Explore Smithgall Woods State Park near Helen, hiking to tumbling waterfalls, gold mines, and the rocky, scenic creek bed of Dukes Creek. Follow our favorite hikes at the park: the Martin’s Mine Trail, Cathy Ellis Waterfall Trail, Ash Creek Trail, and the Smithgall Wetland Loop.
LOCATION:south of Hiawassee, Georgia
Set in the rolling forests near Helen, Smithgall Woods is a renowned North Georgia destination for fishing; it’s home to premier trout streams that carve and meander through the park’s sprawling, scenic acres. But this Georgia State Park is a fantastic destination for hiking, too. The park’s 23 miles of trails and roads explore more than 5600 acres of scenic woodlands, rolling terrain, wildflower-covered meadows, and tumbling creeks. And set deep in the forest, mine shafts tunnel deep into the earth, remnants of Georgia’s gold rush along Dukes Creek.
Gold was first discovered on Dukes Creek in the park, just downstream from the beautiful cascades of nearby Dukes Creek Falls and Raven Cliff Falls. Subsequent gold mining left these now-beautiful woods stripped nearly bare. Today, the forest has regrown, thanks to the conservation efforts of Charles Smithgall and a gift-purchase to the state of Georgia. Young hardwoods tower over a rich forest in the park, and nearly crystal-clear trout streams meander through the woods and tumble over rocky outcrops in small waterfalls.
The trails are beautiful year-round, but especially so in spring when the park’s waterfalls tumble in abundance from springtime rains, and in autumn, when the hardwood trees color the forests of North Georgia in a stunning array of colors.
TRAIL UPDATE: After receiving extensive storm damage in 2018, we’ve received reports that many of the trails in this park remain difficult to access. Before you go, please consider contacting the state park for their current status.
Since Smithgall Woods is a conservation park, vehicles are prohibited on the park’s roads. So while each of our favorite trails at this park are relatively short in length, they all require a walk along the paved Tsalaki Trail, the park’s main road, to access each trailhead. The paved road is scenic, following Dukes Creek downstream and crossing over a picturesque covered bridge. It’s entirely possible to hike just one (or two) of these trails – but since the bulk of the distance traveled is along the paved road, we usually hike them all in one visit for a great, moderate, higher-mileage adventure. (Bikes are allowed on the paved road – but not the dirt hiking trails. If you’re up for leaving your bike at the trailhead, the paved road makes for a great bike ride to each of the hiking trailheads.)
Smithgall Woods State Park: our favorite trails
This five-trail adventure follows our four favorite hikes at the park on a nearly-nine-mile journey to tumbling waterfalls, a former gold mine, and a wet crossing through Dukes Creek. All hikes begin at the park’s visitor center trailhead (view maps and driving directions); sign-in is required inside the visitor center before you begin. Be sure to grab an official park map from the visitor center, too: since this hike follows multiple trails, navigation can be tricky.
Veering around the park’s gate, the hike follows the paved Tsalaki Trail eastbound and rolls elevation through the forest, following Dukes Creek downstream. Just after passing a cluster of beehives, the hike reaches the northern Ash Creek Trailhead at .7 mile. The route continues its eastbound journey on the paved road, reaching the Wetland Loop Trailhead at 1.2 miles.
Wetland Loop Trail
The Smithgall Woods Wetland Trail explores a wildlife-filled wetland, looping .4 mile from the Tsalaki Trail through a grassy marshland created by a beaver dam. The trail climbs through a hardwood forest where leafy vines climb skyward to the forest canopy and wildflowers dot the sides of the trail. The hike loops southbound along a trickling creek, ending at the paved Tsalaki Trail just before the covered bridge.
This hike turns left on the Tsalaki Trail, crossing Dukes Creek over the covered bridge. The paved road turns to gravel on the opposite bank, rolling elevation through the forest and passing a small set of rocky waterfall shoals on Dukes Creek at 2 miles. The hike reaches the Martin’s Mine Trailhead at 2.4 miles, turning left to cross Dukes Creek over a wooden bridge.
Martin’s Mine Trail
This .9 mile figure-eight loop explores the area of a former gold mine on the banks of Dukes Creek. This large gold mine tunneled a distance of 900 feet with three vertical shafts to the surface, the deepest at 100 feet. This hike follows the lower loop trail counterclockwise, visiting the mine entrance and vertical shafts. On the upper loop, the Martin’s Mine Trail visits a small tumbling waterfall and crosses small bridges and wooden stairs before rejoining the lower loop. Just before completing the figure eight loop, the Martin’s Mine Trail visits a small wooden platform with views of a marshy ephemeral pool, home to scores of frogs, tadpoles, and newts.
Reaching the bridge over Dukes Creek, the hike turns left, crossing the creek over the wooden bridge. And reaching the Tsalaki Trail, this adventure turns another left, continuing to follow the gravel trail southeast. The Tsalaki Trail begins a steady climb to the Cathy Ellis trailhead, reaching the trailhead at just under 4 miles.
Cathy Ellis Trail
This one-mile roundtrip drops through a lush, green forest filled with rhododendron to visit Chunanee Falls, a tumbling waterfall on a tributary of Dukes Creek. It was here that gold was discovered in 1828 and was home to Lucy Bryant, a Cherokee widow. After passing a wooden shelter, the hike drops through a dense thicket of gnarly-branched mountain laurel and rhododendron to the banks of Dukes Creek. The trail reaches Chunanee Falls at just under 4.5 miles, taking in the beauty of the waterfall before doubling back on the Cathy Ellis Trail.
Reaching the Tsalaki Trail at 5 miles, the route turns northbound, following the Tsalaki Trail to retrace its outbound steps to the covered bridge.
Ash Creek Trail
Just before reaching the covered bridge, this hike turns left at the southern Ash Creek Trailhead at 6.2 miles, hiking past the Smithgall Woods group camp. The route veers southeast, passing through a wide firebreak clearing filled with golden grasses. Departing the firebreak, the hike tunnels through a canopy of dense rhododendron at 7 miles before crossing the pebble-lined Ash Creek. The hike rolls elevation northbound over a small knob before dropping to cross Dukes Creek at 7.8 miles. (There’s no bridge over the broad creek, so cross carefully. If you’re traveling with a four-footed hiking buddy, this is a perfect place for a mid-hike swim.)
The Ash Creek Trail reaches the Tsalaki Trail at 8 miles, turning left to follow the paved road back to the Smithgall Woods trailhead. The hike reaches the visitor’s center and parking area at just under 8.75 miles, completing the adventure.
Smithgall Woods: more tips for adventure
Just across the highway from the visitor’s center, the park offers a small collection of nicely appointed cabins along Dukes Creek, perfect for a stay in the Helen Area. A trail from the cabins, accessible only by cottage guests, connects to the Dukes Creek Trail for quick access to the tumbling cascades at Dukes Creek Falls.
After the adventure
After your hike, make a short, scenic drive north to Hiawassee and stop by our new hiking outfitter store, Trailful Outdoor Co. We’ve filled our shop with all of the hiking gear and apparel we’ve used and loved for years, including our favorites from KUHL, Osprey, Kelty, Ruffwear, and more. We also stock our line of Atlanta Trails apparel, locally-made gifts, hiking and nature books, maps, and more. And our Atlanta Trails founders are in the shop every day… we’d love the chance to say hello in person!
Always leave no trace, pack out everything you pack in, and if you see trash, pick it up and pack it out.
Stay on the marked trail, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, and don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way. Please always practice good trail etiquette. And before you go, always check the trailhead kiosk, official maps, and the park or ranger office for notices of changed routes, trail closures, safety information, and restrictions.
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This trail is maintained thanks to the hard work of countless volunteers and donations from supporters of the Friends of Georgia State Parks. Please support them by making a donation or joining a volunteer day. Let's work together to keep these fantastic trails maintained and open for use!
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