Few mountains in Georgia are landmarks as prominent as Yonah Mountain. Situated between the towns of Helen and Cleveland, Yonah Mountain's shape and spectacular sheer cliffs can be recognized from nearly every direction. In recent years, the trail to the top of Yonah Mountain has also become one of the most popular hikes in Georgia and for good reason: the incredible panoramic views atop Yonah's cliffs are easily among Georgia's most breathtaking. Even though the trail involves a fairly steep ascent, it does not stop up to hundreds of people from visiting the cliffs on good weekends. Unfortunately, the crowds can be a drawback of this hike, but the views are so spectacular that it's still worth it, and if you hike very early in the morning or late in the day, you might encounter relatively few people. This hike occurred on Monday, September 4th, 2017. My plan was to hike the Yonah Mountain Trail out and back to the top of Yonah Mountain, where I would make a small loop visiting all four main vistas. On my way back, I would make a slight detour to see an enormous boulder known simply as "The Boulder".
R/T Length of Trail: 4.2 Miles
Duration of Hike: 3:50 (includes about 1 hour and 20 minutes of breaks)
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 5 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: 1613 Feet
Pros: Spectacular views
Cons: Parts of the trail follow forest roads and service roads
Points of Interest: Yonah Mountain Views - 10 stars collectively; The Boulder below Yonah Mountain
Trail Blaze Colors: Yonah Mountain Trail - Lime Green
Best Seasons to Hike: Fall; Winter
Beginning Point: Yonah Mountain Parking off Chambers Road
Directions from Cleveland, GA: From the intersection of Main Street (US 129) and Helen Highway (GA 75) near downtown Cleveland, follow Helen Highway/GA 75 North for 2.1 miles. Then, turn right onto Tom Bell Road. In another 0.9 miles, turn right onto Chambers Road. Continue on Chambers Road for 0.7 miles to the Yonah Mountain Trailhead sign. Turn right onto the dirt trailhead road and follow it to its end at a large parking area where the hike begins with a view of the Yonah Mountain cliffs. Even though the parking are is pretty big, it still fills up quickly and cars often have to park along the entrance road.
Click the link below to download a .GPX file with a track of this hike.
My first visit to Yonah Mountain was over four years ago. At the time, I was blown away by the breathtaking cliff-top views, and the trail was also not as well-known as it is today. As Labor Day 2017 rolled around, I decided that it was time for a re-visit of Yonah Mountain. I was shocked to find the parking area overflowing when I arrived at the trailhead at about 5 PM. Fortunately, due to the late timing of my hike (just in time for sunset), I met most of the people on my way up and had the views and nighttime descent mostly to myself.
The Yonah Mountain hike begins on the broad trail leaving the left side of the parking area near the kiosk. Before beginning the hike, take a minute to look up toward the massive signature cliffs of Yonah Mountain. The green-blazed trail starts out with a gradual ascent that gradually steepens. Around 0.3 miles, the trail crosses a footbridge across a gully in a boulder field. The trail then briefly levels out with views of boulder fields up the steep slope to the left. As the ascent steepens again, there are several sets of rock steps along the obvious trail around 0.7 miles. Make sure to stay on the main trail and avoid any shortcuts. A particularly large switchback occurs at 0.8 miles, followed by a very brief downhill - the only one on the way up Yonah Mountain. The trail soon becomes considerably rockier, making a short boulder scramble through a notch at 1.0 miles. After traversing another boulder field with some winter views, the trail reaches an overgrown grassy clearing at 1.2 miles. A small rock outcrop provides views into the valley to the west, but these views are only a small taste of what's to come. The grassy clearing also has a view of the Yonah Mountain cliffs high above, showing how much farther you have to ascend. You have ascended about 600 feet so far, and there is still over 800 feet of elevation gain coming up - along with the steepest part of the trail.
The trail turns right at the clearing and begins ascending very steeply along a severely eroded and rutted old road. User-created trails have sprung up along sides of the road to bypass the eroded areas. Farther up, the road becomes slightly less eroded but remains nearly as steep. Just before it levels out, a distinct path heads right at 1.4 miles. That path is an alternate trail that leads past The Boulder, which I would check out on my way back. Meanwhile, the trail along the old road levels out a bit and reaches a gravel service road at 1.55 miles. Turn right onto the service road and shortly reach a large clearing where there is a US Army Training Area at 1.6 miles. Turn right here onto the forest road that leads to the summit. Shortly afterwards, the forest road bears left while a distinct trail continues straight. Both the road and the trail lead to the summit, but I used the shorter and steeper trail. A few feet after leaving the forest road, the main trail continues straight while another trail bears right and leads to The Boulder. You will use this trail on the way back. A sign used to mark this junction, but at the time of my hike, it was missing. Meanwhile, the main trail intercepts one switchback of the forest road and then ends at another switchback in the road at 1.8 miles. Continue following the ascending road from here on as it curves left. At 1.85 miles, the road crosses a broad rock slab. Some of Yonah Mountain's vistas lie just to the right, but I suggest saving them for later and continuing straight to the summit along the road for now.
The road continues a moderate climb as it curves around the Yonah Mountain summit before finally entering the grassy clearing at the summit at 2.1 miles. Shortly after the trail enters the summit clearing, a broad path leaves to the left. Take this path, which passes a nice campsite and quickly reaches the first vista on Yonah Mountain at 2.15 miles. The view faces southward from a broad rock slab. Pink Mountain, nearly 500 feet lower than Yonah Mountain, is directly ahead with the nearly flat Georgia Piedmont stretching to the horizon. From this vista, backtrack a short distance, but before the summit clearing, turn left on a path that parallels the clearing and then starts descending the west side of the summit in the direction of the other vistas. When the path reaches a small rock slab, you should be able to see an open rock outcrop a short distance below. Follow the steep but obvious path down to the rock outcrop, reaching it at 2.25 miles. Facing westward, this is the second and arguably the best vista on Yonah Mountain. The 180-degree panorama is breathtaking, with many different mountains and ridges in the view. The valley with Chambers Lake directly below is fully visible. Look closely and you'll be able to spot the Yonah Mountain parking far below. Looking northward, you can also see the continuation of the Yonah Mountain cliffs, where you're headed next.
From the second vista, backtrack a few feet and continue following the path that has now turned northward and shortly reaches the edge of the cliff line at 2.3 miles. This is the third main vista. While it is pretty similar to the second vista (and perhaps a bit more limited), it provides better views of the cliffs. The path has nearly continuous views for the next 0.1 mile, with short side trails leading out to more rock outcrops. At 2.4 miles, the path reaches the fourth and final vista at the broad rock slabs on the northwest side of Yonah Mountain. The west view from here is slightly poorer, but on the other hand, the north view is better than at any other vista. As a result, the four vistas on Yonah Mountain cover every direction except east/northeast. And none of these views are just small openings in the trees - all four are panoramic views from cliffs hundreds of feet high! When hiking to the Yonah Mountain vistas, always remember to stay away from the cliff edges, as you're likely to die if you fall.
From the fourth vista, continue straight ahead, shortly rejoining the old road. Turn left here and retrace your steps back to the junction with the trail to The Boulder just above the US Army Training Area at 2.65 miles. Turn left onto this alternate trail and follow it downhill into the boulder fields. After a short rock scramble, the trail reaches The Boulder at 2.75 miles. The Boulder is in fact an enormous boulder on the west side of Yonah Mountain. It is quite a sight from the base, as is the whole surrounding boulder field. At The Boulder, the trail turns right and briefly becomes extremely steep as it scrambles down through the rocks. After the graded eases, the trail ends at the broad old road that the Yonah Mountain Trail follows at 2.8 miles. Turn left onto the road - for the rest of the hike, simply retrace your steps from earlier this day. The descent along the steep and eroded part of the old road is pretty difficult and slippery. You will return to the trailhead at 4.2 miles, concluding the hike.
I decided to rate this a "Best Hike" simply due to how spectacular the views are. It was a tough call due to how crowded the trail is, but it seems to me that the views manage to overweigh the crowds. I highly recommend for anyone from North Georgia to hike the Yonah Mountain Trail one day (preferably at a time when crowds are likely to be minimized). The views are easily among the best anywhere in the state.
0.0 - Yonah Mountain Trailhead
1.2 - Grassy Clearing
1.6 - US Army Training Area
2.1 - Yonah Mountain Summit
2.15 - First Vista on Yonah Mountain
2.25 - Second Vista on Yonah Mountain
2.3 - Thrid Vista on Yonah Mountain
2.4 - Fourth Vista on Yonah Mountain
2.75 - The Boulder
4.2 - Yonah Mountain Trailhead
There are no sensible variations for this hike, as its sole purpose is to reach the cliffs at the top of Yonah Mountain. You can shorten the hike slightly by hiking only to the Fourth Vista (which would be the first one coming the other way of the small summit loop), but I do not suggest it as the other views are at least as good and require very little additional effort.
Consider heading north into Helen for some waterfalls after Yonah Mountain. A good choice would be the short and easy hike to Horsetrough Falls and Upper Chattahoochee River Falls.
Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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