North Georgia Mountains: Gorgeous Hiking Trails with Waterfalls

As the mercury soars into the 90s, our little family is trading the sweaty streets of Atlanta for the Appalachian Mountains as many summer weekends as we can manage.

Here’s a collection of our favorite North Georgia hikes, scattered throughout the Chattahoochee National Forest and brimming with beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes.

Not Pheidippides.

Preface | Lessons from Pheidippides

Growing up in Northeast Georgia I spent the better part of two decades wandering the Appalachian Mountains and Chattahoochee National Forest, and exactly one season running them.

There were three requirements for joining cross country in my hometown: A Timex training watch, a solid pair of running shoes, and one documented race to an undocumented waterfall, Pheidippides.

A friend agreed to take me there one sweltering afternoon. Humidity swallowing us whole, we started unceremoniously from the entrance of our high school. “What’s the deal with this run?” I asked. “Fi-dip-i-dees?,” he lilted. “It’s an easy two, maybe three miles. Really, there’s just this one thing: You have to sprint a little.” “No problem,” I said. “Sprinting’s my favorite.”

At the mouth of a rutted dirt road we veered off the highway and into a trailer park. Picking up speed I noticed nothing out of the ordinary — lawn chairs strewn about, some rusted cars, one faded Little Tykes Cozy Coupe worn out from too many summers under the Georgia sun.

As I wondered what all of this had to do with Pheidippides — the Greek legend who ran 25 miles from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to cry out, “Hail, we are the winners!” as he collapsed and died — something, somewhere, let out a low howl.

A chain snapped taut and a chorus of canines began to wail. “This is where you sprint!” Dodging ruts and wayward briars, anxiety powered through my legs as we pushed deeper into the woods. An old engine rattled awake and ground into gear. Tires chewed behind us, spitting a wake of loose gravel and closing the gap between us and an ancient Ford F-150.

A thunderous pop scattered and I realized someone in possession of a 20-gauge shotgun — with a deep disdain for recreational sports on private land — was chasing us to Pheidippides.

An eternity (7 seconds) later we careened off the gravel path and straight into the forest, sprinting through a brief clearing and diving into an old hunting shed hidden beneath a bit of foliage. Struggling to catch my breath, I heard the old truck crunch into reverse with a dejected sigh, losing us to the thick of the woods. The dogs hushed. Pheidippides was a quiet hike ahead.

The waterfall was small and beautiful and cold. I’ll never forget how good it felt to dip bare feet in what must have been Cathey Creek, resting in the water and seeing a pair of fluorescent socks — abandoned from a prior initiation — peeking out from a patch of ferns.

A decade later I can’t tell you who owns the land (and dogs and shotguns) around Pheidippides, and I still have no idea whether the journey there is an elaborate practical joke or a bonafide rite of passage.

That day I didn’t have to check the Timex to know I’d set a one-mile personal record. I walked away with five life lessons, not least of which being an understanding that urgency + repercussions + end reward = excellent short-term productivity.

The other four lessons gleaned from my first and last visit to Pheidippides?

  • Before hitting an unfamiliar hike, thoroughly research your route.
  • Always go with a good friend and reliable gear.
  • Practical advice may be found in a curious trail name.
  • It’s well-worth the effort to reach outside your comfort zone with intention — the hardest hikes lead to the best views.

Also: Probably avoid hiking private property without proper permission.

On to the trails: Favorite North Georgia hikes with waterfalls and swimming holes

While it’s tough to find a bad hike anywhere in North Georgia, there are a handful of winding trails that track beautiful rivers and streams, offering quieter hikes with far fewer fellow travelers — and zero shotguns.

A handy map of trails and waterfalls

Jack’s River Falls

Jack’s River Falls in the Cohutta Wilderness is well-worth the 9 mile round-trip hike that sends you across downed trees, over creeks and rivers, and plunging down washed out trails to its deafening base — all before leading back to the Beech Bottom trailhead. Earlier this month, Kip and Pimms hiked the whole way with us.

Good to know: Pack plenty of snacks, lots of water, and a solid map for this trek. The trailhead is situated right on the Georgia-Tennessee line and you’ll probably lose cell service by the time you get to Cisco, Georgia. Be aware that a few parts of the trail have recently been re-routed due to rainfall. We barely recognized the falls on our latest visit — Jack’s River was far gentler during our last trip there six years ago. This year we stuck to the calmer lower falls. Also: There’s no bathroom.

The 18-mile version: Wake up extra early and take the ambitious 18-mile round-trip trek from Dally Gap to Jack’s River and back. Note: You’ll drive past Dally trailhead to reach the shorter Beech Bottom trailhead — something my husband will never forget after unexpectedly taking that longer hike one summer in college.

The folklore: Legend has it Jack’s River is named for a Cherokee man, who, for a small fee, would ferry travelers across the river on his back.

Nearby: Conasauga River Snorkeling

A short drive from Jack’s River you’ll find Conasauga River Swimming Hole (directions). Here you can snorkel with 70 species of fish and sunbathe on ancient boulders with baby frogs. The Consauga is among the most bio-diverse watersheds in the United States and and there all sorts of little creatures to be seen just below the water’s surface. We brought these ridiculous full-face snorkels when we visited last summer and it was the best idea — you can breathe through your nose and talk through the mouthpiece underwater.

The folklore: The Cherokee people described the banks of this river as “overflowing like a strong horse,” or “Conasauga” — their word for powerful equine, sparkling water, and verdant grass, alike.

Lula Lake Land Trust

60 miles due west of Jack’s River and the Conasauga lies serene Lula Lake Land Trust. Last summer, I waxed poetic about its splendors in this packing post. Perfectly proportioned for a day trip and a short drive from Chattanooga, it’s quite a hidden gem atop Lookout Mountain.

Good to know: Quiet, clean, and dog-friendly, the privately owned park is open to visitors just two weekends each month. Fed by the Rock Creek watershed, the conservation spans 8,000 acres and includes beautiful Lula Lake and Lula Falls. The lake is the site of an old mining operation; while there’s no swimming in its waters, you can dip in a toe or two before heading to the base of Lula Falls to enjoy splashing through the swimming hole hidden under its veil.

My favorite hike, here, is the lush ridge rim trail that looks out over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Another trail within Lula conveniently connects to popular Cloudland Canyon. Most weekends you can also tag along with a volunteer who leads short nature and history walks through the Trust.

The folklore: According to the Trust this waterfall was known as “Seclusion Falls” before “Lula,” “Lulu,” and “Lulah” began appearing on local postcards in the late 1800s — likely in reference to nearby Tallulah Falls.

Nearby: Chattanooga + Rising Fawn hang gliding

Spend a full weekend on Lookout Mountain: Stay here, eat here, make a trip to the Chattanooga Riverfront, and sample some fine whiskey right here. If you’re feeling adventurous, book a tandem flight at America’s number one hang gliding school, Lookout Mountain Flight Park. Alternatively, tote a bottle of wine and blanket to the pro-shop launch pad (7201 Scenic Hwy) early in the evening and watch the sunset gliders drift off the mountain’s edge. Whether soaring through the clouds or keeping feet firmly on the ground, the views over the valley below are spectacular.

More folklore: Rising Fawn shares its name with the child of a Cherokee chieftain. Seeing a baby deer wake up and leap into the forest on the dawn following the child’s birth, the new father followed Cherokee tradition in naming his child after the first thing seen.

Long before early 1800s travelers warned Andrew Jackson’s troops to “look-out” for dangerous waters and Native Americans in the area, Lookout Mountain and adjacent Cameron Hill were called “Talidanda-ganu” and “O-Tulleetanna-Takunna-ee” by the Cherokee people — both mean “two mountains looking at one another.”

“Chattanooga,” a Creek term for “rock rising to a point,” is also named after the high ridges of Lookout Mountain.

Tallulah Gorge

While there are a number of trails to explore in and around Tallulah Gorge, Sliding Rock Trail is my longtime favorite — the above and below snapshots were taken ten years ago on a freshman year Geology field trip.

Good to know: Access to the trail is restricted to visitors who procure a permit. Only 100 permits are handed out each day, so you’ll want to arrive early. Unlike other trails in this post, you’ll want to leave your pups at home, since dogs are not allowed on this hike. And although it’s just 3.4 miles round-trip, you’re going to want to take a deep breath before you get started: There’s a thousand-foot gap between the trailhead bluff and the Gorge floor.

With stunning views of Bridal Veil and Hurricane Falls, the trail traces the park rim before crossing the Gorge via two sets of stairs and a teeny-tiny suspension bridge. Half a mile ahead is your destination, Bridal Veil Falls — the only place in the park you’re allowed to swim.

The folklore: Ask a local for the story behind Tallulah Falls and you’ll likely hear a tragic tale each of us learned on primary school field trips: Tallulah was a beautiful Indian princess who fell in love with a handsome white explorer. Her dad, Chief Grey Eagle, was not a big fan of this budding relationship. Grey Eagle not only sentenced the explorer to death, but forced Tallulah to watch as her paramour was pushed over the falls. Dads, right? Heartbroken (or perhaps a bit uncoordinated), Tallulah followed the explorer down the falls, tumbling to her own demise.

Then there’s this 1849 Dear Diary courtesy of author and explorer Charles Lanman: They said that it was an exceedingly wild place, and that its inhabitants were a species of little men and women, who dwelt in the crevices of the rocks and in grottoes under the waterfalls. They had attempted by every artifice in their power to hold a council with the little people, but all in vain; and, from the shrieks they frequently uttered, the medicine men knew that they were the enemies of the Indian race, and, therefore, it was concluded in the nation at large that the long-lost hunters had been decoyed to their death in the dreadful gorge, which they called Tallulah. In view of this little legend, it is worthy of remark that the Cherokee nation, previous to their departure for the distant West, always avoided the Falls of Tallulah, and were seldom found hunting or fishing in their vicinity.

Really, Tallulah was most likely named after an upriver Cherokee settlement, “Talulu,” a word whose meaning — just like Lanman’s hunters and those little people of the forest — went missing centuries ago.

Lake Seed, Georgia

A few shorter hikes: 3 miles or less

The trade-off for a quick and easy hike is a very busy trail — especially on weekends during Georgia’s peak hiking seasons of summer and fall. If you’re short on time or have little ones in tow, here are a handful of gentler hikes and recreation areas with beautiful waterfalls, streams, and ponds:

What to pack

A final tip: If you’re curious about current trail conditions or want to get a better feel for any of these destinations, try searching hashtags and geo-locations on Instagram to discover snapshots and comments from recent visitors.