The Tray Mountain Wilderness is perhaps the least-explored wilderness area in Georgia. The focal point of the wilderness is Tray Mountain, which is one of the highest mountains in Georgia, and the section of the Appalachian Trail that passes over Tray Mountain. South and east of Tray Mountain, however, lies a remote area that has largely been unexplored: the Left Fork Soquee River watershed, which is home to numerous waterfalls. On the south side of the watershed stands Chimney Mountain, a lower peak that has several cliffs with great views but is overshadowed by the taller Tray Mountain only a few miles away. The hike to Chimney Mountain follows an unofficial trail that leads to a panoramic vista that faces Mount Yonah and the Georgia Piedmont. This hike occurred on Saturday, December 10th, 2016. My plan was to hike the unofficial path to Chimney Mountain out and back.
Note: FS 79 is the worst forest road that I have ever seen to date, in Georgia or anywhere else. The road is in decent shape up to the Chimney Mountain Trailhead, although you will have to do some tricky maneuvering across mud holes and around deep rutted areas (as well as across a few rocky areas), and not all low-clearance passenger vehicles will make it to the trailhead. However, beyond the trailhead, the road turns absolutely awful! I drive a 4WD truck with 8 inches of clearance, and I had trouble getting across some of the extremely rocky portions of the road past the trailhead. Eventually, I turned around, as there is one spot that may not be passable even by my truck, and plus, I was running low on gas. In other words, most (but probably not all) passenger vehicles can make it to the trailhead, if care is used, but only high clearance vehicles with four wheel drive can pass across the part of the road that is after the trailhead.
R/T Length of Trail: 3.4 Miles
Duration of Hike: 4:00 (This includes a lot of time spent scrambling and bushwhacking to reach the lower vista on Chimney Mountain, as well as a side trip not shown on the track to explore potential routes across South Fork Goshen Creek)
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 4 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: 1377 Feet
Cons: Unestablished trail that requires some minor navigational skills
Points of Interest: Vistas on Chimney Mountain - 6 stars
Trail Blaze Colors: None; the trail to Chimney Mountain is not official and not maintained
Best Seasons to Hike: Winter
Beginning Point: Chimney Mountain Road Trailhead
Directions from Helen, GA: From the intersection of GA 75 and GA 356 just north of downtown Helen, take GA 356 East and follow it for 5.2 miles. Then, turn left onto Chimney Mountain Road. After 0.1 miles, turn right to continue on Chimney Mountain Road. In another 1.8 miles, continue straight onto FS Road 79. This is known both as Chimney Mountain Road and Tray Mountain Road. A "Rough Road" sign is placed at the beginning of the road. Continue on this road for 2.2 miles to the trailhead. The trailhead will be about 400 feet after the road crosses McClure Creek. There is a small pullout here with space for about one car (and there is another pullout a bit earlier). A small wilderness sign is attached to a tree at the trailhead.
Click here for more information and to download this trail map to view in Garmin Basecamp.
I had been eyeballing the area of the Tray Mountain Wilderness south and east of the Appalachian Trail for some time prior to this hike, and when I learned that there is a path to Chimney Mountain - where I could see notable cliffs on satellite - I quickly pushed this hike up my list. In addition, I have also learned that there is an abundance of waterfalls in the Left Fork Soquee River watershed, and you might be hearing more about these waterfalls on this website from me in the near future. But on today's hike, my plan was to hike just to Chimney Mountain and make some reconnaissance regarding a possible approach to the Left Fork Soquee River from the trail to Chimney Mountain. The path that I had in mind, which headed NNE from the waypoint "Right Turn in Gap" on the map above, actually petered out about a quarter-mile farther in the vicinity of South Fork Goshen Creek. Since then, I have narrowed down other more realistic approaches to the Soquee River waterfalls, but that is beyond the scope of this post, as this hike was to Chimney Mountain.
Since the trail to Chimney Mountain is not official, it can be a bit tricky to locate the trailhead for it. I estimated that the trailhead is approximately 400 feet after Chimney Mountain Road crosses McClure Creek, if coming from the bottom. The best way to describe the trailhead parking area is that it is in a wide spot on the road, where the road bends to the left, and what looks like the beginning of an ATV road (although it really isn't) leaves to the right. There is a small rectangular "National Forest Wilderness" sign attached to a tree at this spot, to the right of the road.
The beginning of the trail to the Chimney Mountain is on the "ATV road" that I mentioned above. or rather, this isn't an ATV road - it is just a drive-in to a campsite, located just beyond the road, that appears to receive some ATV usage. Walk through the campsite and locate a faint path on the far end. This path is unmarked but it appears to get foot traffic. At times, the path isn't very obvious as it ascends, but in general, you must be aiming for the ridge (that leads to Chimney Mountain) to the north-northeast. I have found a reference that this trail may be called the Rich Cove Trail, although I will simply refer to it as the Chimney Mountain Trail. The first part of the hike is the most difficult, as in the first 0.35 miles, the trail ascends just under 400 feet to the ridge (without any switchbacks, of course).
At 0.35 miles, reach the ridge that connects Tray Mountain to Chimney Mountain. I have marked this point as "Right Turn in Gap" on my map. There is an intersection here; turn right onto the ridge to keep following the trail to Chimney Mountain. The faint path that bears left and downhill out of the gap leads to a campsite at South Fork Goshen Creek and then dissipates. There used to be a trail from here to the Soquee River waterfalls, but from what I could tell, this trail does not exist anymore. The main trail to Chimney Mountain follows the ridgeline - more or less - for the rest of the way. Interestingly, the path is more obvious along the ridge then along the ascent. The ridgewalk begins with the path ascending a small knob, reaching the top at 0.55 miles. After this, the path descends to a gap, crosses a low knob, and descends to another gap just below Chimney Mountain at 1.0 miles. All along the ridge, there are great winter views both south and north. At the gap is where the final ascent to Chimney Mountain begins. At first it is easy to moderate, but it becomes increasingly steeper, turning very steep towards the end. In some places along this ascent, it may be hard to discern the path, but simply follow the spine of the ridge (in the direction of the summit) headed in a southeast route to reach the top of Chimney Mountain. While I was able to stay on the path throughout most of the ascent, the path disappeared about 100 feet from the summit, but as I could see the summit, I just worked through some briars straight toward it. At 1.55 miles, reach the summit of Chimney Mountain, which has a small flat rock slab and a huge fire ring in the middle.
There are two main vistas on Chimney Mountain, and both of them are beyond the end of the trail. It is fairly easy to reach the first (upper) vista. Some steep scrambling is required to reach the lower vista. In my opinion, the lower vista has a slightly less obstructed view to the southwest, but the upper vista has a slightly broader panorama. I suggest getting to just the first vista and calling it a day, because in my opinion, the difference between the views is very marginal and it is not worth the long scramble to get to to the lower vista. However, I will provide directions to both vistas. To reach the upper vista from the summit of Chimney Mountain, head southwest down a steep wooded slope with sparse undergrowth. Walk about 250 feet generally southwest. You should spot the rock slab with views before you reach it. Reach the long but narrow rock slab with the upper vista at 1.6 miles. From here, there is a great panoramic view to the south, with the rolling hills of the Piedmont taking up most of the view. Mount Yonah occupies the right end (southwest corner) of the view. The main problem with this view is that the rock slab is not very large or steep, so tall trees at the bottom of it encroach on the view a bit, but it is still a very good vista.
Reaching the lower vista is much more complicated. I would describe reaching it as follows: bushwhack steeply downhill along the ridge that heads southwest from Chimney Mountain and from the upper vista. About 250 feet past the upper vista, you should be able to spot a steep dropoff to the south (below the left-hand side of the ridge). Initially, I didn't realize that this is a rock face, and I continued down the ridge to a point where I reached a line of blue flagging tape that comes up from the bottom (apparently someone's used a different approach to this rock face?). I realized that the flagging tape ends at the rock face, so obviously, someone came up from lower down on Chimney Mountain Road and flagged the way. I do not know what route they used, but it is definitely worse than the one I used, because there is no trail whatsoever on the south side of Chimney Mountain. Regardless, you should reach the lower vista about 0.1 miles after the upper vista, although these 0.1 miles are very steep and trail-less.
The following GPS coordinates are for the upper vista on Chimney Mountain: N34° 46' 41.1" W83° 39' 18.1"
The following GPS coordinates are for the lower vista on Chimney Mountain: N34° 46' 38.3" W83° 39' 19.2"
The biggest problem with the lower vista is that due to the steepness of the rock face, it is extremely hard to get onto it to obtain a good view. I was able to get to a vantage point near the top of the cliff, on its east end, from where I had a clear view southwestward toward the Piedmont and Mount Yonah. The view is slightly clearer, due to less impediment by trees, but the difference is very subtle, and I would not continue beyond the upper vista. Plus, the upper vista actually has a better panorama. In the gallery below, I have included photos from both vistas, so that you can judge yourself which view is better.
Regardless which vista you chose to turn around at, retrace your steps back to the trailhead along the same trail, concluding the hike at 3.4 miles (or 3.2 miles if you hike just to the upper vista).
There are some waterfalls on Chinquapin Branch, that can be accessed from a camping area near the lower end of FS Road 79. I have not been to these waterfalls, so I cannot provide details, but I do know that a goat path leads almost all the way to the main falls on the creek.
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Year 1: 540.0 Miles
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Year 3: 518.4 Miles
Year 4: 482.4 Miles
Year 5: 163.7 Miles