One of the things we have fallen in love with the most about the Southeast is lake life.
So as soon as we drove up to our barrel shaped cabin in the forest at Unicoi State Park and Lodge in Georgia and saw the lake from our deck, I knew we were in for a peaceful family retreat.
My body moved fast to unload and unpack. Then I declared, “I am going for a walk around the lake. It’s only 2.5 miles and we have enough time before dinner.”
I could barely wait for Craig to put on his shoes.
There is a certain kind of serenity that only a lake offers. It provides a stillness my meditating-loving psyche gravitates towards. It feels ancient and grounding and calls me to peace.
Don’t worry if you can’t stay embraced in that quiet, still energy for too long – Unicoi State Park & Lodge has plenty of adventurous activities to balance it out for you.
Georgia’s Adventure Lodge: Unicoi State Park
The name Unicoi comes from the Cherokee word, “unega,” meaning “white.” As the state park stands on the original Unicoi Trail – a trading path that connected Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia – it’s assumed that Unicoi refers to “place of the white man”, or “the white man’s road”.
It’s where European traders swapped axes, guns and cloth with remote Cherokee villages for furs, deer skins and ginseng.
However, it is said the name could also refer to the white fog of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Only two miles from the Alpine Village of Helen in the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains, Unicoi State Park & Lodge is one of the most popular and loved state parks in Georgia.
This 1,050-acre state park is centered around beautiful Lake Unicoi within the Chattahoochee National Forest.
This is more than a state park with a few hiking trails and the lodge is known as one of Georgia’s Adventure Lodges for a reason!
Unicoi offers memorable experiences like paddle boarding, 3-D archery, fly fishing, an adrenaline-pumping zip line course, and a nearby spectacular waterfall.
See the Beautiful Anna Ruby Falls
It didn’t take long on the short hiking trail to the Anna Ruby Falls for me to mark it as one of my favorite waterfalls in the USA.
The trail through the lush verdant forest past the meandering, full-flowing and cascading Smith Creek was enough for me to know this place was special.
It’s special enough to be protected from within the Chattahoochee National Forest and designated as the Anna Ruby Falls National Recreation Area. It borders the Unicoi State Park, which gives you easy access to visit. In fact, you must go through Unicoi State Park to get to the Visitors Center at the falls.
Anna Ruby Falls is a double waterfall. At 150 feet above, the Curtis Creek and York Creek (which starts high on Tray Mountain on the Appalachian Trail) come thundering down the cliff face and merge together at the bottom to form Smith Creek, (which runs through the park).
It is an impressive sight and a waterfall vista you won’t forget.
If the one mile return trail is not enough for you, you can hike the 5 miles from Anna Ruby Falls back to Unicoi Lodge.
However you choose to experience it, Anna Ruby Falls is a must when exploring the North Georgia mountains.
Unicoi Zipline & Aerial Adventure Tour
Time to get out of your comfort zone for an adrenaline rush 100ft in the air zooming across zip lines that range from 75 to 2,000 feet long.
The Aerial Adventure Tour has three zip line courses, from novice lines to the ultimate adrenaline rush, that take you across up to 19 zip lines and 9 suspension bridges.
Be prepared for the ultimate end on the half-mile, double zip line over the lake and see if you can kick up a splash with your feet. (FYI: You really can’t!)
Unfortunately, our ziplining adventure was cancelled due to a thunderstorm. We were all devastated, but all great places need an excuse to return!
Kayak or Paddleboard on Unicoi Lake
Not only do I love being in the presence of lakes, but my other favorite thing to do on them is stand up paddle boarding. I haven’t found an outdoor activity that offers me as much Zen as silently paddling across a calm lake.
Paddling on Unicoi Lake was sublime with its pretty reflections, mountain backdrop and water so clear I could see sunken trees and giant fish swimming past.
Craig and the girls paddled beside me in their kayaks. Then we switched all of them out for a leg-pumping workout on the four-person Pontoon Pedal Boats.
You can rent kayaks, canoes, paddle boards and pedal boats from the Visitor Center.
Fishing in the Lake and Streams
Throw in a line, anglers, the fish are biting!
Unicoi Lake is a great place to catch bass, bluegill and catfish and Smith Creek is the place for trout fishing, as it is stocked on a regular basis.
The section below the lake and dam (Lower Smith Creek) is catch-and-release only from Nov 1 – May 14. Fly fishing classes are offered by the park.
Hiking Trails at Unicoi State Park
There are five Unicoi state park trails of various lengths and difficulties.
All will take you through beautiful, forested settings, crossing streams and creeks and passing mountain flowers such as rhododendrons and mountain laurels.
Here are 3 Unicoi hiking trails we recommend:
The Lake Trail was what Craig and I walked when we first arrived. It’s an easy 2.5-mile loop that winds around the edge of the 53-acre Unicoi Lake.
You’ll have beautiful views of the lake and mountains and you even pass by a beached area if you’d like a swimming break.
Smith Creek Trail
The Smith Creek Trail is 4.8 miles one way and leads from the campground through the Chattahoochee National Forest to the head of the Smith Creek at Anna Ruby Falls.
Why not make a fun day of exploring Alpine Helen by walking there?
A 3-mile moderate to strenuous trail will take you to Helen’s Unicoi Hill City Park. It will pass the Mountain Biking Trail and Bottoms Loop Trail along the way – so technically you’ve checked off three Unicoi trails in one!
Archery & Air Gun Range
One family activity we loved experiencing on our Georgia state parks road trip was archery; so much that the girls have asked us to find an archery course in Raleigh for them.
Unfortunately, due to the thunderstorm we missed the 3-D Archery Range within Unicoi, but again – we’ll be back!
The Archery & Air Gun Range is a shooting facility that is set up for static archery target practice, 3-D archery target practice and air gun rifle target practice.
Stay in a Barrel Shaped Cabin
We’ve stayed in plenty of unique accommodation during our travels, but this was our first time sleeping in a barrel shaped cabin.
Immersed in the forest on the edge of the lake you’ll find a small village of these cabins built on stilts. The structural design of the Unicoi State Park cabins allows the flora and fauna of the forest to exist with minimal human obstruction.
Enjoy the rocking chair views of the forest and glimpses of the lake from your deck. The zipline was out the front of ours so we could watch the adrenaline junkies zipping past with wide smiles.
The cabins are spacious with two bedrooms upstairs, while downstairs you have a full kitchen, bathroom, living and dining rooms, and even a fireplace to enjoy.
And yes, the inside is also shaped like a barrel.
Aside from the Barrel Cabins, there are also rustic cabin options on the Smith Creek and larger lake view Deluxe Cabins.
Other Accommodations at Unicoi State Park & Lodge
No matter your style of getaway, the Unicoi State Park has your mountain retreat accommodation covered.
We highly recommend the barrel shaped cabins for families, but you also have the following options:
Staying at Unicoi Lodge places you in the hub of all things happening at the park. It’s where you’ll find the activity center, a small store with locally sourced goods, pool tables, restaurants, and communal fire pits in the grassed courtyard.
The lodge has 100 comfortable, modern guest rooms of various sizes and plenty of those have mountain views.
The Adventure Camp
Traveling as a group or with extended family?
The Adventure Camp at Unicoi offers a communal glamping experience, with five sleeping cabins, a communal kitchen, and separate men’s and women’s full bathrooms. You also have access to a picnic area, grills, and a campfire.
The Adventure Camp has an idyll secluded location on Smith Creek where you can fish for trout or cook s’mores over the fire by the creek.
The Unicoi State Park campground is in a beautiful, forested setting right near the Visitor Center and lake. There are 84 campsites including RV full hook ups and walk in primitive tent sites.
Dining at Unicoi Lodge
The Unicoi Lodge has a couple of dining options for you during your stay.
The Smith Creek Tavern is a casual restaurant and bar. Perfect to catch the game and sample local and regional craft beer, wine and signature cocktails.
My Unicoi burger here was outstanding as were the huge pizzas with creative toppings.
We loved playing shuffleboard and our girls became quite the pool sharks, running out to play games while we relaxed over drinks and adult conversation. We love vacations that cater to both adults and kids like this one did.
With a large stone fireplace, tall ceilings and mountain views, the Unicoi Restaurant is the perfect setting for breakfast setting, lunch or dinner, with classic Southern and American cuisine made from fresh, local ingredients.
Attractions Nearby Unicoi State Park
Unicoi State Park is near the alpine town of Helen and other popular mountain towns like Dahlonega, Hiawassee, and Sautee Nacoochee. Atlanta is only 1 hour and 40 minutes away.
The next stop on our Georgia road trip was just under an hour away at Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa.
Before this we visited the nearby Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge and Lake Blackshear Resort & Golf Club in South Georgia.