There are definitely places one can get lost in North Georgia, leaving behind modern amenities and basking in self-reliance and adventure. But there are also designated campsite areas near Helen where you can get most of the benefits of long-haul backpacking and still achieve a normal night’s sleep, entertain yourself, and have a designated bathroom. Unicoi State Park, Andrew’s Cove, and Tallulah Gorge are just a few places to enjoy the quiet, stars, rustling of the leaves, and the trickling of streams, without straying more than 30 miles from German civilization.
True “primitive camping” usually means backpacking (a loaded backpacking pack should not weigh more than about 20 percent of your body weight—the air mattress is a no go), camping in unmarked locations without toilets or other necessities, and too far from your car to go and get things if you need them. You have to go through other experiments in tent camping to decide if true primitive camping is for you in the first place. The camp sites (not RV campgrounds) we recommend may awaken the adventurer within, without scaring it back to the Tempur-Pedic forever.
But first, what do you need to camp at a campsite for just a night here and there?
· Bug spray
· Tent: waterproof is a priority, as rain can fall unexpectedly; also consider ease of setup
· Sleeping bag: no need to go ultra-compact; get something comfortable
· Sleeping pad/air mattress: something easy to inflate, maximum comfort
· Pillows: regular pillows are fine
· First-aid kit: 5-10 minutes to the car is a long way for an emergency
· Toilet Paper/shovel: some campgrounds have toilets; for others . . . there is protocol
· Hatchet: check your campsite’s policy for fires and gathering wood
· Cooler/food: do not keep food in or very near your tent—have you seen Yogi Bear?
· Small grill or camp stove
· Cooking/utensil set: a cast-iron skillet can go on hot coals, but nesting sets are lighter
· Towels: for drying if you take a swim or bathe
· Trash bags
If you leave the above, you will likely regret it. Perhaps you want to have a full range of entertainment options. Consider this incomplete list as well:
· Blue tooth speaker (please courteous of those who want to hear nature)
· Sleep mask/earplugs
· Tarp for shade
· Fishing gear
Here are the unique advantages and basic set-up of some of the best campsites:
Unicoi is so close (around three miles) that you could leave part of the family at a hotel in town and get a campsite with the more enthusiastic campers in your crew. Walk-in tent sites at Hickey Hollow have fire rings, grills and picnic tables. There are water spigots throughout the camping area. Parking is no more than 100 yards from these walk-in sites. And a comfort station with real showers and bathrooms is nearby.
Though it’s close to town, Uncoi is magnificent. You have easy access to Anna Ruby Falls and a mountain lake surrounded by a seven-mile bike trail. For a first-time family campout, Unicoi gives you a high chance of success. Andrew’s Cove Campground
Camp in earshot of a cool mountain stream in part of the 860,000-acre Chattahoochee/Oconee National Forest. Andrews Cove is just 15 minutes from downtown Helen, but it’s a big step farther into the wild. It has 10 tent sites, a water station and a chemical toilet. Fishing License and Trout stamp required for fishing.
Upper Chattahoochee (Horse Trough Falls)—check for re-opening*
Although a highly-regarded campsite, the road to Horse Trough Falls is often closed due to weather and obstructions—check the USDA forest service website for updates. Still, it’s worth keeping on your radar. Picnic tables, tent pads, grills, and lantern poles are located at each of the 34 sites. This destination is just a bit farther out, about 30 minutes from Helen, and offers views of waterfalls and the wildest part of the Chattahoochee River. There are biking and hiking trails, and fishing. The sites are usually open late March to early November.
Tallulah Gorge State Park
Tallulah Gorge State Park, about 28 miles east of Helen, was created to protect a two-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep gorge with a river tumbling winding through rocky rapids. There are multiple scenic overlooks on three moderate trails ranging from 1.1 to 8.5 miles and from 1,551 to 1,709 feet above sea level.
The park has three backcountry camp sites that must be rented in advance. These sites are near streams but have no water or bathroom facilities; they are however, around a mile or less from parking (you could pack a little heavier than normal recommendations). This is the next level of roughing it. But to experience one of the most dramatic gorges of the East Coast, you may find the challenge warranted.
Wherever you venture, you are always welcomed back to the comforts of Helen. For more info on the outdoor adventures that await, click here.