A barrel has never registered in my mind as the type of structure someone could camp—or even fit—in. That’s exactly why the Unicoi State Park barrel cabins, which sit scattered throughout the park’s forest and lakeside like a giant Donkey Kong threw a fit in the North Georgia mountains, have caught my eye for years.

I finally had the opportunity to step inside the barrels at my family’s most recent annual camping trip. My camping fanatic father is the driving force behind these annual gatherings, and members of the Ottem family drove in from New York to Tennessee to meet in the Blue Ridge mountains.



For as far back as my memory stretches, I can remember camping with my dad just about anywhere. We’ve camped from Guam to Germany to even our own backyard. Yet barrel camping remains one of the more—if not the most—unusual camping options I’ve been lucky to try. But we all met and became campers in a barrel at Unicoi State Park and Lodge.

Four Facts to Know About The Unicoi State Park Barrel Cabins

My interest was piqued, and I had to know —why barrels? Here’s the run down on the reasoning, background, and history that brought the barrels to Unicoi.

1. They’re A Family-Friendly Camping Solution

one of many unicoi state park barrel cabins in the forest

Image from Unicoi State Park and Lodge

The Unicoi State Park barrel cabins are circular, metal structures perched upon stilts, but that industrial image vanishes when you step inside. The barrels are two stories, with a full kitchen, dining room, living room, bathroom, and porch on the first floor, and bedrooms upstairs (the cabins offer different layouts depending on how many people you’re bringing). The barrels are fully furnished and all the interiors are made out of wood.

This layout served my family perfectly: when my mom needed the space to prepare pounds of ingredients for a camping meal that would feed everyone, the full kitchen came in handy. My dad did the boiling outdoors and the group ate right there at the picnic tables. I could also lay my one and a half year old down for a nap upstairs while the family met downstairs, something next to impossible while tent camping.

The cabins also come equipped with central air and heat, as well as wood-burning fireplaces.

2. They Began As An Experiment

The interior of the upstairs room in of the Unicoi State Park barrel cabins.

The interior of the upstairs room in of the Unicoi State Park barrel cabins.

The Unicoi State Park barrel cabins origin goes back to the 70s (which clicks with the retro-aesthetic of the interior). In 1973 the Unicoi Outdoor Recreation Experiment Station opened with the mission of attracting people to take part in the many outdoor adventures offered in the natural Georgia wilderness.

“The Unicoi Outdoor Recreation Experiment State is trying out new ideas in camping and outdoor fun cabins of unusual shapes,” wrote Lucy Justus in a 1972 article published by the then-named Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

I can’t imagine that it was difficult to coax people outside, Unicoi remains one of the more popular Georgia camping destinations, particularly for its close proximity to the tourist town of Helen and the Chattahoochee River Tubing. Nevertheless, the barrels are a hit and for nearly half a century have been situated on the banks of Lake Unicoi.

3. They’re Intentional Designed for Easy Transport—But Not By Rolling

Before construction and placement, the University of Georgia designed the Unicoi State Park barrel cabins as part of the experiment. According to Hilari Barton from Hemsworth Communications, the barrel cabins are on stilts for easier transportation— no rolling necessary.

It’s worth noting that round structures can promote efficiency in several ways. In fact, this shape has been used in structural design since early humanity. It’s a clever use of space. A circular structure uses around 15 to 20 percent less material than a rectangular design of the same square footage. It’s unclear whether designers at UGA considered efficiency as a deciding point in the barrel construction, nonetheless, it’s one of the design’s benefits.

4. There’s a Whole State Park to Explore

a truck in a festive campsite in the woods

Image from The Dyrt camper Jennifer.

If sleeping in the Unicoi State Park barrel cabins isn’t quite your thing, the park’s campground also offers tent and RV sites. Some arrangements accommodate 30- and 40-foot RVs, and the full hookup sites include water, power, and sewer, as well as a fire ring and picnic table on the plot.

For those looking to really rough it, The Squirrel’s Nest primitive camping sites connect you with the mountain, forest, and sky as best as possible in the park. Their bare essentials camping platforms are suitable for sleeping bags or hammocks.

Once you’re in Unicoi, there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy. My family whizzed through tree tops on zip lines outside the lodge, and we have often drifted down the Chattahoochee in nearby Helen. There are also many on site trails and walking paths to take in the scenery. But why choose a barrel? Sometimes, “just because” is plenty reason to go outside, hug your family, and camp in a barrel.

Fishing

Anglers visiting Unicoi can cast off and expect to catch mountain trout, catfish, bass, bream, and blue gill. Smith Lake, also known as Unicoi Lake, allows for fishing along its docks as long as you have a Georgia fishing license. Fishing from the bank of the lake is permitted year-round.

However, if you’re going to take your rod to Smith Creek, there are a few restrictions depending on your location along the creek. Lower Smith Creek, the section below the lake and dam, is a delayed harvest stream. This means that from November 1 to May 14 every year, the rules are catch-and-release only.

Hiking

With over 2,000 acres of North Georgia mountain land to traverse, you can choose your own adventure in Unicoi depending on the trail you follow. The Unicoi Lake Trail will take you on a two-mile loop around the forested Unicoi Lake. The Smith Creek Trail will lead you to the stunning twin waterfalls toppling over the mountainside, known as Anna Ruby Falls. Be prepared to make a day out of it though, the roundtrip length of Smith Creek Trails is just under nine miles. You might find the length to be worth it; the trail parallels a historic gold mining waterway, perfect for history lovers or anyone hoping to strike it rich.

Other trails will deposit you at the mountain peak or in the quaint mountain village, Helen. To plan your own hiking excursion, reference this list of available trails at Unicoi State Park.

Target Practice

Whether you’re using a bow and arrow or an air rifle, you can get a target practice session in at the Archery and Air Gun Range at Unicoi State Park. The daily rate to use the range is $5, and it operates on a first-come, first-served basis. At the static archery range, archers have the option of multiple lanes, each with a target at a varying distance. For a more fantastical experience, try the 3-D archery range where your targets can range from hunting game to prehistoric beasts. The air rifle range has 10 lanes, each with a cable to attach your target papers. All three of the ranges are Americans with Disabilities Act accessible.




Madelyn Ottem

Madelyn Ottem

Madelyn spent seven years as a photojournalist in the Air Force. She has lived all over the world as a military kid and enlisted Airman, but no destination settles her soul more than the steely-blue Smokies.