It’s my most viewed Instagram post. We were staying at one of the Unicoi State Park cabins, part of Unicoi State Park & Lodge in Northeast Georgia and I posted a photo of our barrel cabin. 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 also 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.) With the exception of a shower that overflowed one time at Vogel State Park, we’ve had good experiences at state parks in North Georgia.[See related story: When the Mountains Call, Head to Brasstown Valley Resort]
Unicoi State Park Cabins
Unicoi State Park is near Helen, about a two-hour drive from where we live in Atlanta, making for an easy weekend getaway. One of our most relaxing trips ever was when we rented one of the cabins in Helen, GA, after Christmas, sat by a fire and watched episodes of “The Sopranos.” All week. There’s nothing cozier than a cabin in the woods when it’s cold outside.
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.
It was in 1969 that the town decided to turn this small town in the North Georgia mountains into alpine Helen, an inspired marketing move that has visitors flocking here year round for vacation, leading to a large supply of vacation rentals.
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 and all the dishes and silverware we needed. The cabin also has 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. Linens are provided, although it you are going swimming bring along your own beach towels.
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. Every now and then I’ll see a sad look on his face as he stares at our gas fireplace – I know he’s thinking about all that perfectly seasoned wood he had to leave behind.
Unicoi State Park & Lodge does not supply the wood but you can buy some at the front desk or visitor’s center for a small fee. While you may have cords of firewood at your house, unless it’s been kiln treated, they ask you don’t bring it if you live more than 50 miles away. That’s to prevent the spread of parasites that may be on wood that travels a distance.
The sofa is a sleeper sofa, so it’s a good option if you have children or a guest staying with you. 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 where many guests choose to dine, 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. We found an excellent Thai restaurant in Helen for dinner one night. We decided to make it a polka-free weekend.
There was no wifi in our cabin, but it is available for free in the lodge a short walk away. In the mornings I’d walk across the street and up the hill towards the lodge until the wifi kicked in and I could download the newspaper. The lodge also has a fire pit where you can relax and make s’mores.
Bring can bring along every member of the family. The accommodations at Unicoi are pet-friendly, and dogs are welcome at any of the designated cabins and at any campsite, although they do need to be on leashes and there are some restrictions. Here you can see Unicoi State Park map.
What to Do at Unicoi State Park
We eased into our weekend by starting with a walk. There is a path around the 53-acre Unicoi Lake that 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. We saw a few children playing in the lake where there is a small beach area. After that it was time to relax on the porch and watch the sun set.
Our pace quickened on Saturday as we’d signed up for one of the many available activities. Unicoi is designated one of the Adventure Lodges of Georgia with plenty of choices to suit your desire.
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 & Air Gun Range on Saturday. The range has three areas: one for static archery target practice, one for 3-D archery target practice and one for air gun rifle target practice.
We started with the air gun area. 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 didn’t realize how much muscle was required to continually pump that gun.
Next we headed to the static archery practice area where several stands were set at varying distances away. After a quick remedial lesson in how to shoot an arrow, we took aim. As usual, Chris had better aim than I did, and I despaired when my arrows fell far short, landing pathetically in the grass. But I took heart when I heard to satisfying thump of a few of them piercing the target.
Next we were ready to take aim at the 3-D archery, which meant we were aiming for life-size animals. 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.
Here are a few other Adventure Activities you can sign up for. Fees for activities vary.
GPS Scavenger Hunt. It’s all about coordinates and clues as you use GPS devices to go on a 3-mile scavenger hunt.
Paddleboarding Class. Work that core and enjoy Unicoi Lake as you learn how to paddle. If you’ve never done it, it’s easier than you think. And the next day you’ll feel some abdomen muscles you didn’t even know you had!
Guided Kayaking Class. Which way does the paddle go? How do I turn around? Learn kayak techniques and safety while also learning a bit about the history of Unicoi.
Fly Fishing. If you’ve ever wondered why fly fishing has gotten so popular, here’s your chance to find out what’s so captivating about it. You’ll learn about rod and reel construction and casting techniques, with a chance to practice in Unicoi Lake. You will need to get a Georgia fishing license if you are over 16. The class lasts around 1.5 hours.
Check the website for Fly Fishing packages, which include guided tours with an Orvis-endorsed outfitter.
Unicoi Zipline & Aerial Adventure Tour. You’ll fly through the trees with canopy rangers on 19 ziplines with seven suspension bridges, some as long as 2,000 feet and up to 100 feet off the ground. No worries – you’ll be safe. You are always clipped in and the guides have your safety as their #1 concern.
Mountain Biking. Unicoi has eight miles of bike-only mountain biking trails, rated moderate to strenuous, that have been used for regional and national racing events. These are for experienced riders only and the loop takes about 2.5 hours to complete.
To capture your adventure on film you can rent a GoPro Hero 4. Those are especially fun to capture your family’s faces on ziplines.
You do need to make reservations for Adventure Activities in advance. To book activities and for more information, contact Unicoi Adventures at 706-878-2201 ext 549. To view upcoming Unicoi State Park events, visit the events page.
Hikes Near Unicoi State Park
Next we were off to hike, where we posed no threat to any animals, real or fake. Our cabin had easy access to several hiking trails. Our first stop was Anna Ruby Falls in the Chattahoochee National Forest, just a short drive away.
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. But not so happy to leave Unicoi state park cabins.
Unicoi State Park Camping
One time shortly after we started dating my husband asked me, “How many times have you camped in a tent?” I thought about it for a minute and said, “That would be zero. Zero times.” Well, there may have actually been one time when I was in Girl Scouts, but we did have a wooden platform inside of the tent. Does that count?
If you are more into camping than I am, there are several options for Unicoi State Park camping. We toured the campgrounds and thought they were lovely, nestled deep in the woods.
In addition to a walk-in tent camping site, there are 51 RV sites and 82 tent campsites you can reserve online at the accommodations link below.
Several of them have power and water. You’ll also find sites that have full hook-up and are ADA compliant, in addition to other full hook-up sites large enough for six people. There are also six “Double Buddy” sites that are large enough for 12 people. The RV full hook-up sites include water, power and sewer, a fire ring, grill and picnic table.
If you want to sleep under the stars, bring your sleeping bag and bed down in the Squirrel’s Nest. It has 16 platforms built up off the ground, each with a roof and a back wall so it’s open on three sides. Four adults in sleeping bags can fit on each platform and no tents are allowed. If you’d like a more comfortable night’s sleep, you may want to bring along an air mattress.
The “hollow” has grills, group fire ring, picnic tables and a small amphitheatre, perfect for performing skits, right?
Comfort stations, parking and a playground are all close to the camping area. And yes, it is pet-friendly.
Making a Reservation and Checking Into Unicoi State Park Cabins
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. You can check availability and make a reservation on the Accommodations page.
Check the website for specials and packages, like the Bed and Breakfast, the Take Aim, Adventure Like a Boss and All You Can Slam Adventures.
They do require a credit card number or payment for the first night stay to guarantee your room. You will be charged a $12 lodging fee per cabin per night, which includes amenities and the Georgia State Park Pass. If you need to cancel or change your reservation, do it more than 72 hours prior to your arrival and you won’t be charged. Check-in time is 4 p.m. and checkout time is 11 a.m.
Unicoi is one of 11 state parks in North Georgia. Why not explore a different one each weekend?
To learn more about Unicoi Park cabin rentals, visit Unicoi Lodge.
1788 GA-356, Helen, GA 30545; 706-878-2201, 800-873-9659
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