Blue Ridge Mountains - Unicoi State Park
Blue Ridge Mountains
I think the Blue Ridge Mountains are some of the most beautiful places on Earth. They’re not towering slabs of exposed rock like the Himalayas or the Rockies, but that fact doesn’t make them any less appealing. These hills got their name from their blue-green tint, which is produced by the trees growing on the hills – spruce, oak, hickory, fir, hemlock, and pine. Unlike the steep rocky outcrops of taller mountains, the vast majority of the Blue Ridge Mountains are covered in trees. The trees release a compound called isoprene, and that’s what provides the smoky blue haze to the slopes. The Blue Ridge is part of the Appalachian Mountains, beginning in my home state of Georgia and running north to Pennsylvania. The highest mountains in the eastern United States can be found here, with North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell being the tallest point east of the Mississippi River, at 6,684 feet. Other peaks that rise to over 6,000 feet lie in both North Carolina and Tennessee. If you’ve never visited the Blue Ridge Mountains, enjoy the photos!
These mountains are almost a billion years old – older than the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Andes, and the Alps. The Appalachian Mountains were once as tall as the Rockies and the Alps, but over the millennia, erosion took its toll. Because of the presence of topsoil and abundant moisture, along with a relatively mild climate, the Blue Ridge Mountains are rich with flora. In addition to the trees I’ve already mentioned, there are tulip trees, yellow birch, white ash, red maple, sugar maple, buckeye trees, and beech trees. In the warmer months, flowing trees, shrubs, and plants add bright splashes of color to the hillsides and valleys, with mountain laurel, Fraser magnolia, rhododendron, flowering dogwood, trailing arbutus, spiraca, and black locust. A variety of wildflowers add to the show. They include wild geranium, Queen Anne’s lace, fire pinks, bluets, phlox, galax, columbine, dandelion, violet, buttercups, blazing star, dwarf iris, coreopsis, aster, gentian, Indian paintbrush, sundrops, foam flowers, trillium, spiderwort, daisies, coneflower, cardinal flowers, and bead lilies.
The Appalachian Mountains are also home to a multitude of fauna. Some of the largest mammals are the black bear, the white-tailed deer, the elk, the wild boar, and the coyote. Other mammals include beavers, rabbits, bobcats, gray squirrels, fox squirrels, woodchucks, chipmunks, fox squirrels, flying squirrels, red foxes, gray foxes, raccoons, and skunks. Many bird species can be found here, too, whether they’re permanent residents or they’re just passing through. Depending on the season of your visit, you might see wild turkeys, wood ducks, hawks, scarlet tanagers, warblers, cardinals, bluebirds, grouse, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, egrets, pileated woodpeckers, doves, hummingbirds, chickadees, goldfinches, robins, and several species of owls. Reptiles, amphibians, and snakes are also well represented in the Appalachian Mountains and in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Georgia State Parks
There are lots of Georgia State Parks, and some of the most beautiful are in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Of course, there are parks and outdoor areas all over the state, from the southern coast to the North Georgia Mountains. Many of the parks have water features and camping sites, and some provide cabins or cottages for rent.
Georgia State Parks that are located in the North Georgia Mountains include black Rock Mountain State Park, at Mountain City, the state’s highest park in elevation. This place is beautiful, but if you decide to spend a few days there, I suggest you take what you need with you. The drive up and down the mountain is pretty tough, so you won’t want to be making a lot of trips into town for supplies. If you want a back-to-nature experience and panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from your own cabin deck, this is the place for you!
Other Georgia State Parks located in the Blue Ridge are Tallulah Gorge State Park, at Tallulah Falls; Moccasin Creek State Park, near Clarkesville; Smithgall Woods State Park, near Helen; Vogel State Park, at Blairsville; Fort Mountain State Park, at Chatsworth; Amicalola Falls State Park, at Dawsonville; Cloudland Canyon State Park, at Rising Fawn; and Unicoi State Park, near Helen, GA.
Georgia State Parks:
North Georgia Mountains
I’ve been making trips to the North Georgia Mountains for as long as I can remember. My dad loved the mountains, and I grew to love them, too. My family and I can reach our state’s Blue Ridge Mountains in 4 ½ hours, and it’s an easy trip, as most of the travel is via interstates. Once we get off the interstates, we know we’re getting close to the hills, and we begin looking for the first peaks. The grandkids always have a friendly competition to see which one spots the first mountain in the distance.
For the most part, the North Georgia Mountains are found in the extreme northeast corner of the state, in the counties of Rabun, White, Towns, Union, Lumpkin, Habersham, and Stephens. The word “mountain,” however, is a relative term. One man’s mountain is another man’s hill. With that in mind, the area covered by the North Georgia Mountains might also be considered to include the counties of Franklin, Banks, Hall, Forsyth, Dawson, Pickens, Fannin, Gilmer, and other counties to the west.
Some of the most popular tourist towns in the Georgia Mountains are Helen, Dahlonega, Clayton, Dillard, Blairsville, and Hiawassee. Attractions include mountain fairs, vineyards, waterfalls, gorges, and lakes and reservoirs. Popular activities include trout fishing, white water rafting, panning for gold, mining for gemstones, tubing, hiking, mountain biking, birding, canoeing, wildlife viewing, kayaking, boating, camping, hunting, swimming, and horseback riding. Historic sites and fascinating geography are also abundant, ranging from old Native American trails and burial grounds to frontier settlements to caves and canyons.
Shopping is also a popular pastime in the North Georgia Mountains. Many farms and orchards sell their goods in shops, stores, and at roadside stands. These might include fresh produce, fruit syrups and butters, cider, pickles, relishes, jams, jellies, or preserves. You can also find a world of antiques in the area, ranging from delicate hair pins to large pieces of furniture. If you like handmade jewelry, you can find pieces made from locally mined stones. If you don’t find the exact piece you want, you can usually have one custom made. Fine art and crafts are prevalent, too, and local artists and craftsmen seem to take special pride in their talent and in the articles they create.
Unicoi State Park
If you’re dreaming of clean mountain air, spectacular scenery, and Nature at its best, consider visiting Unicoi State Park. It’s located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia, just a few miles outside the Bavarian village of Helen. The park covers over 1,000 acres, with a lodge, cabins, campgrounds, streams, trails, and a lake complete with a sandy beach. You’ll find plenty to do and see in this area!
Near the lodge is 53-acre Smith Lake, where you can fish, rent pedal boats or canoes, or swim. There’s a sandy beach and a roped-off area for swimming in the cool, clear mountain water, along with nearby restrooms. There’s also a picnic area near the beach, which is available for rent. If, however, the facility hasn’t been rented for the day, guests can use it for free on a first-come basis. If you want to fish for rainbow trout, brook trout, and brown trout, there are two sections of trout streams in the park. Cast a fly for trout in the streams, or fish in the lake from the shore or the dock.
You’ll find picnic tables scattered throughout the park, so finding a vacant one shouldn’t be a problem. You’ll find several picnic tables with grills along Anna Ruby Falls Road, just up the mountain from Unicoi Lodge. We’ve seen beaver and deer from this area.
Hiking is also available at Unicoi State Park. There are several beautiful trails, ranging from short and easy to longer and strenuous. If you like, you can hike the three-mile trek to downtown Helen for shopping, restaurants, sightseeing, or bars. Going down is fairly easy, but the trek back up is a workout!
If you’re into mountain biking, you’ll love the park’s biking treks. They’ve been the site for several big mountain biking competitions, so I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. There are eight miles of biking trails, in all.
Just past the state park is Anna Ruby Falls, twin waterfalls located in the Chattahoochee National Forest. This is a beautiful place to spend a couple of hours. There’s a walkway to the top that takes about thirty minutes to complete, so bring your walking shoes. Don’t worry – there are benches along the way. There’s a $3 fee to see the falls, but it might be the best three bucks you’ve ever spent. For the more adventurous, hike to Unicoi State Park from Anna Ruby Falls via the Smith Creek Trail. Be sure to bring along your camera for some spectacular photographs!
Do you enjoy birding? Unicoi is home to many year-round and migratory bird species. Some of these include the bald eagle, Cooper’s hawk, hummingbirds, warblers, Canada geese, woodpeckers, wild turkeys, sandhill cranes, yellow-billed cuckoos, kingfishers, hawks, loons, great blue herons, and scarlet tanagers.
Unicoi has cabins and campsites for rent, but you don’t have to lodge at the park in able to enjoy it. If you’re staying in one of the nearby Helen hotels, drive up to the park and spend a couple of hours or an entire day. You’ll find the best mountain views from the drive up to the falls. Be careful and take your time, as the road has lots of hairpin turns.
Unicoi State Park:
Blue Ridge Cabin Rentals
My childhood vacations usually involved Blue Ridge cabin rentals. I began going to Unicoi as a child, when only rustic cabins were available. We always stayed in the cabins up on the mountain, and we often saw deer in front of our cabin. Just across the road is Smith Creek, where I spent many happy hours wading. Once the lodge motels were built, I stayed there several times as an adult. One of my best trips was made one January, when the ground was covered with snow. We had taken along a sled, and we had a blast sledding on the big hill in front of the main lodge. I’ve also attended conferences at the lodge, and the setup was perfect. Everything we needed was readily available.
If you want more space and privacy than Unicoi Lodge offers, you can rent one of the cabins at Unicoi. Mountain cabins are available in one, two, and three-bedroom units. Several of the cabins at Unicoi are dog-friendly, too. Most of the newer cabins are near the lake, but they’re not exactly “lakefront.” When I was a kid, the only cabins available at Unicoi were the cottages across from Smith Creek, near Tray Mountain. For a while, these cottages/cabins were closed to the public, but they’ve been reopened and are available for vacation rentals. They’re now referred to as the “Smith Creek cabins.” All the Smith Creek cabins have a charcoal grill, by the way.
All the Blue Ridge cabin rentals at Unicoi State Park are comfortable and cozy, and each provides towels and bed linens, with a fully functional kitchen. The kitchens all have toasters, stoves, coffee makers, microwave ovens, refrigerators, and everything you need to create and enjoy a great meal – cooking and eating utensils, cups, glasses, plates, and pots and pans. Each cabin is also equipped with either a fireplace or a wood-burning stove for added comfort and ambience. If you just have to stay in touch with the world, bring along your cell phone. The cabins don’t have phones, nor do they have televisions. You might miss these modern conveniences at first, but once you get settled in, you’ll love the laid-back lifestyle that these Blue Ridge cabin rentals provide.
Blue Ridge Cabin Rentals...and more at Unicoi
Unicoi Lodge sits atop a hill and is surrounded by the Chattahoochee National Forest. It’s a beautiful structure, with high vaulted ceilings, fireplaces, sitting areas, and lots of large windows that provide wonderful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The main lodge is comprised of a large restaurant, meeting rooms, and gift shops. Displayed on the walls you’ll find handmade quilts from local artisans, some of which are offered for sale. Also for sale in the gift shop is locally-made pottery, along with books, souvenirs, and locally-made goodies like jams, jellies, and preserves. For some real peace and inspiration, plop down in an Adirondack chair on the porch and soak in the scenery.
Joined to the main lodge building by a raised walkway are the lodge rooms – 100 in all. Each section of lodge motels has a lobby with a large fireplace, comfy seating, and a table that’s great for card games and board games. All the rooms in the lodge motels are doubles, and some have loft areas, too. The lofts are great for sleeping the kids! The price for the lodge rooms varies by season, ranging from $69 to $169 per night. Each room has wireless internet, cable television, a coffee maker, a phone, a hair dryer, an iron, and an ironing board. The rooms have always been clean and comfortable every time we’ve visited.
Near the lodge rooms are playgrounds for kids, tennis courts, and areas for volleyball. The tennis courts are lighted for nighttime playing. Engaging in these activities is a great way to work up an appetite for a hearty meal in the Unicoi Lodge Restaurant!
If you prefer camping, Unicoi State Park has 82 sites for tents, RVs, and camping trailers, along with 33 walk-in campsites that are more primitive. If you’re going tent camping but don’t like pitching your tent right on the ground, try a squirrel’s nest. The squirrels’ nests are wooden platforms on which you can set up your tent.
Unicoi Lodge Restaurant
The Unicoi Lodge Restaurant provides beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. All the meals are buffet style, and fresh mountain trout is a specialty. I’m not wild about trout, but I love eating breakfast at the lodge restaurant! Even when we visit the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains and don’t stay at the Unicoi Lodge, we almost always make the drive to the lodge restaurant just to enjoy their breakfast. If the weather is cold, we try to get a table in front of the huge fireplace.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served daily. Breakfast is served from 7-10, lunch is served from 11 until 2, and dinner is served between 5 and 8. I’ve been told that the restaurant is under new management, and that the trout aren’t nearly as good as they used to be. Even if that’s true, you still need to visit the Unicoi Lodge and eat just once at the Unicoi Lodge Restaurant. Go for breakfast. The last time I ate breakfast there, it was awesome!
If you’re anywhere in the region, Helen Georgia is an absolute must-see. Really, it’s like nowhere else in the state. It’s almost as if a hamlet in the Bavarian Alps had been picked up and moved to the North Georgia Mountains. Okay, the mountains themselves are different, and English is spoken in Helen, but otherwise, this little American town is pretty authentic, with Bavarian architecture, cobblestone lanes, German restaurants, beer gardens, and shops that sell Alpine imports.
There are lots of things to do in Helen. You’ll probably spend a significant amount of time browsing the shops, for one thing. In addition to all the imports, you’ll find wines from local vineyards, toys, candles, jewelry, home décor, apparel, gourmet coffee, country hams, Christmas items, dolls, figurines, nutcrackers, beer steins, teddy bears, cuckoo clocks, books, furniture, and more. Be sure to stop by the candy kitchen and watch the employees make their delicious chocolates. Of course, you’ll want to buy some to take home with you, too. You’ll also find stores that carry locally made arts and crafts, and stop by the Artisans Market for handmade jewelry, metal sculptures, soaps, essential oils, and natural beauty products.
When you get tired of shopping and need a break and some refreshments, stop in one of the Helen restaurants for some German food, some Mexican food, some barbecue, pizza, steak, seafood, or some southern cooking. Or, instead, you can step up to a counter for a sausage dog, a deli sandwich, a homemade cinnamon roll, a coffee drink, hot cocoa, a funnel cake, an ice cream, or a soft pretzel and enjoy it from a sidewalk bench.
You can also take a scenic jaunt in a hot air balloon, tour the town in a horse and buggy, visit a bear and reptile exhibit, play miniature golf, watch glassblowers at work, watch pottery being made, watch corn being ground into meal, pan for gold, or mine for emeralds, amethysts, rubies, and sapphires. Nearby, you can play a round of golf, raft down a river, hike the Appalachian Trail, go rock climbing, or ride horses through the mountains. Be sure to visit Nora Mill, at the edge of town, and throw some fish food to the giant trout. In the summer months, the kids will definitely want to visit the water park or rent an inflatable and “tube the Hooch”
Helen, GA - tubing and other activities
Visiting the North Georgia Mountains
Before heading to the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains, be prepared. I’ve been to the area every month of the year and have yet to experience any hot nights. Even in July and August, the nights are a little cool if you’re high enough in elevation. One August we took the kids tubing down the Chattahoochee River in Helen, and we thought we were going to freeze to death. Yes, the water is cold, but that year, the summer daytime highs didn’t help much. To play it safe, bring along a sweater or a sweatshirt before visiting Unicoi or anywhere else in the area. Also, I suggest finding a “base camp,” whether it’s one of the Helen hotels, a mountain cabin, the Unicoi Lodge, or a campsite. Use it as your home away from home and make short day trips from there. There’s a lot you’ll want to see and do in the Blue Ridge Mountains!