Coolin’ Down in the North Georgia Mountains
Tubing, hiking, waterfalls, wine and ultimately cooler temperatures await in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
by Deanna Kuder
We are close to shattering the record for the hottest summer in recorded history as I look at the Georgia map. It’s hard to ignore the big spot of green at the top, beckoning me to cool off in the mountain air. As I answered the call and headed for the north Georgia mountains, the main goal was escaping the heat, but what I found was a mecca of entertainment for the entire family and a playground to please every budget, age and activity level.
Helen, Georgia, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains along the shores of the Chattahoochee River, launched its transformation into an Alpine village in 1969. Local business owners began to revitalize their mountain paradise by turning it into a Bavarian village. Faces of the buildings are now adorned with delicate gingerbread trim, intricate plaster relief and detailed scenes of Bavaria. And in keeping with the theme, visitors will find shopkeepers decked out in lederhosen and dirndls.
Upon entering the Welcome Center, a helpful attendant was on the phone being quizzed about the weather. It was 90 degrees in town, but at home it was 102, so the 12 degree difference was good news. The Welcome Center is a great starting point to acquaint yourself with the town and pick up coupons. Throughout the year, Helen hosts festivals spotlighting hot air balloons, beer, wine, German wurst and Oktoberfest, the longest of its kind in the South. Even when there is not a festival livening up the town, there’s still no shortage of activities.
We began our cooling off with a lazy tube trip down the Chattahoochee River. Trips are available from two companies in town. Both offer 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 hour trips, the actual duration depending on the level of the river. Cool River Tubing also has two large waterslides and picnic areas along the river for tubing guests, a fitting end to a refreshing trip.
Helen Tubing & Water Park estimates that they put 20,000 tubers down the river in a two-day weekend. They offer four waterslides over 60 feet each and a 1,100- foot-long lazy river at their waterpark. Tubing is free all day with water park admission. The tubers are a colorful melding of playful children skirting rocks, bonding families with their tubes tethered together and romantic couples holding hands as they float lazily down the river. The mountain water, rarely more than thigh high, was a refreshing and welcome beginning to our escape-the-heat vacation. The tube trip meanders down the beautifully forested Chattahoochee River past cute chalets, picnickers and through the town, where diners at riverside restaurants can enjoy the view.
Glass, Pottery & Rails
After tubing, we opted to walk through town and immerse ourselves in the Bavarian atmosphere. Two hundred specialty shops line the streets and cobblestone alleys of the village, selling imported goods, specialty items and original artists’ works.
Scott Warner‘s family owns The Glassblowing Shop on Main Street. As a fourth generation “flameworker,” he provides customers an education in glass, its history and how vital it is to our everyday life. He specializes in intricate “torchwork” to create pieces of art; you can even have your name fashioned in glass. The family works with over 50 other artists to provide a variety of glasswork to fit all budgets.
Willows Pottery, also on Main Street, features stoneware pieces made on-site or by local craftspeople. I found the pottery in the area to be particularly unique and a perfect souvenir of the trip. You may be fortunate enough to see a pottery demonstration while you visit. The Helen Arts Council also carries the work of regional potters as well as an exhibit on the transformation of Helen from its lumber-town roots.
Another unique stop is Charlemagne’s Kingdom, the only known replica of Germany in miniature of its type. The exhibit, the lifelong dream of German-born Willi Lindhorst, covers the Alps to the North Sea in model scale. He and his wife, Judi, worked 25 years to complete the magical display. Replicas of German buildings and 6,000 figurines and trees combine with 400 feet of railway and seven operating trains. Two viewing levels allow the exhibit to support 22-foot-tall mountains for a realistic recreation of Germany.
Bears & Tarantulas
In Helen, you don’t have to leave town to visit with nature. Black Forest Bear Park and Reptile Exhibit features black bears, a 1,000 pound grizzly, a Syrian Grizzly, Asian bears and cinnamon bears, as well as boas, pythons and many native Georgia snakes. This year, the exhibit has added frogs, turtles and other assorted reptiles. The highlight of your visit will likely be the two grizzly cubs born this January. Bear facts are posted at the enclosures, and keepers are available to answer questions, making this a fun and educational visit.
The Live Tarantulas Gallery houses 30 tarantulas as well as scorpions, lizards, iguanas and an albino Burmese python. If you wish, you can have your picture taken holding bearded dragon or a tarantula.
Wine & French Toast
After the tarantulas, we needed a break from exploring. Betty’s Country Store is a great place to pick up a souvenir, homemade baked goods, jams and jellies, imported foods, groceries, beer and wine. We sat in Adirondack chairs outside and sipped an old-fashioned soda from an icy cold bottle while watching the people and horsedrawn carriages go lazily by.
An hour passed quickly, and wine tasting was our next stop. At Georgia Wines you can taste 30 wines from a vineyard in Ringold, Georgia, 3 1/2 hours north of Helen. Their best seller, “Georgia on my Mind,” is a blend of Muscadine and peach wine.
Habersham is Georgia’s oldest winery and produces 13,000 to 15,000 cases annually in their vineyard 15 minutes outside of town. Best seller is a white Muscadine wine. Steve Gibson, general manager, says that with 20 varieties, from the driest dry to the sweetest of sweet, “There’s no reason why anyone who walks in here can’t come out with something they like.”
Riverbank dining includes some fine choices. Paul’s Steakhouse has been serving steaks, seafood, chicken, ribs, crab and lobster since 1965. Viele Margaritas boasts the largest deck on the river in Helen and serves its namesake plus “the coldest beer in town.”
The Black Pearl, one of the newest restaurants in town, although not on the river, came recommended. Although we missed it for dinner, it had quite a lively late-night dancing crowd the Sunday evening we stopped in. My favorite meal in Helen, however, was breakfast at Hofer’s. When you walk through the front door you are surrounded with some of the best food that Germany has to offer. To the right, a case of German sausages and cold cuts greets you. Straight ahead, on shelves are displayed imported packaged German foods, gifts and magazines and, behind a windowed door, the working bakers. To the left is an irresistible wall of assorted fresh, authentic German rolls and bread behind a case of pastries.
Resist the urge to fill your belly right in the lobby and take a seat in the cutely decorated restaurant. I ordered the French toast: four thick triangles of their own bread fresh bread dusted with powdered sugar. Each bite was so light and fluffy it was a delicacy unto itself. We also ordered the Bavarian Cold Cut Breakfast, a sampling of at least seven delicious meats and a heaping plate of a variety of breads and rolls: the perfect breakfast on a hot summer day. After breakfast, I would recommend choosing some meats, breads or rolls and pastries for a picnic lunch. Hofer’s does serve lunch, a fun affair in their Biergarten, featuring German cuisine and beer all while people watching on Helen’s main street.
Enough of village life, time to seek higher altitudes and lower temperatures in the forested Appalachian Mountains. Just north of Helen is Unicoi State Park. Overnight guests in the park can choose accommodations ranging from a room in the lodge, to cottages or camping. The 1,050-acre park features a 53-acre lake and beach, four lighted tennis courts and a buffet restaurant serving up all-you-can-eat downhome country cooking. A three-mile trail makes hiking between Helen and Unicoi State Park possible, although the trail is uphill from Helen and takes about two hours to hike. Friday evenings, the park offers a campfire with s’mores, songs and music. The Saturday Evening Music Concert Series and the weekend-long Visiting Artist Series run from June until mid-November. Unicoi offers ranger-guided programs as least five days a week during the summer.
From the campground, you can hike the 4.6-mile (each way) Smith Creek Trail to the base of Anna Ruby Falls. If hiking round trip, it is recommended that you begin at the campground so you can complete the uphill portion first. Fifty thousands visitors a year enjoy Anna Ruby Falls, at the junction of Curtis and York Creeks. To form the twin waterfalls, York Creek drops 50 feet while Curtis Creek drops 153 feet.
For a shorter walk to the falls, go one mile north of Helen on GA 75 and then right on GA 356. At the entrance of Unicoi State Park, make a left and travel 3.5 miles to the parking lot. (Although you will pay an entrance fee to the park, this doesn’t cover admission to the falls area.) From here, the hike to the falls is only .4 miles. Keep in mind that the tree-lined trail is paved, steep and can be slippery. This is an ideal hike in the summer, not only because of the cooler temperatures of the higher elevation, but because the spray of the icy creek can be felt from the two observation decks. When you are done enjoying the falls, consider a picnic at one of the 11 picnic sites.
Andrews Cove Recreation Area (north on GA 75) offers a more rustic camping experience. Eleven large campsites with tent pads, tables and grills are nestled under a thick canopy of trees along Andrews Creek. The Andrews Cove Trail runs parallel to the creek and connects to the Appalachian Trail, which begins just southwest of the area and stretches over 2,000 miles to Maine.
Also off GA 75 and north of Helen is Horse Trough Falls. The .4-mile trail to the falls is one of the easiest waterfall walks. The falls are located inside the Horse Trough Park campsite. To get there, take GA 75 to Unicoi Gap and take a left onto Wilkes Creek Road (FS Rd. 44). After 5.4 miles, take the right at a sharp fork and continue .2 miles.
The Highest Mountain in Georgia
Sixteen miles northwest of Helen, off of a spur road of GA 180, sits Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia at an elevation of 4,784 feet. At the summit, an observation deck offers a 360-degree view of lush farmland and forests of north Georgia and into North Carolina. A visitors’ center offers a movie and information on the area, and several trails are available for miles of hiking. Currently, the trail to the visitors’ center is closed, but you can either take a shuttle to the top or walk up the road. Consider the possibility of fog limiting your visibility and plan your visit accordingly. One thing you will notice quickly about the bald is a marked drop in temperature as you ascend. When we left Helen it was 76 degrees. At the shuttle stop for the bald, the temperature had dropped to 67. The shuttle driver told us only 1/2 mile up the mountain the temperature was a cool 62.
Lakes Of Gold
Vogel State Park consists of 233 acres with Lake Trahlyta acting as the centerpiece. Tucked into a valley and surrounded by mountain peaks, Trahlyta is the quinnicential mountain lake. Overnight visitors can camp or choose from one of 35 cottages. Across from the beach is the Civilian Conservation Corp Museum, built out of trees that were dying due to a blight. Two trailer-sized buildings display photos, tools, and memorabilia from the CCC.
At the end of Lake Trahlyta is an earthen dam built by the CCC, beyond which a beautiful waterfall flows. The falls can be seen from parking areas on the road across from the mile marker 3 sign just outside the park entrance. The falls careen over boulders and can also be viewed from boardwalks and decks along a trail. The mist is a welcome respite on a hot day. Despite the surrounding forest, the sun is still able to penetrate and light the falls, providing the easiest photo opportunity of a truly stunning waterfall in the area.
Nearby, Helton Creek Falls is accessed off of US 19, 2.2 miles along Helton Creek Road. Although the road is paved through the Vogel Springs Community, it becomes dirt once you are through it. The trail, lined with rhododendron, is an awesome walk when in bloom. The .3-mile walk takes you to two distinctive waterfalls, first the lower falls, a sliding rock type, and then the upper falls, with a more dispersed flow and drop of 330 feet. The area is also recommended for gold panning, a cool diversion in the creek.
Covered Bridges & Creeks
The Stovall Mill Covered Bridge, circa 1895, is sometimes called the Sautee or Helen Covered Bridge. It is one of the shorter covered bridges in Georgia spanning only 33 feet. In 1951, the bridge was featured in the Susan Haywood movie “I‘d Climb the Highest Mountain.” From the intersection of GA 75 and 17, turn right and continue on GA 17 for two miles, making a left on GA 255. Signs point to the bridge in the Sautee tourism area. The Chickamauga Creek has been dammed up by visitors to provide a small swimming area. Just enough water flows over the smooth rocks that they can be used for a slide into the shallow pool.
Smithgall Woods, southwest of Helen, is so different from the other state parks in Georgia that it is not even referred to as a state park. The property was sold to the state in 1994 by local businessman Charles Smithgall for half of its estimated value on the condition that it remain in its natural state. Smithgall then spent his own money restoring areas that logging and mining activity had destroyed. Most visitors travel the park by shuttle vans as cars are not generally permitted. Running through the park is Dukes Creek, one of the nation’s top trout streams. Only 15 anglers at a time are permitted to fish, and fishing is by reservation only.
Give your feet a rest and book with Scenic Helicopter Tours. They offer tours starting at just $10, depending on how far you want to go and what you are interested in seeing. The $20, 6 to 8-mile ride, gives you an overview of the cute hamlet from the air that you can’t get from the ground.
If You Go
If you intend to venture off into the Chattahoochee Forest searching for waterfalls, hiking trails, lesser-known mountain lakes or secluded camping spots, I recommend purchasing a map that covers the area in detail. Although some of the free tourist literature available may have the locations of trails and waterfalls, they are generally too vague. One I found readily available was by Fern Creek Press called “North East Georgia Mountains Highway Map and Recreation Guide,” worth the $1.95 price tag. There are more detailed maps for those who will be doing more serious wandering. Note that although the paved roads in the area are well maintained, often sites you will want to reach may be miles down unpaved roads, and hence, inappropriate for certain vehicles.
Georgia’s Annual ParkPass can be purchased at any park for $50 ($25 for seniors). With most parks charging a parking fee of $3-$5 (free on Wednesdays and if you just intend to ride through), it may be an economical option. The pass is good for 12 months. If you are staying overnight in the park for any length of time, you only pay this fee once and if you visit other parks in the system, your parking pass is good at all of them. Keep in mind, however, that much of the green space in the area is operated by the National Forest Service and would not be covered under this state pass.
Note from the Editor: Can’t make it to North Georgia? Take a nod from Deanna and find that spot of green on your own state map. Tree-shaded areas and the lakes and creeks of your own region’s state parks promise to be several degrees cooler.
Deanna Kuder is a recovering travel addict and freelance writer who tries to limit her vacations to destinations that are truly worth the trip. (Georgia was!) She lives in Pittsburgh and has written for several publications in western Pennsylvania and also writes the blog, writergal.