|From Smithgall Woods|
Unlike most of the area’s outdoor excursions, this one is set up more like a retreat center than a wilderness area. When you enter the wooden fence, you get that feel immediately. I have already mentioned the hunting done on premises, but it is also one of the premier trout fishing destinations of North Georgia. Dukes Creek runs right through the middle of it and its pristine waters make for good fishing as well as a serene backdrop for your day in the woods. The main road, called Tsalaki Trail is paved and takes you to the 5 separate trails designed for the hiker. The trails are mostly short, ranging from .3 to 1.6 miles. We walked four of the five that day, and with the walk up and down Tsalaki, we covered just about 6 miles.
The two most interesting trails are the Ash Creek Trail and Martin’s Mine Trail. Ash Creek explores Dukes Creek and includes two wet foot crossings of the stream, so be prepared. The highlight of this trail is the water itself. Martin’s mine trail was our predetermined destination because we thought it would be neat to see gold mine shafts. There were three different shafts, one of which was filled in, that you could look down. In pictures, they look more like holes in the ground than anything fantastic, but I assure you it was a nice treat on our path. On this trail there was also a minor but quite pretty waterfall, and waterfalls always seem to deliver. The short wetlands path had a nice boardwalk and almost seemed like you weren’t in the North Georgia Mountains. The nearest trail was a simple nature trail, which was ok, and the furthest trail is the Cathy Ellis trail, which we didn’t traverse. There is no dominating mountain climb or deep valley to enter, so I would rate all these trails as very easy, with the possible exceptions of crossing the water on the Ash Creek Trail or the actual climb up to the waterfall, which aren’t difficult, but certainly aren’t simple.
Along the way there are a few other interesting sites. At the Nature Center, there’s a small museum inside and a couple of captive birds or prey outside. Along the Paved Road, you encounter a small covered bridge, called Bay’s Bridge, which was placed there as gift from husband to wife by the Smithgalls, the sites original benefactors. There was also a bee farm, so I encountered my first warning sign that read “Caution Bees.” These added nice extra diversions to our day at Smithgall.
So if you are looking for a getaway from your getaway in Helen, and want a simple but serene day in nature, Smithgall Woods fills this role admirably. Because of the relatively easy trails, I would rate this as a top family destination, and if you include the hawks, bees, and museum, kids are sure to enjoy it. If you fish, you probably already know about this place. I’d advise you call ahead about the possibility of hunting (706.878.3087), it seems the hunting dates are grouped around Helen’s busy Oktoberfest season. Because of the paved middle road, you could bring your bicycles to get from trail to trail. If you go, you ought to take the 2 mile car trip afterward to visit Dukes Creek Falls.
Approximate Time: 4 hours (all trails)
Approximate Distance: 6 miles
Features: Waterfall, Riverside views, Marshland, Old Goldmines, Covered Bridge, Wildlife, Bees.
Overall Rating: B
Scenic Quality: B+
Athleticism: B- (mostly because of distances)
Parking: Standard State Park Fee ($5, March 2010)
Hours of Operation: 8a-6p Mo Tu Th Fr 7a-6p We Sa Su
Facilities: At the visitor center
Maps: At visitor center, here