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Nature stays pristine at Smithgall Woods
1119Getout-Outdoors-cottage
The Garden Cottage is one of the five cottages at Smithgall Woods that are available for reservation.

Outdoor attractions

Smithgall Woods, Helen. Cabins available for rental; activities include hiking, biking and fishing. Park hours 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday. 61 Tsalaki Trail, Helen. 706-878-3087.

Elachee Nature Science Center, Gainesville. Interactive museum and nature trails. Museum open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturdays; trails open 8 a.m.-dusk. 2125 Elachee Drive, Gainesville. Museum admission $5 adults, $3 ages 2-12; trails free. 770-535-1976.

Kangaroo Conservation Center, Dawsonville. See kangaroos and other Australian animals. RSVP for tours recommended. Kangaroo Conservation Center, 222 Bailey Waters Road, Dawsonville. Ticket prices begin at $18. 706-265-6100.

Moss grows along the sides of the roads that meander through Smithgall Woods just outside of Helen. Founder Charles Smithgall —who also founded The Times — wanted the more than 5,500 acres of forestland to be pristine and unaltered.

“We’ve got about 18 miles of roadway, either paved or gravel, so it’s a great place to ride bikes,” said John Erbele, who has been general manager of Smithgall Woods since 1996.

Cars are rarely allowed on the roads in the park, but bicyclists can get quite a view, driving past protected streams, fields and forests.
Erbele said Smithgall Woods has 50 acres of scattered wildlife fields.

“We plant corn, clover, different things to augment the feed for the turkey, the deer and the bear,” he said.

Also a wildlife management area, Smithgall Woods hosts organized hunts to control populations, and catch-and-release fishing for the trout that thrive in the many creeks on the property.

“We not only hunt deer and bear, but we hunt turkey, small game, and then we even have a few coon hunts, which would happen at night,” Erbele said.

Erbele said there are special regulations for fisherman, including required use of barbless hooks. Because of the catch-and-release rule, Erbele said fishermen often bring cameras to prove their catch.

One fisherman broke the record — with a photo for evidence — catching a 29-inch rainbow trout in Dukes Creek. “A monster for a creek this size,” Erbele said.

Smithgall Woods also regularly hosts camps for youth groups, educational seminars and naturalist-led hikes.

“In warm weather, typically there’s a school bus here every day. We have two naturalists that do the education,” he said. “They might do pond ecology with the beaver pond. They might do stream ecology.”

Guests also can stay overnight in one of five cabins on the property, some originally built as vacation homes for the Smithgall family.

The first cottage built on the property was Creekside Cottage, built by Smithgall for family use.

“Reportedly he didn’t even show his wife. He built it, finished it, furnished it and then asked her back here,” Erbele said. “And she said, ‘Well, I like it way back there up in the woods, but don’t you think we need a little bit bigger house?’”

Smithgall agreed, and the result was Smithgall Cabin, a four-bedroom cabin further down the road flanked by Dukes and Dover creeks, which now is often used as a venue for business meetings for companies like Coca-Cola and Georgia Power — or just large families that want to get away to the woods.

All the cabins are within walking distance of an organic, volunteer-maintained garden planted for guest use.

“We encourage our guests to wander through the garden, graze if you will, and enjoy anything that might be ripe at the moment,” he said.

Erbele said one of the main goals of Smithgall Woods, and all the state parks, is to welcome the citizens of Georgia.

“I try to stress to people that the park system, this place included, belongs to the citizens of Georgia, so I encourage people to come out and enjoy their property, because that’s exactly what it is.”

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