There are four primary hiking trails that can be accessed from the Lake Russell Recreation Area:
If you know what you’re doing, you can string all four together into a 16 mile loop that features waterfalls and water crossings, some challenging climbs, stretches of beautifully runnable trails, gorgeous views, and more than a couple miles of ankle-breaking beast-coast trails (i.e., exposed roots and first-sized loose rocks hidden beneath a layer of fallen leaves).
I call this route the Lake Russell Great Loop.
There are lots of routes out in the Lake Russell WMA that I love, but when I want to maximize my time spent on trails nothing beats the Lake Russell Great Loop.
Great Loop Basics
The route is about 16 miles long and includes about 3,000 feet of climbing (and the same descent). If you do the math, that comes out to an average grade of about 7% over the course of the route. This is a challenging route. I wouldn’t consider it extremely hard, but you will want to be in decent shape and carry plenty of fluids and calories.
If you’re hiking the route, I would plan on it taking at least 6 hours, or as much as 8 or 9 hours if you like to do a lot of stopping along the way. If you’re a trail runner used to covering these sorts of distances and surfaces, you will need 2.5 to 4.5 hours to cover the route depending on how fast you are.
The last time I ran this route it took me about 3 hours and 20 minutes (note: the Strava result I linked to includes two bonus miles at the end of the Lake Russell Great Loop).
Chenocetah Fire Tower (Mile 0-0.3)
There are lots of different spots you could begin the Lake Russell Great Loop.
I like to begin at the Chenocetah fire tower for a few reasons. First, there’s a water crossing near the end of the Lake Russell Loop trail and starting at Chenocetah moves this crossing near the end of the route. Second, the toughest climb of the entire route is the climb up to the fire tower and there’s something rewarding about putting off that toughest climb to the end. Third, the fire tower is easy to get to and there’s plenty of parking.
From the fire tower, head back down the road for about a quarter mile to the trail head for Rhododendron trail.
Rhododendron to Lake Russell Road (Mile 0.3-1.9)
The first half mile or so of the Rhodendron Trail is steep and technical, so take it slow.
After that first half mile, the next mile and a half are still downhill, but much more gradual and less technical.
Enjoy the Rhododendron tunnels at the start of the route and keep your eyes peeled for Tiny Dancer waterfall on the left.
Eventually, after about a mile and a half, Rhododendron trail will end at Lake Russell Road.
Unofficial Rhododendron-Sourwood Connector Trail (Mile 1.9-2.6)
This is where things get fun. Most folks would head down the paved road to cover the mile or so to the Sourwood trail head. However, that would be a shame, because if you do that you’ll miss out on a great near-bushwack connecting Rhododendron and Sourwood trails.
To find the unofficial trail, from the end of Rhododendron trail head basically straight across the road and slightly uphill until you see the trace of a trail heading into the woods.
This section can be tough to follow. The trail was definitely cut in at some point, you can pick out where the bank has been cut to create a trail, but it receives very little traffic and maintenance.
If you use Strava, consider opening up the Strava heat maps on your phone to try and help you find your way through this section if you get lost. Better yet, follow the Strava route linked to at the end of this post.
The hardest part of this section to follow is a hard right turn that happens in deep pine needles. The pine needles make the trail very hard to follow and you’ll naturally want to continue straight – something I’ve done many times. If you find yourself standing in pine trees having lost the trail, backtrack just a bit and look for a hard right turn (hard left when backtracking).
You’ll know you’ve found the right route because just past this hard right you’ll come out of the pines into a short overgrown section where a tunnel has been cut through the brush making the path obvious.
This section ends with a very steep downhill section. According to my watch, there are portions of the last descent where the grade exceeds 30%. To make things trickier, in this last descent the trail is covered in leaves making things quite slippery. You’ll be best able to handle this final descent if you have some good trekking poles or if you’re wearing some aggressively-lugged trail shoes.
The connector trail ends mercifully on Sourwood where things are much more domesticated.
Sourwood Trail (Mile 2.6-4.9)
When you hit Sourwood, take a left. The Sourwood trail needs little in the way of instruction. It’s perhaps the most well-trafficked trail in the Lake Russell WMA or recreation area, so following the trail should be easy.
There are three items worth pointing out.
First, you’ll come to a gravel road at the 3.4 mile point. Just ignore it. Head straight across the road where the Sourwood trail continues.
Second, at mile 4 you’ll reach Nancytown falls which requires a very short out-and-back. The short hike to the falls is worth a 5 minute detour, so make sure you take the time for that.
Next, the section of trail between the waterfall and the end of the Sourwood trail is perhaps the most runnable section of trail in this entire route, so enjoy it! The section has a slight downhill grade with just a couple of short climbs and the trail is pretty well clear and decently maintained. If your legs are feeling good, this is a great time to stretch them out just a little.
Gravel Road Sourwood-Ladyslipper Connector (Mile 4.9-5.7)
The Sourwood trail ends at a gravel road in the Lake Russell WMA. When you hit the gravel road take a left and head up the hill. You’ll go up a pretty significant climb for almost a half mile. At the top of the climb take a hard right onto a secondary gravel road that is far less maintained than the one you’ve been traveling on. This secondary road is also usually gated, though at certain times of the year it may be open.
Once you take the hard right go about .4 miles and you’ll see Ladyslipper trail on your left.
Ladyslipper Trail (Mile 5.7-10.8)
Ladyslipper trail can be hard to follow. Having completed this trail a dozen or so times, I think of the trail as consisting of eight separate sections.
Ladyslipper Section 1: Single Track to the Old Logging Road (Mile 5.7-6.5)
The Ladyslipper trail begins with some really runnable single track. Pretty quickly you’ll feel like you’re deep in the woods but soon realize you’re basically running parallel to a gravel WMA road.
Eventually the trail will actually let out into the gravel road at the end of a steep descent. Don’t get lost at this point, stay hard to the right and you’ll pick the trail back up after just a few feet.
At around the 6.5 mile point the single track trail will still be paralleling the gravel road and will let out onto an old forest service or logging road. Take a hard right on the old service road.
Ladyslipper Section 2: Old Service Road (Mile 6.5-7.1)
This section is gorgeous to run. It’s slightly downhill for the most part but it’s not without challenge. There are some sections that are pretty muddy if it has rained anytime recently, and more than few loose rocks. So take your time, but enjoy the gentle grades. They won’t last forever.
At the 7.1 mile point watch very carefully. The old roadbed will take a right and you will want to continue straight onto a less-trafficked single-track trail. This spot is easy to miss as most of the traffic on this trail does take a right and stay on the old road bed, so go slow and keep your eyes open.
Ladyslipper Section 3: Single-Track Ankle Breakers (Mile 7.1-7.8)
The first half mile of this section is hazardous. Take is slow. What makes this section dangerous is that the trail is littered with loose rocks ranging in size from golf ball to fist size. However, you can’t see them because the trail has lots of leaf cover. The combination is very dangerous. If you’re going to sprain your ankle on this trail, this is where you’re going to do it, so be careful.
This trail is pretty easy to follow if you keep your eyes open. Just follow the trail until it ends at a gravel road.
Ladyslipper Section 4: Highly Runnable Gravel (Mile 7.8-8.4)
When you reach the gravel road, take a right. The next half mile is the most runnable section you’re going to see for several miles, so if you feel like running, now is the time to do it!
The gravel road ends abruptly and you’ll see a creek to your left. The trail continues on the other side of the creek.
If you’re lucky (or good at jumping) and it hasn’t rained recently you’ll be able to get across the creek without getting your feet wet. If it has rained recently, well, you’re going to get your feet wet.
Ladyslipper Section 5: Fields and Forests (Mile 8.4-9.4)
This section is generally uphill and varied. Towards the start you’ll have to hike across an open field that feels pretty exposed. Just head straight across. From there you’ll find yourself generally traveling uphill through a series of pine and hardwood sections. It’s a nice section, though there’s not much to note as a highlight.
This section ends back on the old service road you were on earlier, and just as before you have to keep your eyes peeled to avoid missing your turn.
In this case, this section ends with a hard left up a nasty looking climb. When you see what looks like a rain runoff trough to your left and think to yourself “that would be terrible to have to climb”, congratulations, it’s time to take a left and head right up that nasty rain runoff trough.
Ladyslipper Section 6: Red Root Mountain Climb (Mile 9.4-10)
This section begins with a technical, steep, slippery climb that mercifully is only about a tenth of a mile long. From there, the trail continues generally uphill and quickly begins to follow a historical road bed hugging the side of Red Root Mountain.
This section of trail is perhaps the most beautiful. Rhododendron abound and the steep drop off on the right side of the trail provides beautiful views enhanced by the knowledge that a wayward step could prove injurious.
There is one short and extremely muddy section this trail. It’s only about 10 feet long but there’s simply no way around it, so don’t bother trying to avoid it. When you come to the muddy bog, hug the mountain and move quick and you’ll be through it before you know it.
Eventually, this section ends back on a gravel forest service road.
Ladyslipper Section 7: Gravel FSR (Mile 10-10.3)
Take a left when you get back to the gravel forest service road.
This short section is rolling and not super runnable due to the large gravel and fairly steep grades. However, if you’re a strong runner you can probably keep a running pace.
Here again there’s a key turn you have to be careful not to miss at the end of this section. After just a quarter to a third of a mile on gravel you’ll see the trail resume on the right. Keep your eyes open and take the right when you see it.
Ladyslipper Section 8: Descent and Nancytown Lake (Mile 10.2-11)
The next half mile or so of trail is nearly entirely downhill. However, the trail is pretty technical – roots and rocks abound – so take it easy. As you descend you’ll see Nancytown lake and as you approach the lake the trail will come to a fork. Bear left at the fork and run along Nancytown lake towards the dam.
As you approach the dam the trail will offer you a couple of different routes. There are effectively two options at this point: head down the hill towards the creek below the dam, or stay up high to the left on the hillside. You want to stay up high on the hillside. This is the route towards Lake Russell.
Lake Russell Loop Trail (Mile 11-14.6)
As you leave Nancytown lake there will be a creek on your right. This is the creek that flows away from the Nancytown lake dam and it’s the creek that feeds Lake Russell. Follow the trail and after just a quarter mile or so you’ll see Lake Russell spread out on your right.
The next mile or so is one of the nicest sections of this route. You’ll be running along the bank of Lake Russell. The trail will be rolling but the climbs are all short. The trail is pretty well-trafficked and maintained, so it’s generally clear of debris and blowdowns. The views of Lake Russell are fantastic.
Following the trail around Lake Russell is easy and there are really no opportunities to lose the trail. Eventually, the trail will start to move away from the lake. At the same time, the climbs will get longer and the trail will grow more challenging. Eventually, you’ll break out of the woods onto an earth berm which forms part of the earthen dam that contains Lake Russell.
Crossing the Lake Russell Lake Dam and Spillway (Mile 13-13.3)
Run along the top of the earthen dam until you come to a concrete spillway. It’s time to get your feet wet. You may be tempted to try and hike down below the dam and find a way to get across the creek with dry feet. Ignore this temptation, there’s no way to get across the creek with dry feet. Take is slow and walk across the spillway. Enjoy the view. You’re approaching the homestretch.
Back on Gravel Headed Towards the Lake Russell Campground (Mile 13.3-14.1)
After you cross the dam you’ll quickly find yourself running on a gravel road. Don’t worry, you aren’t lost, just head up the gravel road. The gravel section is a mile long, mostly uphill, and dead ends into an asphalt road that leads down to one of the Lake Russell Recreation Area campgrounds. When you reach the end of the gravel road, continue straight across the asphalt road and you’ll see that the trail resumes in the woods straight across the road.
Trail to the Campground Cut-Through (Mile 14.1-14.7)
Head down the hill into the woods. The trail will wind it’s way down to the edge of the lake and after about a half mile you’ll approach another portion of the Lake Russell Recreation Area campground. The trail passes behind the campground restrooms. When you reach the campground restrooms, turn into the campground and run directly away from the lake and into the campground. Briefly follow the asphalt campground road and then cut straight up the hill towards the corner in the road that winds around the campground.
The cut through the campground is a bit complex to explain, so here’s a graphic explaining the route to take away from the lake.
After you cut through the campground you’ll come to a road. Across the road you’ll see a trailhead. This is the campground leg of the rhododendron trail.
Campground Leg of the Rhododendron Trail (Mile 14.7-16)
The good news is that you’re in the home stretch! The bad news is that it’s basically all uphill from here.
Rhododendron trail, from the campground to the fire tower, is a beautiful and challenging climb. Unless you’re an extremely talented runner, you won’t be doing much running on this last leg of the route. As you complete this last portion bear in mind that the hardest part of the climb comes at the end, so pace yourself.
This last section of trail is varied. There are sections that are rutted and muddy. There are sections that pass through pine and are soft underfoot. There are sections that are strewn with rocks and exposed roots.
There is only one opportunity to miss a turn on this last section of trail. At about the 15.6 mile point the trail will take a hard left. Take this left. However, you can also continue straight at this point.
If you miss this left, don’t worry about it. Going straight will quickly connect you to the original leg of the Rhododendron trail you first descended 15 miles ago. However, I prefer to take the left and head straight up the mountain to the fire tower. From that hard left, you have less than a half mile to go until you’ll see the fire tower sitting atop Chenocetah moutain. You made it!
Closing Thoughts and Links
I hope you’ll give the Lake Russell Great Loop a try. This trail consists of true northeast Georgia trails and takes you through a wide range of habitats. Along the way, if you’re lucky you may see deer, countless squirrels and birds, turkey, coyotes, snakes, possum, beaver, turtles, an armadillo, or even a wild boar or bear – I’ve seen all of these animals at one time or another out on these trails.
If you embark on this route, I recommend starting early to avoid the heat of the afternoon as much as possible. The ideal weather for this route is cloudy, but not raining, with temperatures in the 40’s to 60’s. While I have run this route with nothing but water, I usually consume about 500 calories over the course of this route and recommend you carry plenty of fluids and calories. Also, take your cell phone with you. While much of this route is inaccessible by vehicle, cell coverage is pretty good, and you’ll want a way to call for help if you run into trouble.