If you’ve looked outside this week, you’ve noticed that the leaves are beginning to turn. Fall is here! It’s a great time to get outdoors and see what promises to be some exceptional fall color.
And that brings up the big question: Where should you go to see it?
In North Georgia, that’s an easy question to answer. It may even be as simple as picking a mountain road at random and then setting out to explore. During leaf season that’s often all it takes.
Still, everybody has a preferred place to go to see fall leaves, and one of my personal favorites is to see them while hiking the trail around the lake at Unicoi State Park.
Located near Helen, Unicoi State Park is a great place for fall hiking. Trails in the park range from easy to strenuous, and you’re sure to find something there to scratch your hiking itch. But during leaf season it’s hard to beat the Lake Loop Trail, a 2.5-mile, family-friendly loop hike that will present you with some beautiful vistas – often with the image reflected in the surface of Unicoi Lake. You can hike the whole thing as a loop (starting at any of several trail access points) or you can hike shorter segments as in-and-out hikes if time is limited (or if you have very young hikers with you).
A great place to begin this hike is at one of the parking areas near either end of the dam which forms Unicoi Lake. You’ll cross the dam as you drive toward the park’s lodge on Ga. 356. It’s hard to say which is the best starting point (or, for that matter, whether it’s better to hike the loop clockwise or counterclockwise). But no matter where you start or which way you go, you’ll find that the trail is relatively level.
Another good starting point is at the park’s visitor center, which is located off Campground Road. The trail passes behind the visitor center on its way around the lake.
Again, you can leave your car there and then hike some or all of the loop. Those with small children may prefer this particular starting point since the visitor center has restrooms and refreshments.
A third popular starting point is at the swimming beach and beach house complex near the upper end of the lake. You’ll want to go down toward the beach to find the trail, which skirts the edge of the beach in this area.
No matter where you start your Lake Loop hike, be sure to check out the floating bridge over the upper end of the lake. There’s just something about a floating bridge that can’t be ignored, and the inner child in you will surely want to cross it. This bridge carries the trail over the lake near where Smith Creek enters, and (as you’ll see from the number of lures caught in the nearby trees) it’s a popular fishing spot too. A spur trail leads up the creek and eventually connects with a playground and picnic area near the intersection of Campground Road and the road to Anna Ruby Falls. If you have time, the hike along that spur is a pleasant one.
As you hike the Lake Loop trail in the fall, you’ll appreciate the fishing platforms that are located at several points on your hike. These platforms, designed to provide fishing access, also make great vantage points from which to shoot photos of fall color reflected on the surface of the lake. I especially like the views from the platforms near the dam.
When hiking at Unicoi State Park, don’t forget the day-use parking fee. Be sure to hang the daily pass so it’s visible in your car.
The Lake Loop is just one of many great fall trails at Unicoi State Park, and I think it’s one you’ll enjoy. It’s scenic – and mostly level!