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Out of Habersham
Chattahoochee River, Part 1
About North Georgia

by Randy Golden exclusively for About North Georgia

Scramble 200 feet down Coon Den Ridge from the Appalachian Trail (AT) and a leaf covered spring is usually visible even to the casual visitor. From this gentle outflow a mighty river is created. It flows through the heartland of Georgia, both physically and historically. Clean, fresh, and sparkling at this point, the water is beginning a 500+ mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico as the Chattahoochee River.

Headwaters to Helen

In Chattahoochee Gap near the intersection of Jacks Knob Trail and the Appalachian Trail, a blue sign with a white "W" points towards the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. A short descent from the AT takes hikers to a spring where fresh water flows year-round; this is the start of the Chattahoochee River. Leaving the spring the river is barely a small stream. As it wanders down Hiawassee Ridge the river grows, picking up water from many unnamed rivulets. At 1.3 miles (Horse Trough Mountain) the first bridge spans the riverbed, now almost four feet wide. The bridge carries hikers to beautiful Horse Trough Falls.

The Shoot, courtesy Joe and Monica Cook
The Shoot
Courtesy Joe and Monica Cook
Now plunging more than 1500 feet in less than ten miles the river grows rapidly as many tributaries join it in the Mark Trail Wilderness Area, which was created specifically to protect the Chattahoochee River's headwaters and watershed by the United States Forest Service. More than 16,000 acres of camping, hiking, fishing and scenic driving in this wilderness can be accessed by the Chattahoochee River Road (FS 44). Winding for 11 miles the road parallels the Chattahoochee River along the river's steepest descent. From its start .5 miles south of Unicoi Gap this winding, occasionally steep road is an excellent fall drive, with many deep reds early in the leaf change season (peak time is normally Oct. 15-20).

As use of the Chattahoochee National Forest has grown, so has the impact on the river. Camping, especially primitive camping, where ignorant or uncaring campers leave garbage and human waste near the Chattahoochee has an obvious negative impact on the river. Frequent use leaves the campsite areas barren and rains wash the exposed Georgia clay into the river more quickly. By the time the Chattahoochee River leaves Mark Trail Wilderness Area it is a good trout stream, sometimes navigable after a heavy rain. In spite of the nearby camping, the river remains relatively undisturbed. It was not always that way.

From the early 1800's until the 1930's the Unicoi Turnpike climbed to Unicoi Gap along the ecologically fragile banks of the Chattahoochee River north of Helen. The roadway connected settlers in Tennessee to the Savannah River and was one of the routes used to bring supplies inland. Starting in 1829 use of the Unicoi Turnpike increased dramatically. It became a major shipping route for the gold that had been discovered in the Chattahoochee's watershed during the Georgia Gold Rush.

Gold played an important role in the early history of the upper Chattahoochee. The mineral had been taken from various places along the river since the 1500's, but it was Georgia's Gold Rush that would send this portion of the Chattahoochee watershed into a century-long ecological tailspin. At first prospectors would pan for gold. This activity reduced or destroyed the riparian buffers (the fauna that transitions from river to forest) in the areas of greatest activity. Once the alluvial gold had been taken, mines were dug, increasing the pollution with run-off. In the 1850's hydraulic mining took an even greater toll on the land and the river, leaving barren earth where forests once stood.

Between 1850 and 1880 farmers built homesteads on the banks of the river. For thirty years the area supported these farmers, but crop failure became an increasing problem because of poor farming techniques. The farmers slowly sold out to lumber companies eager to harvest the upcountry trees that the farmers had not cleared. From 1880 until 1930 lumber companies like Byrd-Matthews in Helen, Georgia, routinely clear-cut wide areas of land. By 1895 the entire watershed of the Chattahoochee north of Helen was an environmental disaster. Soil erosion from these barren mountains clogged the river for the rest of its 350 mile journey through the heart of Georgia.

Starting in 1910 the federal government began to buy the devastated land at rock bottom prices. It was considered worthless. Over the last century the land was allowed to return to its original state. In the 1930's Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees throughout the watershed. Today, thanks to the Forest Service management only camping is permitted along the river.


Smith Creek (Smith Creek Trail), formed at Anna Ruby Falls, is the first major river to join the Chattahoochee. This creek doubles the size of the river's watershed just before it enters Georgia's Alpine village of Helen (Helen's history and tourist information). During the early 20th century both Smith Creek and this portion of the Chattahoochee River served as a transportation route for the lumber cut in the upper watershed. Wood was floated downriver to the Byrd-Mathews saw mill in Helen. Here it was cut and shipped south by rail to Atlanta. In the 1920's the industry had cleared most of the land and moved further west.

Chattahoochee River in Helen, Georgia
Chattahoochee River
"The Hooch" is a nickname bestowed upon the river by sportsmen and outdoor recreation fans alike.
Winding through the center of Helen the Chattahoochee supports various recreational opportunities that are a major reason why people are drawn to the city. Among the most popular pastimes are fishing, tubing and rafting.

On the rocky riverbanks in Helen, hotels, restaurants, shops and manufacturing all impact the river. Additionally, the large festivals the city holds, such as Oktoberfest, attract thousands of people annually to the banks of this still young river. Luckily, the townspeople have taken an active stewardship towards the Chattahoochee River. While the rapid growth of the city has destroyed much of the riparian zones Helen is actively working on reducing its impact on the waterway. For example, wastewater is treated, then filtered through land before returning to the river.

Helen to Belton Bridge

South of Helen the river begins a wide, sweeping curve, forming the northern end of Nachoochee Valley. Wider and stronger the Chattahoochee is navigable from this point to the Gulf of Mexico. At the intersection of Highway 75 and 17 a gazebo rests high atop the northernmost remnant (on this river) of prehistoric Moundbuilders culture known as the Mississippians. By 1500 AD the Moundbuilder culture had left the area and they were gradually replaced by the Cherokee. This portion of the river was known as the Chota to the Cherokee.

More major rivers (Dukes Creek, Soque River) join the Chattahoochee, increasing its watershed. Canoing is popular, with a number of well-known places to put-in. Through the lovely, wide Sautee-Nachoochee Valley the river winds east, then south as it enters increasingly populated areas.

In treaties signed with the United States in 1817 and 1819 the Chattahoochee River was used to delineate the eastern border of the Cherokee Nation. Further south it formed the border between the Creek Nation and the Cherokees. In the late 1830's both these Nations would be forcibly moved west, the Cherokee in a sad series of events today called The Trail of Tears, the Muscogee tribes in a flight generally referred to as the Creek Removal.

As the Chattahoochee forms the boundary between Habersham and White County the health of the river is challenged by the increase in population as well as run-off from high production chicken and cattle raising techniques in use near its banks. Erosion, too, creates a problem. River banks play an important part in the health of the Chattahoochee. As urban sprawl claims more land, the plants, trees and grass near the banks are destroyed and soil dumps into the river. In spite of the challenges in this area the ecological effort is still preservation; further south it becomes a rescue mission.

Georgia's poet-laureate Sidney Lanier wrote a poem called "Song of the Chattahoochee," about the river that runs through Georgia's heartland:

Out of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from folly on every side
With a lover's pain to attain the plain
Far from the hills of Habersham,
Far from the valleys of Hall.

So out of the "hills of Habersham" we follow our river to the "valleys of Hall." Only the valleys that Lanier speaks of so eloquently no longer exist. They are covered by the waters of the Chattahoochee, dammed some 26 miles further south, backing up at normal level to Belton Bridge. The soil and pollution that has washed into the river further north is about to come to a stop in Lake Sidney Lanier.

cover Chattahoochee River

Georgia's Chattahoochee River

Chattahoochee River
Out of Habersham
Lake Lanier
North of Atlanta
End of the journey
Chattahoochee River FAQ
Chattahoochee River links

North Georgia Naturally
North Georgia -- it's a natural! From outdoor adventure to our natural history, About North Georgia covers the area with in-depth articles, photos, and insights into those great, little-known "secrets" of the area.
Rivers of North Georgia
The Chattahoochee River, both Chattooga Rivers, The Etowah River, which Sherman believed to be Georgia's Rubicon ...

Article Links
Anna Ruby Falls
Appalachian Trail
Chattahoochee River
Chattahoochee River FAQ
Chattahoochee River links
Civilian Conservation Corps
End of the journey
Georgia Gold Rush
Helen's history and tourist information
Horse Trough Falls
Jacks Knob Trail
Lake Lanier
North of Atlanta
Out of Habersham
Smith Creek Trail
Song of the Chattahoochee
Unicoi Turnpike

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