simpler things in life. Join them and their team as they explore the region, offering expert insights on Blue Ridge travel as they search for the perfect mountain home.