Stekoa Creek is one of the largest tributaries of the Chattooga River, flowing through the town of Clayton and the lower elevations of Rabun County. Most of the creek - including several of its notable waterfalls - is on private land. However, the lower mile and a half of Stekoa Creek flows through mostly National Forest property. In this public stretch of the creek, there are two notable waterfalls - Mill Shoals and Big Shoals - with respective heights of 27 feet and 35 feet, and getting to the waterfalls is fairly easy. Unfortunately, a headline bigger than waterfalls for Stekoa Creek is its poor water quality, due to drainage issues in Clayton. This hike occurred on Saturday, March 18th, 2017. My plan was to hike out and back from Wolf Creek Church Road to Mill Shoals and then Big Shoals on Stekoa Creek.
R/T Length of Trail: 3.1 Miles
Duration of Hike: 2:40
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 3 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: 795 Feet
Cons: Poor water quality
Points of Interest: Mill Shoals on Stekoa Creek - 4 stars; Big Shoals on Stekoa Creek - 7 stars
Trail Blaze Colors: None
Best Seasons to Hike: Year-round
Beginning Point: Turnaround at end of spur forest road off Wolf Creek Church Road
Directions from Clayton, GA: From the intersection of US 23/441 and US 76 West (Savannah Street) in downtown Clayton, follow US 23/441 South for 7.1 miles, and then, turn left onto (East) Wolf Creek Road. Follow Wolf Creek Road for 3.7 miles, and then, turn right onto Wolf Creek Church Road. In 0.6 miles, you'll pass Wolf Creek Church on the right, after which the road turns into FS Road 515. This road is in good shape and passable by all passenger vehicles. 0.9 miles past Wolf Creek Church, or 1.5 miles from Wolf Creek Road, there is a split, where an unmarked, narrower, and more rustic forest road bears slightly to the left. This road is not show on any maps or GPS devices. While it is passable by most vehicles, you can park at the split, if you're uncomfortable driving up this road. Otherwise, bear left onto the narrower road. Follow it for 0.1 miles to a turnaround with a gate just ahead. This is the trailhead; park here. There is space for at least four to five cars here, without blocking the gate.
Click here to download a track of this hike.
Stekoa Creek is surprisingly not known for its waterfalls, despite their abundance throughout the waterway's course. Unfortunately, some of the best waterfalls on the creek are off-limits and on private land. After some research, I put together an easy route to two publicly accessible waterfalls on Stekoa Creek that are surprisingly little-visited. However, there is a fly in the ointment. An oddly-shaped 1-acre piece of private property, without houses or road access, lies in between Mill Shoals and the more impressive Big Shoals. Trespassing is strictly not allowed, so to reach Big Shoals, you will have to follow my instructions farther below to bypass the private property. Otherwise, this is a great hike, leading to two great waterfalls without too much effort.
The hike begins at the gate, located at the turnaround at the end of a rustic road that splits off from Wolf Creek Church Road. The gate is not a typical Forest Service gate, but rather, it is a piece of guardrail attached to a post. Walk around the gate and follow the wide forest road - which is strictly closed to any form of vehicular traffic - east and downhill. At 0.2 miles, the road levels out, and there is a fork here. To reach the waterfalls, do not continue straight on the main, wide road. Instead, bear right onto a narrower and older forest road. This road is still easily followed as it continues to descend at an easy grade. After passing some rutted areas, reach a second fork at 0.5 miles. Bear right on the main forest road here (an obscure forest road bears left but you do need to go there). Shortly afterwards, there is a series of minor blowdowns, after which the road enters a stand of yellow pine around 0.65 miles. At 0.8 miles, the road passes through a recovering clearing. Bear left through the clearing and pick up the slightly narrower road on the far end. The road begins a more moderate descent that turns into a very steep descent into the Stekoa Creek gorge around 0.95 miles. In just a quarter-mile (from 0.9 to 1.15 miles), the road descends about 250 feet! Make sure to continue following the widest and most distinct road on the descent and ignore any side paths.
The road bottoms out in broad flats near Stekoa Creek at 1.15 miles. A path to the right leads to the edge of the creek. However, to access Mill Shoals and Big Shoals, turn left onto the wide and obvious path that stays in a flood-prone area near the creek. At one place, there is a wooden path put along the path, as this area can get muddy. At 1.2 miles, reach a small feeder stream, just as Mill Shoals on Stekoa Creek comes into view. To reach Big Shoals, you'll have to turn left and away from Stekoa Creek on the other side of the feeder stream, but first, follow the bank of Stekoa Creek upstream for a closer look at Mill Shoals. There is some trash near the creek in this area - obviously delivered here by the creek itself - that is evidence of the poor drainage in downtown Clayton that causes trash to get picked up by Stekoa Creek. It is possible to follow the bank of Stekoa Creek along some very slick rock slabs all the way to the base of Mill Shoals at 1.3 miles.
Mill Shoals is a block-type waterfall about 27 feet high. It is quite pretty, as the entire wide creek cascades down a series of rock ledges into a deep pool speckled by several rock outcrops. During high water, the waterfall likely becomes one large mass of whitewater, as the rock ledges and outcrops vanish into the water. The area immediately above the creek on the left (west) side of Stekoa Creek at and just below Mill Shoals is private property, so when viewing and photographing Mill Shoals, make sure to stay at creek level.
To reach Big Shoals, which is the more impressive waterfall, return to the feeder stream. From here, scramble up the slope with open woods that leads northwest (on the same side of the feeder stream), away from both the feeder stream and from Stekoa Creek. At 1.35 miles, only 150 feet from the feeder stream, reach a profusion of signs and red paint that indicate a property boundary. This used to be a small private inholding, but it appears to now be owned by The Conservation Fund. The path continues directly through the small property parcel and soon reenters the National Forest. Here, one path goes down to Stekoa Creek, to the top of Mill Shoals. However, to reach Big Shoals, hike in the upstream direction (northeastward) through the open woods just above the creek. There is no distinct path, but the walking is easy. Note: if you happen to ever find any no trespassing signs at the 1.4-acre private inholding, it is very easy to go further uphill and bushwhack around the marked boundary.
In about 400 feet, the open woods end and the falls can be head or possibly seen just ahead. To reach the base of Big Shoals, scramble diagonally down to creek level through a small rhododendron thicket and to the right of a rock outcrop. At the creek, there is a large, flat rock slab that serves as a great viewing area for Big Shoals at 1.6 miles. This 35-foot waterfall is quite impressive due to the large volume of water. I did this hike during drought conditions, so during normal winter flow, the waterfall is likely to be even more powerful. Big Shoals consists of a multi-tiered drop down several rock ledges and into a huge and deep cliff-lined pool. The far end of the pool is punctuated by a massive sandbar. Unfortunately, I would not recommend swimming in this pool due to the poor water quality of Stekoa Creek, caused by drainage runoff in Clayton, as well as leakage from the pipes in Clayton's waste water treatment plant. While all of this is not reflected in the water in a way that the eye can see, just keep in mind that the water quality is very poor and unlike the water quality of most mountain streams. For this reason, I would not call the waterfalls on Stekoa Creek pristine.
From Big Shoals, simply retrace your steps back to the trailhead. Make sure to avoid the private property tract on the way back. You will return to the trailhead at 3.1 miles, concluding the hike.
0.0 - Stekoa Creek Trailhead
0.8 - Clearing
1.15 - Stekoa Creek
1.3 - Mill Shoals
1.6 - Big Shoals
3.1 - Stekoa Creek Trailhead
Hike out and back to Mill Shoals - 2.6 Miles
One nearby waterfall that can be added on to this hike is Cliff Creek Falls, accessed via a short bushwhack from Camp Creek Road. For more casual hikers, Tallulah Gorge State Park is located close-by.
Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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