Smithgall Woods is a hidden gem of Northeast Georgia. A small state park located on alt-75 between Cleveland and Helen, this area is absolutely gorgeous. There are several trails that traverse the park. Don’t let the brochures fool you. Though the trails are listed as only being .5 to 2 miles long, you cannot park at the trail heads. Unless you are handicapped, you must walk to bike to the trails from the parking lot at the visitor’s center. So though the Cathy Ellis Trail is only .5 miles long itself, it takes an additional 2.7 miles to get there. With the peaceful walk to the trail heads and the two trails themselves, we clocked in at 7.38 miles, and it took us 3hrs 50mins.
Getting to the Trail Heads
As mentioned earlier, vehicles are not allowed beyond the parking lot at Smithgall Woods. To get to many of the trail heads, you must walked down the road to reach them. This trek in-itself is quite nice. The first section of road is paved, and then turns into a gravel road just beyond the covered bridge. The road travels through the woods and follows Duke’s Creek for the most part.
Along the road, about half a mile in, you pass by an apiary. These beehives won’t sneak up on you though. There are signs marked “Caution: Bees” along the road. They are a safe distance away from the road. I didn’t see a single bee up close, but you can most definitely hear them buzzing about, and if you look carefully, you can see the little buggers swarming about their hives.
About halfway to the Cathy Ellis Trail, you come across a covered bridge, “Bay’s Bridge,” dedicated to Elizabeth “Bay” Smithgall Watts, a late professor of anthropology at Tulane University, who passed away from a brain tumor in 1994. Bay was the daughter of Lessie and Charles A Smithgall Jr., whom the park is named for. If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest googling her name. I found her research and history to be quite interesting (Her PhD dissertation is “A Comparative Study of Skeletal Maturation in the Chimpanzee and Rhesus Monkey and its Relationship to Growth and Sexual Maturity”).
About 2.1 miles away from the visitor’s center, you’ll come across Martin’s Mine Trail. The trail head is located on the left side of the road.
Martin’s Mine is listed as a .9 mile trail. However, there is an extension to it that makes it a bit long, nearing 2 miles in total. It is a loop trail, so you will wind up back on the road where you started.
If you’re into learning more about local history or gold mining, I strongly suggest grabbing the interpretive brochure from the visitor’s center. This trail winds along the woods on top of an old gold mine. Several of the mine shafts are still visible, and the toll the operation took on the landscape is evident and fascinating. The waterfall is accessed via the extension trail and is a site to behold. While not overwhelming in its size or flow, it is still beautiful and serene.
Once you’re back on the road, continue southeast for an additional .6(ish) miles to the Cathy Ellis Trail.
Cathy Ellis Trail
The biggest hills on the trail are found at the beginning and end of the road. Luckily, they’re not too steep. If you power through them (or, well, up and over them), you’ll make your way to the Cathy Ellis Trail (also known as the Chunannee Falls Trail). From the trail head, it is a short trek through the woods to reach a pleasant waterfall.
While not heavy with water (at least not when we were there), is it a tall one and still gorgeous. The picture does not do it justice. Greg and I just sat there for several minutes, taking in all the happy ions the falls were producing.
The trail can feel be a bit claustrophobic, with walls of rhododendron, doghobble, and all sorts of other vegetation lining the way.
The Cathy Ellis trail is named after a young woman who was swept over a waterfall in the Chattahoochee National Forest in 1972.
From the falls, it is a 3.2 mile hike back to the visitor’s center. If you’re up for more, there are several other trails along the way that you can enjoy.
Trail Length: 7.38 miles
Trail Rating: easy to moderate
Parking: $5.00 fee, paid to cashier in visitor’s center
Facilities: nice, clean bathrooms located at the visitor’s center
Hiked on June 28, 2015