Hike a scenic back route to Anna Ruby Falls, hiking the Smith Creek Trail from Unicoi State Park and following a historic gold mining ditch to Anna Ruby’s stunning double cascades.
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 778 Trails Illustrated Map
It’s certainly one of the most beautiful – and unique – sights in North Georgia. Curtis Creek and York Creek tumble in parallel streams from the lower elevations of Tray Mountain, creating the uniquely beautiful, towering twin falls at Anna Ruby Falls. And while there’s a short route to these spectacular falls by way of a half-mile paved trail, there’s a much more scenic route to the falls on the Smith Creek Trail.
The Smith Creek Trail spans just under 9 miles, round trip, following the Sautee Ditch, a historic gold mining waterway, from Unicoi State Park. Winding through a fern-covered, green hardwood forest, the trail crosses several small, mossy creeks on the way to Anna Ruby. The route lacks any significant mountaintop views, skirting the summits of several nearby knobs and climbing through a rocky glacial deposit along the way. But what the trail lacks in views along the way, it fully makes up for with mile after mile of quiet, scenic, sun-dappled North Georgia forest. And, of course, the main attraction of Anna Ruby Falls at the trail’s end is fully worth the mileage.
NOTE: Due to recent storms, a number of large, downed trees are covering the first portion of this route. Until the trail is cleared, use extra caution or choose another route.
Smith Creek Trail: the hike
The adventure begins at a trailhead near the park’s campground, just north of Helen (view maps and driving directions), departing from a small gravel parking area. The route follows green trail blazes, diving into the cover of a young, leafy hardwood forest. The trail follows the contours of the Sautee Ditch, a hand-dug waterway that spanned a staggering seven miles from Smith Creek to two gold stamp mills during Georgia’s gold rush in the late 1800s.
The trail crosses through the Sautee Ditch at .5 miles, crossing a gravel road, descending wooden stairs, and crossing a small wooden bridge. The trail makes two more bridge crossings, at .6 mile and .8 mile, and begins the nearly unrelenting climb to the near-summit of Smith Mountain. Lichen-covered boulders speckle the sides of the trail, and wildflowers stretch toward sunlight under the canopy of the forest.
The trail crosses a small, trickling creek at 1.2 miles, and again at 1.4 miles. The climb accelerates and the trail quickly gains elevation, carving through a series of winding switchbacks and ducking through tunnels of dense rhododendron and mountain laurel. Exiting the switchbacks, the trail makes a straight-shot climb to an unnamed knob at 2.4 miles. Through-the-trees views of the neighboring ridge emerge on the trail’s right, the highest point of elevation along this route. There’s a small, primitive backpacking campsite near the knob’s summit, just past the peak.
The trail descends from the summit’s northern side, scrambling through a rocky, rooty forest filled with weathered gray rock, a rare low-elevation glacial deposit. The trail descends steadily, climbing down a set of rustic wooden stairs and crossing a small creek at 3.3 miles.
The trail crosses another, larger creek at 3.6 miles. The creek’s bed is rocky, mossy, and particularly beautiful in springtime, when the surrounding forest is cloaked in the green of spring and the colorful spectrum of native North Georgia wildflowers.
The route veers left after crossing the creek, arcing westward around Smith Mountain and beginning a steady descent. The sound of the roaring, tumbling duo of waterfalls echoes through the forest as the trail approaches Anna Ruby Falls. Views of the waterfalls open suddenly as the trail reaches a clearing just below the falls.
Two wooden viewing platforms below Anna Ruby Falls make a perfect place for a mid-hike water break, and a great spot to snap a few photos of the beautiful, tumbling double waterfall. After soaking up the beauty, the hike departs from the falls, following the outbound route on the Smith Creek Trail in reverse, leaving the often-busy waterfall behind. The hike reaches the trailhead at Unicoi State Park at just under 9 miles, completing the adventure.
More adventures in (and near) Unicoi State Park
Unicoi State Park is a perfect base camp for a visit to nearby Helen or a weekend of hiking adventure. Hike the Unicoi Lake Trail, exploring a the beautiful forested banks of Smith Lake. And overnight in one of Unicoi’s newly renovated, classicly retro barrel cabins for a great long weekend adventure.
Near the park, explore more of Helen’s gold mining history at Smithgall Woods State Park, hiking to several small waterfalls, an enormous old gold mine, and a covered bridge. Scale the enormous, domed summit of Yonah Mountain just south of Helen to catch some of the area’s most stunning mountaintop views. Or hike one of the most difficult – but beautiful – stretches of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, climbing to beautiful summit views from Unicoi Gap to Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain.
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34.726650, -83.716033 // N34 43.599 W83 42.962