Hike 1.5 miles on the easy-to-moderate Laurel Ridge Interpretive Trail Loop in White County, Georgia, to see interpretive signs, small streams, and good winter views.
By Tim Homan
This aptly named, short loop often winds through dark, evergreen mountain laurel and rosebay rhododendron thickets, especially at either end of the trail. Because it passes through a variety of habitats – streamside, moist hollow, and low, dry ridge – and because it is a loop offering maximum change of exposure, this trail features a surprisingly diverse flora for its short length and relatively slight elevation change.
This trail was not yet officially open when hiked for this guide. Interpretive signs were on the way.
This loop is easier to walk to the left, in a clockwise direction. The ends of the loop come together at different locations in the trailhead field, To walk the loop in a clockwise direction, the way it is described, cross the bridge (look for New York ferns below) over the small branch at the near end of the field.
After only 50 yards there is a junction in a field of New York ferns. The loop continues to the left; the walkway to the right heads back to the field, The wide treadway quickly rises up to and over a low oak-pine ridge before dropping to the head of a hollow. For the next few tenths of a mile, the route gently undulates through several hollows, frequently dipping to bridges. The final segment between bridges parallels a rivulet beneath a hardwood forest dominated by tall tuliptrees. Here a long swath of light green New York fern flanks the stream.
This fern is one of the easiest to identify. Its pinnae (leafy foliage) taper sharply to nearly nothing at either end. New York ferns are common throughout the mountains of North Georgia. They frequently occur in dense monocultural beds that resemble well tended gardens growing beneath widely spaced trees. The reason for this “cultivated” appearance is simple: the ferns use their own herbicide to poison and eliminate other plants.
At 0,5 mile the path crosses a rivulet, then ascends to and follows the crest of a low ridge. The oak-pine forest is typical of many second-and third-growth, low-elevation, ridge-top woods, Virginia (short needles) and eastern white pine are common. Red maple, sourwood, blackgum, and the oaks – chestnut, white, black, northern red, post, and blackjack – numerically dominate the hardwood component of the woods,
The trail rises steadily with the ridge to mile 1.0, where it begins to descend. The remainder of the loop curls off the ridge and continues to descend, sometimes moderately, back to the field.
Miles 0.9-1,1: Good winter views and partial summer views to the left (southeast) from the ridge top. Yonah Mountain’s distinctive profile and cliff face are clearly visible.
Smithgall Woods, Dukes Creek Conservation Area is located along GA Alt. 75, which leads from GA 75 at Robertstown to US 129 a few miles north of Cleveland.
From Helen travel GA 75 North. Approximately 1.4 miles beyond the Chattahoochee River Bridge in Helen, turn left onto GA All. 75, crossing the bridge over the Chattahoochee River in Robertstown. Proceed approximately 2,5 miles on GA Alt. 75, then turn left at the prominent Smithgall entryway. This left turn is just beyond the GA 348 junction.
From the square in Cleveland travel US 129 North for 3.3 miles before turning right onto GA Alt. 75, Proceed 5.6 miles on GA All. 75, then turn right into the Conservation Area.
Inside the Conservation Area, the road quickly comes to a junction. Continue straight at this junction, then immediately turn left into a field, This large, railed field is the parking area for both the trail and nearby visitor center.
Park officials ask that all hikers check in at the visitor center before walking the traiL
This hiking guide to the Laurel Ridge Interpretive Trail is adapted from The Hiking Trails of North Georgia by Tim Homan and is published in cooperation with the publisher, Peachtree Publishers. With his meticulous attention to detail and accuracy, Homan has long been recognized as the authority on North Georgia hiking trail by serious hikers. His other books include Hiking Trails of Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wilderness, Hiking the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness and others. For a complete inventory of his books see his Amazon Author Page. For an inventory of Peachtree Publishers books including its Nature books for children, go to the Peachtree Publishers website.