Hike 5.9 miles on the easy-to-moderate Panther Creek Trail in Habersham County, Georgia, to see cascades, waterfall, and Panther Creek Botanical Area.
By Tim Homan
The trail, which follows Panther Creek downstream toward its confluence with the Tugaloo River, begins across the highway from the Panther Creek Recreation Area on Historic 441. A sign marks the trailhead. After slightly less than 0.1 mile, the treadway passes beneath the two bridges of US 441. Until it crosses the wooden bridge at mile 1.4, the path usually remains on the steep slopes above the stream, within earshot of the fast-flowing shoals and low cascades. At 0.9 mile a side trail drops down to a noisy cascade that finishes its run with a long, sliding chute.
You will reach the third set of trail-crowding outcrops slightly less than 0.1 mile beyond the cascade. This time, instead of continuing straight ahead beneath the rock that juts overhead, the trail curls up and to the left, between the narrow gap in the outcrop. At mile 1.4 the path crosses a bridge over the creek at the first of the small signs that guide hikers to the falls. Beyond the bridge, the stream becomes calm and the trail becomes sidewalk flat, at least for a while. Do not mistake the high shoals at mile 2.3 for the waterfall. Panther Creek Falls, still slightly more than a mile away, past a path-narrowing bluff, is much more impressive.
Not knowing what to expect, most people are surprised by the beauty, size and power of the waterfall – really a series of falls, with a splashing slide in the middle. The trail skirts along the upper falls on the outer edge of a bluff, then descends to the small, swirling pool that catches the waterfall’s first drop. From here the path becomes somewhat steep, sloping down to the bottom of the falls and the unusually large, enticing pool at its base.
The trail continues for 2.4 more miles. Below the falls, Panther Creek becomes even more scenic: the forest becomes taller and more diverse; shoals are more frequent; boulders, occasionally table-top flat, are larger and more numerous; pools are longer, deeper, and greener. Unfortunately, as it is now designed, the trail takes hikers away from the creek for almost half of the remaining distance.
After remaining alongside the creek for 0.6 mile, the trail comes to a low waterfall and its miniature gorge. Forty-five yards beyond this falls, the path turns to the right and climbs away from the creek beside a tributary rivulet. The path crosses the rivulet at mile 4.3, then sharply ascends a hillside for slightly more than 0.1 mile before it reaches the level top of a dry, piney ridge. (Watch for the double blue blazes which signify sudden changes in trail directions.) Descending from the ridge through a forest dominated by mature oak, tuliptree, basswood, and American beech, the trail returns to Panther Creek with a 0.7-mile walk to the bridge, which marks its end.
The US Forest Service has designated two parcels of land along the Panther Creek corridor as the Panther Creek Botanical Area. These tracts, which total 598 acres, preserve and protect unique vegetative communities. The first area, which is the larger of the two, begins below Panther Creek Falls and continues downstream to near where the trail ends. The second area is further downstream, across the section of privately owned land that separates the two tracts.
Spring wildflowers, including three species of trillium, are abundant on the moist, open slopes downstream from the falls. One of North Georgia’s rarest wildflowers– gaywings, sometimes called fringed polygala or bird-on-the-wing – blooms by the thousands along the first few miles of the trail. This perennial herb often grows with partridgeberry, forming dense mats of dark green and orchid pink. Gaywings usually bloom in mid-April.
Throughout: Spring wildflower display.
Mile 2.3: Impressive high shoals.
Mile 3.5: Panther Creek Falls– scenic, large, and memorable.
To the Panther Creek Recreation Area trailhead: From Cornelia travel US 441 North for less than 18.0 miles to the sign for Panther Creek Picnic Area and Trail Parking. Turn left off US 441, then quickly turn right onto Historic 441. Continue a short distance on Historic 441 to the recreation area parking lot on the left.
The trail, which follows Panther Creek downstream, begins on the right side of Historic 441 (facing north), beyond the recreation area entrance and across Panther Creek. The trail’s entrance is behind its sign, to the right of the dirt road.
To the Yonah Dam trailhead: Travel GA 106 North into the city of Toccoa. Where GA 106 ends, just before a bridge inscribed “Southern,” turn right onto GA 17 toward Westminster. Drive 1.0 mile to the third traffic light on Highway 17, then turn left onto GA 17 Conn. After traveling 0.5 mile, turn left at the stop sign, then turn onto the first road to the right, Prather Bridge Road.
Continue straight on Prather Bridge Road for 9.7 miles before you bear left immediately after the bridge near Yonah Park and Dam. After traveling 0.7 mile beyond the bridge, turn left onto a dirt road. Continue straight on this rutted road for 1.5 miles to near where it fords Panther Creek. Park at the pull-off area to the right of the road. If the road is muddy, it is better to park near the power cut on the hill above the ford.
This hiking guide to the Panther Creek 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.