A creek runs through it: State park a hidden gem in North Georgia

Smithgall Woods beckons visitors willing to hoof it to a nature lover’s paradise.
Dukes Creek, a trophy trout fishing stream sought out by anglers from around the country, flows through the heart of Smithgall Woods State Park.
(Courtesy of Alpine Helen-White County CVB)

Credit: Handout

Combined ShapeCaption
Dukes Creek, a trophy trout fishing stream sought out by anglers from around the country, flows through the heart of Smithgall Woods State Park. (Courtesy of Alpine Helen-White County CVB)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

HELEN — Spread out over 5,664 acres of Dukes Creek Valley in North Georgia, Smithgall Woods State Park draws in-the-know travelers who crave forested mountain solitude. It’s much larger than neighboring state parks like Vogel, Unicoi and Amicalola Falls, but Smithgall Woods sees fewer visitors, making it a hidden gem.

Designed primarily as a conservation area, this riparian forest contains a diversity of ecosystems that include wetlands, bottomlands, evergreen thickets, mountain coves, ridge lines and more. It’s not a place you can see by car, because cars aren’t allowed past the main parking area unless you’re staying overnight in a creekside cottage.

Even Tsalaki Trail, the main paved road through the park, doesn’t allow vehicles beyond a certain point. You’ll have to hoof it on foot or hop on a bike to truly experience Smithgall. Cycling is limited to the traffic-free roads in the park, while trails are for hikers only.

Despite its restrictive, pristine nature, the park boasts some of the most luxe accommodations available in a Georgia state park.

Where most state parks feature uniform cabins lined up next to each other on a loop road in the woods, Smithgall Woods boasts six high-end, comfortably appointed cottages, each different in style and ranging in size from one to five bedrooms.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The flagship accommodation is a two-story, four-bedroom Montana lodge-pole-style structure at the confluence of Dover and Dukes creeks. A wraparound porch encircles the entire house with walkways over both creeks.

Creekside Cottage, a three-bedroom bungalow, sits directly on the creek bank where you can fish from the deck. To access Dover Cottage and Laurel Cottage visitors must ford Dukes Creek in their car on a shallow, sunken driveway that runs across the creek bed. The pet-friendly one-bedroom Garden Cottage overlooks a small botanical garden. Both one-bedroom cottages have privacy decks with hot tubs. All of the cottages have Wi-Fi, cable TV, washers, dryers, outdoor grills and fully-equipped kitchens.

Accommodations aside, the heart of Smithgall Woods is the crystal clear waters of Dukes Creek, a premier trout fishing stream. Anglers from around the country come here for the catch-and-release action. Overnight guests can fish any day year round; day visitors can only fish May through October on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

Dukes Creek is where gold was discovered in Georgia in 1828, leading to the state’s gold rush two decades before California’s. Remnants of its gold-mining past are still visible along the park’s 28 miles of trails in the form of old mine tailings and shafts. The rush for gold lasted for decades and ended up devastating the landscape due to hydraulic mining practices in the mid-1800s, a decimation that continued with the logging industry of the early 20th century.

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

You’d never know now, thanks to restoration efforts. A planting of the rare and endangered low-growth cedar trees known as the Florida Torreya stands in the field across from the visitors center. Many varieties of trees now shelter the restored forest including pioneer hardwoods, hemlocks, oaks, maples, poplars and pines. The most common wildlife sightings are white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, beavers, hawks, herons and songbirds.

A highlight of Dukes Creek is a pair of cascading water falls, accessible from a trail for cottage guests only that leads to the base of the falls. The general public can access the falls by taking a .8-mile hike from a trailhead on the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, a 40-mile scenic loop drive with a spur road to Georgia’s highest point, Brasstown Bald.

For overnight guests of the park who don’t feel like cooking, downtown Helen is less than a four-mile drive from the park entrance with a multitude of dining options and tourist attractions in an Old World Bavarian village-like setting. The nearby small community of Sautee Nacoochee is worth a visit to check out the circa-1873 Old Sautee Store, have lunch at the store’s deli and tour the Sautee Nacoochee Cultural Center’s galleries and museums showcasing local artisans and history.

Also in Sautee Nacoochee is the Hardman Farm State Historic Site, anchored by an ornate 1870 Italianate mansion, with barns and other historic outbuildings surrounding it. You can take a self-guided tour of the site or a guided tour inside the mansion. An original section of the Unicoi Turnpike, an old Native American trading route, runs through the property.

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Across the road, the Nacoochee Mound, a gazebo-topped Indian burial mound in the middle of a cow pasture, is an oft-photographed landmark. The mound is off-limits, but signage along the self-guided tour tells the complex and controversial story of how a gazebo came to be placed atop an ancient burial mound.

The Helen to Hardman Heritage Trail runs for one mile alongside the Chattahoochee River between Hardman Farm and Helen. It’s a shady, paved and ADA-accessible pathway with interpretative signage about the flora, fauna and history of the area offering nice views of the river and the still-operational Nora Mill, which was established in 1876 and at one point was the power source for Hardman Farm.

Smithgall Woods State Park owes its origins to media magnate and conservationist Charles Smithgall Jr. In the mid-20th century, he began purchasing tracts of the land with the purpose of reforesting it. Over the ensuing decades, he did just that with great care and expertise. In 1994 he sold the land to the state in a gift/purchase deal of $10.8 million — half the property’s value at the time — so it could be designated a conservation area with low-impact usage.

When Smithgall died at 91 in 2002, his obituary in the AJC quoted then commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resouces, Lonice Barrett, as saying, “What he did to assemble (Smithgall Woods) was unheard of. He was decades ahead on how to assemble and conserve land.”

If you go

Smithgall Woods State Park is 85 miles northeast from downtown Atlanta via U.S. Highway 19 and GA 115 and 75Alt. $5 daily parking fee.


Hardman Farm. $7. 143 Hwy. 17. 706-878-1077, gastateparks.org/HardmanFarm.

Sautee Nacoochee Cultural Center. 283 Hwy. 255. 706-878-3300, snca.org/snc.


Smithgall Woods State Park. $345 and up for cottages. $5 parking fee for day use. 61 Tsalaki Trail, Helen. 706-878-3087, gastateparks.org/SmithgallWoods.

Unicoi State Park and Lodge. $189 and up for lodge rooms, $219 and up for cabins, $57 and up for campsites. 1788 Hwy. 356, Helen. 706-878-2201, unicoilodge.com.


The Market at Old Sautee Store. $4.99 and up. 2315 Hwy. 17. 706-878-2281, sauteestore.com.

Cowboys and Angels. $16 and up. 60 Chattahoochee St. 706-878-3433, cowboysangels.net.

Visitor info

Alpine Helen/White County Welcome Center. 726 Bruckenstrasse, Helen. 706-878-2181, helenga.org.

About the Author