It’s my most viewed Instagram post.
We were staying at Unicoi State Park & Lodge and I posted a photo of our barrel cabin, one of Unicoi’s state park cabins in Northeast Georgia. I instantly got lots of likes and received questions about whether it had a bathroom, or a kitchen and what the interior was like.
There’s something about these large round metal structures that intrigues us. We were equally delighted when we first saw the barrel cabin, and loved staying there, a perfect accommodation to explore all that Unicoi State Park has to offer. We hiked amazing trails to nearby waterfalls, some of the best in the Southeast, and around Unicoi Lake, which was just outside our cabin. We alos tried our hand at archery and air guns, and watched the sun set from the back deck of our cabin.
I love state and national parks, and have vowed to explore them more whenever I take a road trip. (See below for more of our favorite state parks.)
Unicoi State Park Cabins
Unicoi State Park is near Helen, Georgia, about a two-hour drive from where we live in Atlanta, making for an easy weekend getaway. A way, way long time ago, BC (before children) I was on the board of an arts organization in Atlanta and we held a retreat at Unicoi State Park & Lodge. My main memory of that retreat is that a group of us skipped out of one session early and drove to downtown Helen, a faux alpine village, where we went to Old Heidelberg, drank beer served by traditional German-clad servers and danced the polka to the sounds of an overly enthusiastic accordion player. (Is there any other kind?) We made it back for the beginning of the next session and sat in the back of the room to stifle our beer-induced giggles.
Rather than a lodge room, the barrel cabins we stayed in for this visit are circular metal structures perched on stilts. Built in the 1970s, our one-bedroom cabin included a kitchen with a table that seated four, a full bathroom, living room with fireplace and TV and a small deck with Adirondack chairs overlooking the woods and Lake Unicoi. Upstairs is a loft bedroom with a king-sized bed.
While it was fairly warm during our visit, the wood-burning fireplace really sold my husband on staying here. He loves his wood fires, and is still a bit in mourning that after a recent move, our only fireplace is a gas one.
The sofa is a sleeper sofa, so a good option if you have children or a guest. In addition to the one-bedroom barrel cabins, there are also two-bedroom, one-bath cabins with a queen- or king-size bed
In addition to the barrel cabins, Unicoi State Park has the two-bedroom, two-bath Smith Creek Cabins, each with a full kitchen and wood-burning fireplace.
While there is a restaurant at the lodge, we opted to eat most of our meals in our cabin. We did enjoy a beverage at the Smith Creek Tavern where my husband found a local brew he enjoyed and found an excellent Thai restaurant in Helen for dinner one night. We decided to make it a polka-free weekend. But there was beer.
There was no wifi in our cabin, but it is available for free in the lodge a short walk away. The lodge also has a fire pit where you can relax and make s’mores.
Unicoi has 19 barrel cabins and 10 Smith Creek cabins. They do book up quickly so reserve them as far in advance as you can.
What to Do at Unicoi State Park
Unicoi is designated one of the Adventure Lodges of Georgia, with opportunities for zip lining, kayaking, mountain biking, paddle boarding, swimming and fly fishing.
A path around the lake started just outside our barrel cabin, so we spent the first afternoon circling the path around it, where kayaks, paddle boats and paddle boards are available to rent.
While previous outings have confirmed I’m not such a great shot, we still opted to try our hands at the Unicoi State Park Archery & Gun Range on Saturday.
After our patient instructor, Libby, showed us how to use the two different kind of air guns, we hung up our small paper targets and took fire. A sign with a few rules informed us we could have brought our own target to shoot at. I had to pause and consider whose face I would have used as a target had I known. Is there anyone I really want to try to shoot in the face?
I opted to use the lighter gun and loaded the pellets one at a time before pumping the gun six times. After coming close to a few bullseyes, we called it quits and headed to the archery course.
I’ve never been a hunter, which was evidenced by the fact I found it hard to take aim at the animals who were scattered about a large field. Even though they were fake. But I drew back my bow and aimed my arrows in the direction of the bear, deer and other mammals, hitting a few in my several attempts. They remain unfazed by my attacks.
Next we were off to hike, where we posed no threat to any animals, real or fake. Our first stop was Anna Ruby Falls in the Chattahoochee National Forest, just a short drive away.
Chris Schroder pauses during one of many hikes in North Georgia.A fairly easy half-mile walk on a paved path takes you to views of the two waterfalls that cascade down more than 150 feet to Smith Creek. We saw kids, dogs and strollers making their way up with stops for photos on the platforms built for viewing. There’s a visitors center with concessions, gifts and restrooms. The waterfalls are gorgeous, making this a must-visit spot when you are in the area.
On the tip of our archery instructor, Libby, we also went to Dukes Creek Falls, a short drive away. This hike is longer and a bit more strenuous – a one-mile hike down – but it has a long stretch of flat terrain that runs along the creek.
Travel tip: When visiting waterfalls in North Georgia, take plenty of one-dollar bills to pay parking and entry fees. You pay at a gate at Anna Ruby Falls, and put money in an envelope that you slide into a slot at Dukes Creek Falls.
The next day we enjoyed a leisurely Sunday morning before heading back home, happy to have just a short drive in front of us.
Best State Parks We’ve Visited
Here are a few of the state parks we’ve visited in recent years along with the highlights of our day.
Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina
We spent last Labor Day weekend near this beautiful mountain town in Western North Carolina, and the family spent a morning hiking up “The Rock,” a 325-foot-high outcropping that includes spectacular views of the valley below.
Hammocks Beach State Park, North Carolina
Although this treasure suffered damage from Hurricane Florence in September 2018 and some facilities are closed, it’s recovering and worth a visit to see the interpretive center. Take a paddle around the marshland in your own canoe or kayak or rent one.
Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
South Carolina’s most popular park, Hunting Island State Park is located about 15 miles from Beaufort and includes marsh, a forest, lagoon and five miles of beach. It also has the state’s only lighthouse that’s open to the public. It’s worth the climb up for the panoramic view of the Atlantic Coast.
Tallulah Gorge State Park, Georgia
A hike through the two-mile-long, 1000-foot-deep canyon at Tallulah Gorge in North Georgia is not for the physically challenged or those scared of heights. But if you can handle the thousands of stairs you will be rewarded with fantastic views and a challenging walk across a suspension bridge spanning the Tallulah River.
Ecola State Park, Oregon
It was my first visit to the coast of Oregon and I was blown away by the amazing views in this park, which stretches around nine miles of the coast. We hiked through a lush mountain trail until we came to an opening and a view of the rugged coastline. If you go in December or March, hike the Cape Trail for viewpoints for whale watching.
Oscar Scherer State Park, Florida
Like Sweetwater Creek, this 1400-acre state park is located just a few miles from a city – in this case Sarasota. Walk along some of the 15 miles of trails and you may spot some of the bald eagles that nest here. The tidal estuary is perfect for a peaceful canoe or kayak trip.
– Jan Schroder, Editor in chief