For one of my weekend hiking trips with my granddaughter, I chose the Unicoi State Park in Helen GA, because as an Adventure Park, it had a lot to offer kids, was very close to a couple of easy hikes to area waterfalls, offered a lake for swimming, paddle-boat & canoe rentals, a downtown area filled with fun for eating out or playing the tourist and best of all, affordable rates. Unicoi State Park is a 1050 acre park located north of Helen, in NE Georgia mountains.
It had been years since coming to this area. We used to take our girls when they were small over every Christmas to see the Snow Princess make her Winter debut on an elaborate horse-drawn carriage, or Santa Claus landing on a rooftop on a swiss-chalet style building downtown. To us, it was a perfect little mountain Christmas, and fed into our Norman Rockwell dreams of a simpler lifestyle for our family. During those years we were tourists visiting from Florida, until we moved to the North Georgia mountains in 1996. We made a habit out of going to Helen then and it became a sweet tradition to ring in the holidays. We made a lot of fun memories here, and I think I probably had this in my mind when I made this reservation for my alone-time with my granddaughter to visit Unicoi State Park.
Since I was only driving from Blue Ridge, we took the scenic route along the Russell-Scenic Highway (Hwy 348). This is a very curvy scenic road that does not allow you to go very fast, but does provide amazing pull-offs with vista views of Hogpen Mountain and the Northeast Georgia mountains. It's hard to be a passenger on a road like this, so I popped the top down, made sure to just go slow, played some happy Irish music and just enjoyed the ride. And I think we both did.
We stopped along the way at Dukes Creek Falls to do our first waterfall hike. It was a hot day, and we were looking forward to jumping in some cold mountain water. The parking for Dukes Creek Falls actually has a few picnic tables and some private bathrooms - which was nice to discover. The hike to the waterfall was down a well-traveled path that seemed to go down and around forever. It could have felt longer because my granddaughter kept reminding me how hot it was and how tired she was. It also could have been my realizing the more we walked DOWN, the more the hike back was UP. I couldn't get there soon enough. My Irish skin was RED, and i was ready to jump in to the water too. We started hearing and seeing glimpses of the waterfall half way through the hike. It gave us the strength to carry on. ha!
What wimps! It's only a 2 mile hike! We arrived to find a narrow viewing platform with lots of rules about getting in the water or leaving the viewing deck. It was packed with people. We decided to eat our power energy snacks and high-tail it out of there to our next stop. (As regular hiking adventurers, we are both used to spots where we can tromp out and about in the water without a whole lot of others around. So she literally was looking at me like "what the heck is THIS??") But indeed this waterfall was gorgeous, and seemed to go on forever. You look up in the woods and it appeared to flow out of the clouds. It was truly beautiful.
On the hike back up to the car, we found a little access point to Dukes Creek and took in an hour of shallow water time. We played on the rocks, cooled down a bit, then headed on to our Unicoi Adventure. We were able to satisfy our mountain creek water needs.
From Dukes Creek Falls, we didn't have much farther to go. We drove straight into the park, which was well-marked and really easy to find where we were going. Checking into the lobby, we were delighted to hear we had been upgraded to a Queen Room, and was able to check in three hours early! Excited to get our bags out of the car and get going to our next fun activity, we grabbed a huge cookie from their sweet welcome trays and were on our way 🙂
The rooms were nice and clean, had wonderful views of the woods and had a real lodge feel, with a giant fireplace and outdoor decks in the common area.
The main lodge had a bright, airy restaurant open for lunch which provided a great variety on the buffet, (even dessert), so we went, relaxed and had something to eat and enjoyed all the window views of the mountains surrounding the area before we ventured out. (The adjoining sports tavern was closed at this point, but would later be our dinner option for room service). I was surprised (more like shocked) to see my granddaughter not want to wander into the cool gift shop located also on this top floor of the Lodge, but I did manage to catch glimpses of lots of outdoor gear choices and fun souvenirs as we ran to the elevator. She wanted to get OUTSIDE. This was a good sign.
The heat of the afternoon brought us to the Unicoi Lake for some real swim time. It's in the park, around the corner from the lodge. The lake has a nice beach area, with a roped off "safe section" to contain young swimmers. A nearby dock allows you to go out and view the lake further, fish or park your paddle boat. There is a hiking trail around this lake which is scattered with visitors. When we arrived, there were only a handful of people swimming, but after an hour, the place filled up with families. It was fun to see. It also gave my granddaughter some kids to play with. The children at one point all came out to observe tadpoles in a small pool off to
the side of the beach. Another parent gave them a brief lesson in nature. It was so sweet seeing the little ones see these baby frogs with their new eyes.
We did reserve some time to go to downtown Helen, (known for it's German Village feel), grab some homemade candies, an ice cream cone, sit in the center of town and just people-watch. There were plenty of places to shop, to sit and enjoy. The river also flows through town, so we were able to see the tubers floating down the river on their colorful tubes. (We had a major jelly-shoe crisis in that river back in the day! Oh the memories!) We did not stay downtown too long, as we were excited to explore the State Park some more, and attend the campfire story-time happening at dusk at the Lodge for the kids. It included marshmallows, so good sticks needed to be found.
From our parking area at the Lodge, we were able to watch the Zipliners doing the zipline canopy tours through the forest at the park. They'd zoom overhead, onto the next forest platform, howling. I couldn't convince my young adventurer to take a spin just yet, but it appeared as though there were a bunch of adventurers up there in the treetops, and it was fun watching them go. So even if you aren't doing it yourself, you still get to enjoy the show!
The following day was check-out, but first we took a quick hike in the rain to Anna Ruby Falls located right inside the Unicoi State Park, to experience another glorious north Georgia waterfall. It was a short easy hike, 1/2 mile on a paved trail, to another viewing platform/deck, where we stood and wowed it's glory for a few minutes and then ran for the car, as the stormy skies opened up on us, and our bellies were growling.
Onward! A homemade family-style breakfast was in our very near future... We worked up an appetite!
Looking forward to my next trip with the wee ones.