Georgia’s Mountain Treasures: Andrews Cove

Photo credit: Jess Riddle

Approximate size: 4,691 acres                      Old-growth acreage:  784

Access: From Helen, take GA 17/75 north six miles to the Andrews Cove Campground or nine miles to the Appalachian Trail

By Jess Riddle : Forest Ecologist

From the South Carolina state line to just north of Helen, a simple crease runs straight across the otherwise rumpled and crumpled topography of north Georgia. Native Americans and early settlers found sections of the crease, called the Warwoman Shear, a convenient travel corridor.  The Andrews Cove Trail still follows the westernmost two miles of the corridor.  The trail descends from the Appalachian Trail at Indian Grave Gap through the namesake cove to a campground built by the Civilian Conservation Core.

Along the trail, the crease is deep, as though some giant axe had smashed into the earth. The mountain walls rise 1,000 feet above Andrews Creek.  The gentle rumbling of the stream completes the sense of being enveloped by the mountains.  Jumbles of rock, some as large as cars and splashed with green from scrambling vines, cover portions of the slope.  Early settlers’ low opinion of such areas is probably why we now call one of Andrews Creek’s tributaries “Devils Den Branch.”

Rocky soils can allow water to run through rapidly and create a habitat that is hellish for small and drought-sensitive plants. However, those same conditions create opportunities for deeper- rooted and more drought-tolerant species, which may be why chestnut oak and scarlet oak thrive along the Andrews Cove Trail.  Normally citizens of dry ridges and sun-baked slopes, here they cloak both those sites and sheltered, north-facing slopes, frequently towering to exceptional heights along the trail. The deeper and more nutrient-rich soils that have accumulated at the bottom of the cove around the campground support an abundance of wildflowers each spring.

Away from the trail and up the mountain walls, the rock becomes unbroken. Small cliffs and rock outcrops dot the slopes, and tributaries of Andrews Creek slide and cascade down.  These barriers stymied late 19th and early 20th century logging operations, and above them stands one of the largest concentrations of old-growth forest remaining in north Georgia.  Twisted old oaks dominate this forest with occasional patches of table mountain pine and other species.  The thin, nutrient-poor soils do not allow trees to grow as large as those in the cove below.  However, nearly one square mile of ancient forest provides a window into the past and what wild Georgia really looks like.

Despite all that ruggedness, Andrews Cove lies at the heart of one of the most easily accessible roadless areas in north Georgia. Highway 17/75 forms the entire western boundary.  Traversing between Unicoi Gap and Indian Grave Gap, the Appalachian Trail carries thousands of people across the area each year.  Along the way, the Appalachian Trail follows the edge of the Andrews Creek watershed over Rocky Mountain and ties into the two mile long Rocky Mountain Trail.  Away from the trails though, seldom visited places like the hanging valley of Lost House Branch still offer opportunities for solitude.

Photo credit: Jess Riddle
Old-growth white oak forest along the rim of Andrews Cove.       Photo by Jess Riddle

Getting there:

  • Andrews Cove Campground is six miles north of Helen, GA on GA 17/75. The Andrews Cove Trail starts at the back (top) of the campground.
  • The Appalachian Trail crosses GA 17/75 at Unicoi Gap, nine miles north of Helen, GA.
  • The Appalachian, Andrews Cove, and Rocky Mountain Trails can also be accessed from Forest Service road 283, which starts 11 miles north of Helen, GA on GA 17/75. Depending on maintenance, four-wheel-drive may be necessary to use the road.

The southeastern border, and a good spring wildflower display, can be accessed from Forest Service road 79 (Tray Mountain Rd), which begins two miles north of Helen, GA on GA 17/75.  Depending on maintenance, four-wheel-drive may be necessary to use the road.