Growing up in Atlanta, the mountain town of Helen, Georgia seemed like another world, with its bizarre Alpine architecture, biergartens, bratwurst, and annual Oktoberfest celebrations.
But even as a kid I was much more attracted to the natural beauty of Unicoi State Park, which is located just a few miles away from the kitschy town.
From hiking and fishing to camping and visiting Anna Ruby Falls, some of my fondest childhood memories came from family trips to Unicoi.
As Helen’s popularity has exploded over the last few decades, so has tourism to the nearby North Georgia state park. But when we got a chance to visit (and stay in one of the historic Unicoi State Park cabins) in late February, we virtually had the park to ourselves!
So here’s a look at everything you need to know about Unicoi, from the park’s history and hiking trails to the best cabin rentals, camping options, and more!
Unicoi State Park & Lodge Info
ADDRESS: 1788 Highway 356, Helen, GA 30545
UNICOI STATE PARK RESERVATIONS: 800-573-9659
PARK HOURS: 7:00am to 10:00pm daily
ENTRY FEES/PASSES: $5 parking fee for daily entry, or $50 for an annual park pass
RESERVATIONS WEBSITE: https://us01.iqwebbook.com/ULGA340/
Unicoi State Park History
The history of Unicoi State Park dates back to the 1930s, long before the North Georgia mountain town of Helen was developed.
It all started when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a camp along Smith Creek, just north of the site of where the Unicoi Lodge is now.
Around that same time, businessman/politician Charlie Maloof convinced the state government to build a new highway to Hiawassee. Now known as Georgia 75, it replaced the aging Unicoi Turnpike, which was a toll road whose use dated back to the gold rush of the 1830s.
Unicoi comes from the Cherokee word “unega,” which means “white” or “the New Way.” Legend has it that Unicoi was the native name for the road that brought white settlers into Cherokee territory. But it may also refer to the white fog of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
It was Maloof (who eventually became mayor of Helen) who proposed building a new lodge north of the city, and the 278-acre White County Area State Park was opened in 1954.
At that time it only had 8 campsites and a Visitors Center, but they soon dammed Smith Creek to create Unicoi Lake.
By the 1960s the park was known as the “Unicoi Outdoor Recreation Experiment Station,” with a mission to “build some cool stuff” (including the unique Barrel Cabins) that would attract more visitors to explore the North Georgia mountains.
Maloof died before getting a chance to see his dream come to fruition, but the Unicoi State Park Lodge finally broke ground in 1982.
It was the first lodge built in any of the Georgia State Parks, and Unicoi now ranks alongside Helen among the most popular tourist attractions in North Georgia.
READ MORE: Vogel State Park Camping, Hiking & History
Things to Do in Unicoi State Park
Visit 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 park includes a public use area, a half-mile paved trail to the waterfall, the Smith Creek Trail to/from Unicoi (which we’ll discuss below), and a short wheelchair-accessible interpretive trail.
One of Georgia’s National Recreation Trails, the Anna Ruby Falls Trail leads to twin waterfalls. From their origins on Tray Mountain (Georgia’s 6th tallest), Curtis Creek drops 153 feet and York Creek drops 50 feet. They join to form Smith Creek, which ultimately flows into Unicoi Lake.
It’s not quite as stunning as other waterfalls near Helen, such as Dukes Creek Falls and Raven Cliff Falls. But Anna Ruby Falls is easy to hike to and is a fantastic place to savor a picnic while soaking up the scenery.
It gets crowded on weekends in summertime, but Anna Ruby is especially beautiful when the rhododendrons bloom in Spring and when the Autumn leaves turn colors.
Archery & Air Gun Range
As one of the “Adventure Lodges of Georgia,” the park offers numerous family-friendly activities designed specifically with kids in mind.
Our favorite of these was the Unicoi Archery & Air Gun Range, where Mary learned how to use an air rifle safely while I got in some target practice with my compound bow.
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.
Meanwhile, 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 10 Best North Georgia State Parks
Bottoms Loop Hiking Trail
This 2-mile loop trail, which is moderately strenuous, offers a fairly gentle hike that passed by an old homestead, with hemlocks, mountain laurels, and rhododendrons along the way.
The trail crosses several small streams as it meanders through the hardwood trees, with lots of colorful wildflowers in bloom in Spring. It eventually takes you alongside the tranquil waters of Smith Creek.
Taking the 1/3 mile Frog Pond Nature Trail loop adds an additional 20 to 30 minutes to the hike.
It’s a great diversion for wildlife lovers, with interpretive signs about the various species of flora and fauna that make their home in Unicoi State Park and surrounding areas.
After Mary’s air rifle lesson was over, we followed JD over to the 53-acre Unicoi Lake (a.k.a. Smith Lake) for an introduction to fly fishing.
He started off teaching us how to assemble and hold a fly rod, how to tie different knots to secure the flies to the line, and what each specific fly was good for.
Then we walked out to the dock, where Mary got a chance to practice her “10 and 2” casting motion, eventually getting a handle on the beautiful technique pictured above.
Although it was much too cold to catch anything during our visit in late February, the lake is known as a great place to fish for bass, bluegill, and catfish. Smith Creek, which is stocked regularly, is also a fantastic spot for trout fishing.
Smith Creek Hiking Trail
This moderate 8.4-mile trail takes you all the way from the Unicoi State Park Lodge to the main trail at Anna Ruby Falls and back, with stunning scenery all along the way.
It’s a picturesque walk through the national forest, with several creek crossings along the way and an e
Dogs are allowed on leashes, and the trail is especially beautiful in spring and early summer, when wildflowers and rhododendrens are in bloom.
But because it’s not a hugely popular trail, it’s not as well maintained as others in the area. So don’t be surprised if you have to clamber over a fallen tree or two, or work your way through some overgrown sections.
Note that this trail was closed temporarily due to COVID-19 in July 2020, so it’s a good idea to contact the park about its current status before planning your hike.
Unicoi Lake Loop Trail
Easily the most popular Unicoi State Park hiking trail, this 2.2-mile loop meanders its way around Unicoi Lake (a.k.a. Smith Lake), with lots of scenic overlooks along the way.
The portion that goes along the dam and road takes away from the trail’s natural appeal, so we started from our Barrel Cabin and worked our way counterclockwise around the lake.
The trail is wide and well-maintained, and dogs are allowed on leashes. Along the way you’ll see zipline stations, fishing docks, and very little elevation, making it a lovely morning walk.
This trail (and the lake itself) can get quite busy on weekends during the summer. But when we visited there was virtually nobody there, and the walk was positively blissful!
Unicoi Zipline & Aerial Adventure
The Unicoi Zipline & Aerial Adventure Park offers three different levels of zipline adventures that provide an excellent bird’s-eye view of Unicoi State Park (including one zip over the lake).
Level 1 allows kids (ages 8+) and adults to dip their toes in, with a one-hour excursion that includes 6 zip lines ranging from 50 to 300 feet in length, plus 4 suspension bridges and a 40-foot staircase.
Level 2, which takes two hours, is also good for ages 8+ and includes 11 ziplines ranging from 75 feet to 400 feet long, 7 cable and wood suspension bridges, two 40-foot staircases, and heights up to 75 feet in the air.
Serious thrill seekers ages 10+ (minimum weight 90 pounds) will enjoy the 4-hour adrenaline rush of their Level 3 package. It includes 19 zip lines ranging from 50 feet to a 1/2-mile long, plus 9 suspension bridges and three staircases ranging from 40 to 65 feet high.
Unicoi State Park Lodge
The very first Georgia State Park lodge, Unicoi Lodge is located two miles northeast of Helen, GA in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Centered around the picturesque Lake Unicoi, the lodge features 100 hotel-style guest rooms ranging from spacious Kings and double Queens, to rooms with two full-size beds.
All rooms include Wi-Fi, cable TV, $5 State Park Pass, bottled water, coffee maker, and unlimited local calls.
There is also a restaurant, tavern, gift shop, and adventure center on-site for arranging many of the aforementioned Unicoi State Park activities.
The lodge also boasts 10,000 square feet of conference and meeting spaces, with Wi-Fi, A/V and other event necessities. And it’s an increasingly popular wedding destination, with indoor and outdoor event spaces available.
Unicoi State Park Cabins
Unicoi offers 30 state park cabin rentals in two different parts of the 1,050-acre property, some of which are even dog-friendly.
The 2-bedroom, 2-bath Smith Creek Cabins are more remote and rustic. Arranged in a cluster across from the creek, they offer great wildlife-watching opportunities. Each includes a full kitchen, wood-burning fireplace, central heating and air, and quick access to trout streams.
We preferred the Historic Barrel Cabins, which are arguably the best Helen, GA cabin rentals available. Nestled in the forest around Lake Unicoi, these 1- and 2-bedroom cabins offer a unique design, full kitchens, heat/AC, and balconies with rocking chairs and great views.
The park also has 3-bedroom, 2-bath Deluxe Cabins, These lake-view cabins feature two king bedrooms, one queen bedroom, a sleeper sofa, full kitchen, cable TV, fireplace and more. They’re great for large family gatherings!
Unicoi State Park Camping
Unicoi State Park camping options include nearly 100 campsites to choose from, from ADA sites and Buddy Hook-up RV sites to primitive campsites and family tent camping sites.
All of the Unicoi campgrounds offer comfort stations, including restrooms and showers. The park’s campers also have access to numerous group structures and picnic shelters.
One of the most popular GA State Parks for RV camping, Unicoi’s full hookup RV sites offer water, power, and sewer, plus a fire ring, grill, and picnic table. There are 30-foot and 40-foot sites available, so make sure you know your vehicle’s specifications when reserving a site.
All Unicoi tent camping sites provide water, power, and other basic campsite amenities. The park also has walk-in primitive campsites that offer more privacy, but with comfort stations, parking, and a playground conveniently located nearby.
Squirrel’s Nest Primitive Camping
North Georgia State Park camping doesn’t get any more minimalist than Unicoi’s Squirrel’s Nest primitive camping platforms. Backpackers and scout troops alike love the sleep-under-the-stars approach, where all you need is a hammock or sleeping bag (and maybe some good, strong bug repellant)! –Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett