This weekend I went up to Helen, GA to burn off some steam and check a couple trails off my wishlist and ended up having a great time despite the wintery conditions. I resolved to go riding Saturday and no matter the forecast – fortunately there was no rain in sight. Just before heading out the door for the hour and a half drive I saw the temperature in Helen was an icy 23 degrees – so I packed an extra jersey and my tech beanie from REI.
The drive from Atlanta to Helen was pretty easy and before I knew it we were in the faux-Bavarian wunderlund that is Helen, GA. The first ride on my list, Jasus Creek, starts just 4 miles outside town at a game check station off Forest Service Road 44. The road parallels the Chattahoochee river but this isn’t the same ‘hooch most Atlantans know – up here the Chattahooche is a clear, swiftly flowing narrow ribbon cutting through scenic forestland and rhododendron tunnels. Mudhunny dropped me off by the side of the road and the climbing began straight away.
The 12-mile Jasus Creek route (~1,500 feet of climbing) is entirely forest road and double track which makes it a great place to get a smooth pace going while enjoying the sights and smells of the mountains. After a couple miles I took a wrong turn into a campground where, to my surprise, there were actual campers braving the freezing temps! Consulting my trusty Off the Beaten Track Volume III: Guide to Mountain Biking Georgia (published 11 years ago!) I got back on track and continued the climb to FS 44B.
FS 44B is a gated forest road but on Saturday the gates were open for some reason (hunting season, perhaps?) and the double track road was pretty muddy with ice crystals dotting the edges of the larger puddles. Along FS 44B I saw at least half a dozen vehicles in various pull off spots but I didn’t see anyone – I guess they were all off trail hunting or hiking. With little wind and most birds south for the winter, the forest was nearly silent and the leafless views of the surrounding peaks were incredible. The downhill sections were cold and muddy and by the time I made the loop back to the game check station my bike was encrusted in red Georgia clay.
I spun my way back into Helen taking in the scenic 4-mile route beside the river and grabbed a quick sandwich at the car before heading into Unicoi State Park. The town of Helen maintains a short connector trail from the municipal parking lot to the Unicoi bike trails but I was a little nervous when I saw the signs warning that the area is a waste water spray field. I gingerly picked my way up the short, steep approach and quickly joined the Unicoi trail system.
The mountain bike trails in Unicoi State Park are well marked and are what I would consider wide singletrack. There are basically two loops and the recommended direction of travel is marked by signs throughout the small network. The terrain and scenery are pretty diverse here and I’m told parts of this course were once used for NORBA Nationals races (though sadly I believe the trails have been modified heavily since those days). Without a proper map of the area I was only able to get in one of the 3-mile loops before deciding to call it quits but I intend to get back there sometime soon.
The great thing about mountain biking around Helen is how easily you can access miles of forest roads and even wide singletrack without having to drive anywhere. Jim Parham’s Off the Beaten Track lists another Helen ride called “Upper Hooch” that is basically the western side of FS 44 from Jasus Creek and it looks like another great route to pair with a romp through Unicoi State Park.
So, if you’re pining for a real mountain bike ride but are afraid of the cold temperatures, all I gotta say is this: just do it. Throw on an extra sweat shirt or jersey, ignore the weather forecast, and hit the trails. You’ll be glad you did, plus a long ride now means more cookies during the holidays 😉