Panther Creek is a popular destination for folks all across north Georgia - in fact, you're unlikely to find solitude on weekends at Panther Creek Falls, the primary destination of most people who hike the Panther Creek Trail. However, what most hikers don't know about is that the full Panther Creek Trail is considerably more strenuous and longer; the trail doesn't just end at Panther Creek Falls. By hiking the full length of the Panther Creek Trail, you will experience a lot more solitude, see more of the creek's more turbulent stretches, and overcome a challenge - as hiking the east half of the Panther Creek Trail is a task that's not for the faint-hearted. This hike occurred on Saturday, September 5th, 2015. My plan was to hike the entire Panther Creek Trail from the eastern terminus near Yonah Dam to the western terminus at Old US Highway 441 and back.
R/T Length of Trail: 12.8 Miles
Duration of Hike: 9:15
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 8 out of 10
Pros: Western half of the trail is easy to follow
Cons: Eastern half of the trail is in bad condition with caved-in and poorly-built stretches of trail; very crowded western half of trail
Points of Interest: Panther Creek Falls - 7 out of 10; Upper Panther Creek Falls - 4 stars
Trail Blaze Color(s): Panther Creek Trail - Both Blue and Green Blazes
Best Season(s) to Hike: Year-round (there will likely be more solitude in winter)
Beginning Point: Yonah Dam Trailhead (Panther Creek Trail East Terminus)
Directions: From Toccoa, GA: Follow GA State Route 184 North for 5.2 miles. Then, continue straight onto Yonah Dam Road. Continue on Yonah Dam Road for 4.4 miles, and then, keep left onto Panther Creek Road. In another 0.6 miles, take a slight left onto the now gravel Panther Creek Road. The road is suitable for most passenger vehicles. Continue to follow Panther Creek Road for 1.6 miles to its terminus at a large turnaround and parking area. This is the trailhead.
The first time I hiked on the Panther Creek Trail several years ago, I did the typical easy day hike - a roundtrip of 7 miles from the west terminus to Panther Creek Falls and back. However, for my return hike to Panther Creek Falls, I decided to hike the full trail. Hiking the full trail proved to be significantly harder - the lesser-travelled east segment of the trail is in need of repairs and makes for very slow and tiring hiking, in addition to a steep uphill segment both on the way in and on the way back. I'd go as far as saying that this might have been one of the hardest hikes I've done in Georgia.
The hike starts at the Yonah Dam Trailhead, located just above the confluence of Davidson Creek and Panther Creek. Technically, this is the start of the Panther Creek Gorge, although a wider gorge still exists below the Davidson Creek confluence. The start of the rail is unmarked, but there's no other trail here - this is the right one. At the parking area, an old road extension fords Panther Creek to an old parking area on the opposite side. That is where the original trailhead was, but ever since the footbridge over Panther Creek was built, the old parking area was gated. The trail crosses Panther Creek on the new, well-constructed footbridge near the trailhead, and on the opposite side of the creek, turns right onto an old road that continues from the old parking area. Straight away, an uphill begins. This uphill section isn't long, but it is steep and literally at the very beginning of the hike so you may feel some tension - a sign of things to come. At 0.1 miles, the trail levels off and begins to head back downhill towards Panther Creek. As the trail stays close to Panther Creek in the first half-mile, you will be crossing numerous coves by footbridges as well as traversing hills all the time. Not far from the beginning, however, the trail becomes quite rough as the slopes of the Panther Creek gorge steepen. When I said the trail became rough, I meant that the trail slopes down, constantly has caved-in areas where you have to do some pretty tiring scrambling to continue on the trail, and also, there are lots of fallen trees in places where it takes long time to maneuver across them. The worst section comes at 0.7 miles, after you pass a rockhouse on the left. The gorge's slopes are extremely steep here, and the trail is quite rough, so take your time - do not hurry on this section. At some point, there'll be some cables on the right side of the trail, protecting you from the drop-off. Then, at 0.8 miles, with some help from the cables, scramble up a steep section of trail.
The trail then veers away from Panther Creek and begins a 0.8-mile long, ultra-steep ascent. You will ascend 500 feet during these 0.6 miles, and the ascent is without any switchbacks - just straight up the slope. At 1.3 miles, there is a vista on the right that looks into the Panther Creek gorge northwestward. This vista is best seen in winter. The steepest section of the uphill is after this vista. At 1.6 miles, the ascent finally ends at the top of the ridge at an elevation of around 1400 feet. A path leads left here, and it probably ends at a dirt road a couple hundred feet higher. Meanwhile, the Panther Creek Trail continues straight and hastily begins a descent that rivals the steepness of the ascent. Luckily, the trail actually descends less than it just ascended, so on the way back, the ascent is slightly easier. The trail soon descends to a cove with a small stream and crosses the stream on a footbridge. The descent moderates as the trail heads down the cove. There is a long footbridge ta helps the trail to navigate across the steep valley slope. At 2 miles, reach Panther Creek again. A small waterfall is located here - a steep side trail may potentially lead to a better view of the waterfall, but I didn't try it. For most of the rest of the hike, the trail closely parallels Panther Creek, and sometimes, it requires rough scrambles and slow travel. From this "lower falls" to Panther Creek Falls, the trail is very slow, rugged, and sometimes confusing. There are only very occasional blazes here, so try to just follow the main path - often, you will be brought to small beaches on the shores of Panther Creek, and the trail will simply follow the shores of the creek - at other times, the trail will navigate over rock outcrops just above the creek with the help of cables.
After what seems to take forever, the trail reaches a large flat by the creek, the camping areas just below Panther Creek Falls. Continue straight through the camping areas and reach Panther Creek Falls at 2.8 miles. Panther Creek Falls may be one of the most popular if not the most popular waterfalls in north Georgia. Personally, I do not believe it to be one of the most beautiful - in my opinion, it is a classical waterfall, just like any other. In summer, the large pool below the falls is crowded with swimmers. And year-round, no matter when you do this hike (except maybe if you do it on some really rainy day), your solitude is over from Panther Creek Falls and beyond until you return back to this spot, The western section of the trail is considerably more popular than the eastern section, because despite that the western approach to Panther Creek Falls is longer, it is significantly easier.
From Panther Creek Falls, scramble steeply up the side of the gorge to rise above the falls at 2.9 miles. There are cables to help here. Once you top the scramble, you will pass above Panther Creek Falls and reach a rock outcrop with an excellent view of cascades above the main falls. From here, continue on the still rugged but popular trail above Panther Creek. There are a lot of rock outcrops to navigate across - cables will aid you in the harder spots. At 3.4 miles, the trail descends to creek level, crosses a footbridge over a tributary, and stays flat and even a bit sandy for a while. At around 4 miles, the trail reaches a rock outcrop next to Panther Creek with a view of what is known as "Upper Panther Creek Falls". Shortly afterwards, a spur trail on the right that leads to a campsite also leads to a close view of the Upper Falls. The main trail ascends over a small rise with another view of Panther Creek and then descends back to creek level. There's nothing much to describe about the trail as it meanders along Panther Creek and its floodplain until a footbridge over Panther Creek near a campsite at 5 miles. This footbridge had signs of recent repairs. Cross the footbridge and pick up the trail on the east side of the creek. The flat part is over; from here pretty much all the way to the end is a slight but steady uphill that becomes quite tiring after the difficulty of the first part of the hike. The trail ascends along the steep-sided gorge that forms here, and soon, Panther Creek can be heard far below. There are numerous campsites along this section of trail. At 5.5 miles, the trail reaches a large rock outcrop and goes around it. Panther Creek is in sight again, but still below the trail. Stay with the green blazes - there have been reroutes to the trail in this area. At 5.9 miles, the trail crosses a powerline cut. Panther Creek can be seen to the left. At 6.3 miles, the uphill finally ends as the trail goes under two bridges that carry US-441 across Panther Creek. Panther Creek is just below the trail to the left. At 6.4 miles, the Panther Creek Trail ends at the Panther Creek Recreation Area on Old US-441.
The Panther Creek recreation Area, aka the Old US-441 Trailhead, is the western terminus of the Panther Creek Trail. From here, you will have to retrace your steps to Yonah Dam Trailhead for a roundtrip hike of 12.8 miles, unless you have a shuttle waiting for you at the western terminus. The eastern section of the trail will feel even harder on the way back when you've hiked around 10 miles - take your time on it. This is a great hike but quite strenuous so I wouldn't suggest for novice hikers to do the whole trail at once.
Panther Creek Trail from Yonah Dam Trailhead to Panther Creek Falls and back - 5.6 Miles
Panther Creek Trail from Panther Creek Recreation Area to Panther Creek Falls and back - 7.2 Miles
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