Hiking is what we need more of right now: as a refreshing activity it can range from meditative to heart-pounding, from effortless to grueling, and it is as varied an aesthetic experience as the terrains upon which it occurs. In the Blue Ridge foothills surrounding Helen, you can do it your way. Here is a collection of best amateur hikes for enjoyment and mild exercise in the area. Social life has been constrained, but the outdoors awaits.
Bottoms Loop at Unicoi
Unicoi State Park, nearly walkable itself from downtown Helen (under 3 miles) is a great place to warm yourself up to the idea of hiking. (Speaking of warm, this is a great time of year for dawn or dusk hikes, but these are all short enough to be doable at any time of day). The 1,000-acre state park is nestled in a valley with a 53-acre lake as its centerpiece.
The Bottoms Loop Trail is beginner-friendly with some surprising payoffs. Expect to spend just over an hour on the two-mile loop of compacted soil. Look for the iconic flora of the region: mountain laurel, huge hemlocks, and rhododendrons. The trail crosses several small brooks, an abandoned homestead from the logging days and finally, sidles up to Smith Creek. What more could you want out of a quick hike?
Anna Ruby Falls
Just outside of Unicoi, you’ll find the waterfall that stands out among dozens in the area. Anna Ruby Falls is a double waterfall; Curtis Creek drops 153 feet in tandem with York Creek’s 50 feet. The one-mile round trip paved trail leads to two observation decks and a picnic area. You’ll cross Smith Creek over a bridge and see lush wildflowers and rocks thick with moss as you work your way upward slightly to the decks. This path is child- and dog-friendly. Just try and find a mile worth more to walk.
Duke’s Creek Falls in Chattahoochee National Forest
Walk along the banks of the most famous trout fishing stream in North Georgia through and legendary site of the gold nugget that started the rush of 1828. In a clearing you can see Yonah Mountain’s rocky summit. After 1.2 miles through fern and oak there’s a stunning waterfall, a big one that cascades 150-ft stepwise. Enjoy it from several observation decks. At just two miles down and back and moderate elevation change, this is firmly in the beginner category of hikes, but with views worth much more effort.
Ash Creek in Smithgall Woods
Smithgall Woods State Park, the youngest park around (1994), offers 22 miles of hiking and biking through some of the best rocky stream habitats for old-growth native hardwoods and animals. The Ash Creek Loop is only slightly more difficult than the previous trails at 3.8 miles round trip; however, it is heavily shaded giving necessary respite from the Georgia sun’s rays during the sweltering summer. Its main landmarks are a stream crossing (the depth can vary) and covered bridge. Hikers remark at the quiet sense of peace here, less than four miles from downtown Helen.
Tallulah Gorge North and South Rim Trails
So far, all of the trails have been at Helen’s back door. If you expand your area to just 30 miles, the hikes multiply. The most dramatic canyon in the Southeast is a good reason to do so. Tallulah Gorge is a two-mile long gash that is practically a sheer drop 1,000 feet to the river below. On an easy 2.5 miles loop, you can see the gorge from almost every vantage point. The dramatic cliffs may inspire you to go down one of the more difficult trails for a different perspective.
In pristine nature, walking becomes hiking, and we get lost in awe or in the rhythm of our precise steps. The benefits of hiking are available to everyone. Helen is a gateway to endless hiking experiences. Has there ever been a better time to pursue a pastime that offers peace, escape, and exhilaration?
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