It’s the infamous ‘back way’ to the ultra-popular Panther Creek Falls. This alternate route to the falls begins near Yonah Dam and treks westbound to the waterfall on a particularly difficult trail.
LOCATION:Chattahoochee National Forest near Tallulah Gorge in North Georgia
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 778 Trails Illustrated Map
Panther Creek Falls is one of North Georgia’s most popular waterfalls. Known for a beautiful cascade over an enormous bluff, a wide and deep swimming hole with chilly water during summer’s hottest temperatures, and fantastic backpacking and hiking with excellent on-trail campsites, the trail is almost always crowded on warm-weather weekends.
This hike is not the popular seven-mile hike to Panther Creek Falls. It’s an alternate route to the ultra-popular waterfall, and while it’s shorter, at 4.7 miles roundtrip, it’s an exceptionally more difficult trek. The hike follows the trail westbound from a trailhead near Yonah Dam, winding through tight singletrack trail with steep drop-offs and large obstacles, like fallen trees. After making a harrowing trek on the narrow, obstacle-laden trail, the hike departs the creek’s banks, climbing over a steep-pitched mountain before dropping to visit one of Georgia’s most popular waterfalls. It’s anything but easy.
Despite its difficulty, this westbound approach to the famed waterfall explores an exceptionally beautiful forest, visits several sandy beaches and explores several caves set into the creek’s steep-walled banks. Mid-hike, the cool pool below the falls makes a great mid-hike reward. And unlike the infinitely easier, eastbound approach to the waterfall, it’s likely you won’t see anyone on this alternate trek to the falls.
Yonah Dam to Panther Creek Falls: the hike
The adventure begins at the trail’s eastern trailhead near Yonah Dam (view maps and driving directions), crossing a bridge over the creek and making a hard right on the opposite bank. The trail hikes westbound from the bridge, climbing elevation into the forest and following the creek upstream.
The trail rolls elevation over the first half mile, rising and falling and meandering through a forest filled with fern, pine, and deciduous trees. The trail crosses several creeks and bridges as it meanders near the creek’s banks.
The hike begins a steep stretch at .5 miles, climbing high beside the creek on a steeply-pitched bank. The trail is quite narrow, demanding careful attention to avoid a fall. And, as this western section of the trail is much lesser traveled, fallen trees commonly block the path, requiring extra effort to pass through the tight singletrack.
The trail climbs elevation, rising high above the creek and passing a deep-set cave at .7 mile. The trail crosses through an incredibly steep section at .75 miles, the hike aided by cables bordering the trail, before veering away from the creek. The trail’s climb accelerates, rising nearly 500 feet in a half mile in a steady climb without switchbacks. It’s quite a workout, especially in warm weather.
The trail peaks at 1.35 miles, beginning a descent. The hike crosses a wooden bridge and explores a beautiful, stream-filled forest. The trail crosses an extended wood bridge at 1.6 miles, continuing a descent through the steep-sided creek valley. The trail approaches the banks of the creek once again at 1.8 miles, reaching a small waterfall. The creek tumbles over small waterfalls in its boulder-filled bed, the rocks covered in mosses and lichens in this sunlight-dappled forest.
The trail meanders southbound on the banks of the creek, passing a campsite at 1.9 miles and climbing over a cave. Occasional blue trail blazes navigate the path as it treks beside two small sandy beaches at 2.05 and 2.2 miles. The trail climbs a rock outcrop, aided by cables, before passing another campsite and reaching Panther Creek Falls at 2.35 miles.
The below-falls area is shaded by trees and studded by large rock outcrops and boulders, perfect for a mid-hike break. A large, sandy beach borders the pool below the waterfall, framed in steep rocky outcrops on both sides. Hikers flock to the pool’s cool, clear water in warm summer months, a mid-hike oasis.
From here, this hike turns to retrace its steps to the Yonah Dam trailhead, following the trail back to the east. Alternately, to extend the hike by 7 miles, follow the western half of the trailhead to the western trailhead on Historic 441, where you’ll pass many backpacking campsites and follow a noticeably easier trail. (Completing both east and west trail sections totals 11.7 miles, roundtrip.)
Note: slippery rocks and fast moving water can be extremely dangerous! Please don’t climb, stand on, swim near, or jump from any waterfall. And please leave no trace on the trail: pack out everything you pack in to help preserve this beautiful forest.
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Free parking. Access to the trailhead is via gravel Forest Service roads.
34.667333, -83.364317 // N34 40.040 W83 21.859