Hike a scenic two-mile loop on the shores of Unicoi Lake, catching beautiful reflective views in North Georgia’s Unicoi State Park just north of Helen.
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 778 Trails Illustrated Map (find it at Trailful Outdoor Co.)
The sun hangs low on the horizon, casting the forest in a golden glow. The waters of Smith Lake turn glassy as the mountain winds begin to still. The colors of early autumn paint the forest on the far shore of Smith Lake, reflecting in the lake’s glassy surface and doubling the beauty of the lake’s winding shore. And weaving and winding throughout this beautiful scene, the Unicoi Lake Trail loops through it all, catching view after beautiful view of the lake, nestled in the mountains of Unicoi State Park.
The 50+ acre Smith Lake is well known as one of the top fishing, boating, and swimming areas near Helen, thanks to multiple docks along its shore and a wide, sandy swim beach. The Unicoi Lake Trail connects the fishing docks and swimming beach to the parking areas and popular Unicoi State Park Cabins, our favorite places to stay at the park. But it’s not only a great way to get around the state park: the trail makes for a great hike, thanks to the generous lake views and beautiful forest along the way. And the two-mile loop rolls gently around the lake, making it a great beginner-friendly hike for families with kids, or a fantastic running route for visitors at Unicoi Lodge.
Unicoi Lake Trail: the hike
Several parking areas and trailheads are scattered throughout this loop, making a number of starting points for the hike possible. (And, if you’re staying in the Barrel Cabins, the trail is easily accessible from the cabins – perfect for an early morning run!) This route begins at the park’s Visitor Center on the lake’s eastern shore (view maps and driving directions) and follows the loop in a counter-clockwise direction. From the Visitor Center, the hike begins trekking southwest, descending to the lake and passing through a grassy marshland on its shore. Beautiful cross-lake views extend from several large wooden docks along the shoreline.
The trail veers northbound, rolling elevation and passing under a canopy of enormous pine. The trail veers to the northwest, hugging the contours of the lake, and turning left at .5 mile to cross a large wooden boardwalk spanning the lake’s inlet at Smith Creek. Upstream several miles, this gently flowing creek tumbles over a towering cliff in the stunning double cascades of Anna Ruby Falls.
After crossing the boardwalk, the hike passes through the sandy beach and swimming area on the lake’s north shore. The lake’s small marina lies just past the beach, offering paddleboard and kayak rentals, and the dock makes a great spot to catch additional cross-lake reflective views.
From the beach and dock, the trail veers southbound, rolling gently and following the lake’s meandering shoreline. At just over 1 mile, the trail passes the pavilions and parking area near the lake’s dam, and then swings eastbound, crossing the Unicoi Lake Dam alongside a paved road. At 1.4 miles, the trail makes a sharp turn to the northwest, departing the road and diving back into the forest.
The trail skirts the park’s cabin areas and climbs high above the lake, beginning a steady climb to the trailhead. The hike reaches the Visitor Center at 2 miles, completing the adventure.
More of our favorite trails at Unicoi State Park
Spending a few days in the park, or in the area with some daylight and energy to spare? The Smith Creek Trail departs from a nearby trailhead at the park’s campground, following a winding, historic gold mining ditch and exploring a scenic forest on the way to the beautiful Anna Ruby Falls. (Or for a shorter route, exit the park and drive to the Anna Ruby Falls trailhead, making a gentle climb along a paved trail to these outstandingly beautiful twin waterfalls.)
And the area offers some of our all-time favorite hikes in North Georgia, too. Chase waterfalls at Raven Cliff Falls or the short, kid-friendly Helton Creek Falls. Explore a historic gold mine on the banks of the tumbling Dukes Creek in a scenic hardwood forest at Smithgall Woods State Park. Or for a fantastic workout with some sublime mountain summit views, hike the Appalachian Trail at Unicoi Gap, looping over the view-packed summit at Rocky Mountain.
After the adventure
Looking for more beginner-friendly hikes in the area? Make the short drive up to beautiful Hiawassee to our new hiking outfitter store, Trailful Outdoor Co. Our Atlanta Trails crew is in the shop every day, and we’ve got a ton of info on our favorite local trails to help you find your great next adventure. We also stock our crew’s favorite hiking and backpacking gear from brands like KUHL, Osprey, Ruffwear, BUFF, Kelty, and Jetboil. And we stock our full line of Atlanta Trails merch and apparel, as well as locally crafted gifts and goods. 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.
Love the trail?
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!
34.727783, -83.720533 // N34 43.667 W83 43.232