Hike 4.5 miles on the easy-to-moderate Smith Creek Trail in White County, Georgia, to see forest and streams.
By Tim Homan
For an obvious reason, you might expect this trail to follow Smith Creek downstream to the lake in Unicoi State Park. Beyond the first 0.1 mile, however, you can no longer see the creek; beyond the first 0.5 mile, you can no longer hear it. And that’s it. The trail does not come close to Smith Creek again. Hickorynut Ridge would be a more descriptive name for this trail.
Smith Creek can be walked from either end. This description starts at Anna Ruby Falls at approximately 2,180 feet and ends at Unicoi State Park at approximately 1,760 feet.
From the falls, the trail gently ascends the lower slopes of Smith Mountain through a diverse deciduous forest with many large, maturing oaks and hickories. Approximately 1.8 miles of Smith Creek Trail are within the boundaries of the Anna Ruby Falls Scenic Area. Most of what is now the scenic area was logged early in the century, from 1900 to 1915, and has not been logged since. Thus it is likely that most of the larger trees beside the beginning half mile of the trail were either too small to bother with when the tract was logged or have grown from seed since that time.
The trail soon swings eastward along the lower flank of Smith Mountain, continuing above an unnamed branch until it reaches an easy place to cross the branch at the head of its ravine. After crossing this small stream at 0.7 mile, the trail gradually climbs to Hickorynut Ridge at mile 1.3. Much of the mountainside from the stream to the ridge top is a wildflower garden during late May and early June. Here the trail tunnels through dense thickets of Catawba rhododendron, also known as mountain rosebay – a heath shrub that has many large deep pink or pink-purple blossoms.
Both trail and ridge run more or less north and south. For most of the next 0.8 mile the trail heads southward either on top of Hickorynut Ridge or along its western slopes slightly below the ridge line. At mile 2.1, after half-circling a rocky knob, the trail crosses a gap in the ridge, then angles down its eastern side. The path approaches and then turns to the right away from a dirt road at mile 2.5 before it loops down to a seepage area where a rivulet begins. For the next 1.4 miles the trail, descending moderately at first, follows and then closely parallels this rapidly growing stream.
Between mile 3.2 and 3.9 several small stream crossings take place. Three wooden bridges have been erected to aid crossing.
Two easily identified ferns-the beech and the New York-are common beside the stream. The lower frond segments are diagnostic for both: the beech fern’s bottommost frond segments are much wider than those at the top and they fold sharply forward; the New York fern’s lower segments become progressively smaller.
The trail crosses the stream and Hickorynut Ridge Road, a four-wheel drive dirt road, at mile 3.9, then remains nearly level to its southern end within Unicoi State Park. The trail emerges on the Unicoi Park Road, 0.5 mile from the dam.
Mile 1.0: Tunnels through thickets of Catawba rhododendron and mountain laurel.
Mile 2.1: Large granite outcrop atop Hickorynut Ridge.
To the northern trailhead: Smith Creek Trail is reached from the Anna Ruby Falls Trail. From Helen take GA 75 North. At Robertstown, turn right onto GA 356 toward Unicoi State Park. After traveling 1.3 miles on GA 356, turn left onto Smith Creek Road (FS 242) at the sign for Anna Ruby Falls. Follow the signs to the parking lot. Walk the Anna Ruby Falls Trail 0.4 mile to its end at the falls. Smith Creek Trail starts behind its sign along the path to the upper observation deck.
To the southern, Unicoi State Park trailhead: Travel GA 75 North through Helen to Robertstown, then turn right onto GA 356 toward Unicoi State Park. Note the turnoff to Anna Ruby Falls after 1.3 miles, but stay on GA 356 across the Unicoi Lake Dam. Just past the dam, take a left. Smith Creek Trail is clearly marked 0.5 mile up on the right, directly opposite the Little Brook Camping Area.
Note: The Forest Service charges a small fee to enter the scenic area. The road leading to the parking area and trailhead is gated at the scenic area boundary. The gate opens at 9:00 A.M. and closes at or near dusk year round. Visitors have permission to walk the 1.6 mile segment of road before the gate opens in the morning, but entry after the gate closes at night is forbidden.
This hiking guide to the Smith 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.