We have been camping just down the road at Raven Cliff Falls for over a decade and had never so much as pulled into the parking lot of Smithgall Woods despite it being right in front of our turn up the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway, hidden in plain sight.
Smithgall is the sort of place one goes to find some peace and quiet. We love Georgia State Parks as much as we love our own kids, which is to say a lot. But the reality is most state parks tend to be crawling with people, RVs, and selfie sticks. None of them bad in their own right but when we go into the woods, on most days, we want to get away from it all. This is why Smithgall Woods was such a startling place for us to visit the first time.
The first thing that jumps out to you about Smithgall is the lack of cars throughout the park. That is because cars are not allowed past the parking lot. Despite having over 18 miles of roads, 28 miles of trails and being over 5700 acres, the only way to explore beyond the parking lot is by foot.
We got the opportunity to meet up with Ranger Will Wagner who is in charge of the property. He was gracious enough to spend a couple hours with us as we explored the park with him. We started off in the truck and got to go where few cars are allowed – past the gate and nature center at the front of the park and into the woods. We rolled along at about 10 miles an hour for the first 10 minutes as Will gave us the history of how Smithgall came to be state owned.
Ranger Wagner quickly explained why Smithgall Woods is so protective of the park and it is tied directly to it’s history of abuse.
Duke’s Creek which runs the length of the property is reported to be the first place gold was found in Georgia in the early 1800s. The next 100 years pretty much brought the place to the ground as it was overrun with mining. The acreage that would come to be Smithgall was destroyed and pillaged in the search for more and more gold. In the 1940s, Charles Smithgall began buying the land in and around Smithgall, eventually buying over 5500 acres and using $20 million of his personal money to begin the long process of restoring the land. And in 1994, Charles Smith gift-sold 99% of the property to the state of Georgia and entrusted them to continue the preservation of it.
As we rolled along Will jumped out to show me one of the park’s many trails, the Martin Mine Trail. Before I knew it the car was parked and we were on a nice spring hike rambling through the woods with no goal other than to be outside walking in the woods.
Martin’s Mine is an old gold mine and as we made our way up the trail to it, Will calmly walked through the path rattling off all kinds of flora and fauna. Will is nothing if he’s not passionate. As we walked with no particular destination other than to ramble along some trails (the best kind of hiking), Will shared about how he came to work at the park, his family, and his hobbies. Within minutes I had been invited to his yearly hiking trip that he has been going on for years with friends. He shared how he used to guide rafting trips. The different parks he had worked at. His experience leading the North Georgia search and rescue team and what it’s like to go into the woods expecting to find someone gone missing. Will would stop to point out a plant here. A flower there. A fern at our feet. He shared their names, what they are used for, and everything he knew about them, mixing science and folklore seamlessly.
The hike was great but the conversation was better which is the way it should always be.
Smithgall Woods is known as a hot bed for fishing as it one of Georgia’s two state run trophy trout streams. Meaning it’s all catch and release, barbless hooks, and artificial bait. It also means there are massive fish in Duke’s Creek. The fishing is so well managed (and enforced) by the park that they only give out 15 permits in the morning and 15 permits in the afternoon 3 days a week so reservations are a must (call ahead to get on the list and learn the rules) as the dates book up 4-6 weeks in advance most of the year. The rest of the time the fish just mind their business and get fatter. To read more about fishing at Smithgall and the great lengths experienced fishermen go to catch a trout, check out these interesting articles by Georgia Outdoor News here and here.
Back at the parking lot there is a huge nature center that is one of the more well done ones that we have seen in state parks.
There is no camping at Smithgall but there are six big cottages across the road and a primitive camping spot used only for youth groups and scouts. The cottages are booked out almost 6 months in advance, and even further on some of the units, as almost all of them are creekside. An advantage of booking a cottage is you can fish the stream further up whereas the normal permitted fishing is only allowed further down the creek. Meaning you can have the whole upper section to yourself. On the cottage side there is also a huge clearing with an observation deck for viewing wildlife like small bear cubs and other mountain critters.
Smithgall Woods is definitely not your traditional state park but one that is teeming with wildlife, trails, and adventure nonetheless. If you’re looking to get out into the woods by yourself and want to avoid the crowds, this is without a doubt one of the better state parks in the state to do it.
Smithgall Woods is located 5 minutes outside of Helen and Cleveland.