Real mountains in Georgia? Fun and excitement in those magnificent mountains? For first-time or even seasoned travelers, the answer to both questions is a resounding YES. Even for people like us, who live in the rugged regions of the Rockies, Georgia’s version of mountain country is a whole new and fascinating adventure. We invite you to follow along as we re-trace and re-live our memorable, four-day journey there. Then we encourage you to take your life out for a spin on this same wonderful journey yourself. Grab a detailed map of Georgia, and off we go:
Since the capital of Atlanta has over four million people, if you happen to fly into the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport there, do avoid exiting the city during rush hour, or you may have to crawl along in those long lines of traffic. There are several auto routes heading to the pristine, northeastern mountain country of the state, but we recommend any of the various two-hour drives that will ultimately take you to the alpine-style village of Helen. You’ll have to be a good map reader to locate Helen on Route 17, but she’s definitely a welcoming, little town with her Bavarian architecture everywhere, as well as her gateway location to the panoramic mountain country of Georgia. From Helen, it’s just a short drive into Towns County which boasts only two small, but impressive communities: Hiawassee and Young Harris. Both are such fun to visit.
Towns County, by the way, is one of Georgia’s 159 counties, 17 of which are in the Northeast region, and these 17 are becoming increasingly popular because of their invitation to outstanding mountains, lakes, outdoor recreation, wineries, and so much more. We spent our first two nights in the little community of Hiawassee at The Ridges – a hard-to-beat resort with its friendly staff, expansive, 18-hole golf course, equestrian center, tennis courts, Audubon-listed wildlife sanctuary, and scrumptious fine dining. (1-800-896-2262). We also had the fun of a hoe-down that evening at the nearby Brasstown Valley Resort, complete with violin and guitar, bluegrass music, and a clogger named Chris who brought the house down with two of his famous clogging numbers. We chowed down on a tasty, finger-lickin’ meal of BBQ chicken and ribs, corn on the cob, beans, salad, and peach cobbler topped with ice cream. Yum! Hiawassee, by the way, is not the sister of Hiawatha (though pronunciation is similar), but it is a pleasant, little community of about 700 people, named for an Indian word meaning rolling, green meadow. The town sits on a corner of the 120-mile shoreline of colorful Lake Chatuge (sha-toog), a huge man-made lake that boasts fishing, pontoon boat rides, and other all kinds of water sports. More and more upscale homes are being built along its varied, hilly shores, due to an influx of folks from Southern Georgia and Florida who are migrating here. Not hard to guess why. . .
If flowers happen to be your thing, a visit to Hiawassee’s Hamilton Rhododendron Garden, with over 3,000 plants, is about as much as you could ask for in both beauty and variety. The garden is located on the Geogia Mountain Fairgrounds. Meanwhile, the nearby town of Young Harris, named in the 1800s for a former governor of the state, is only three miles from Hiawassee and is the home of Young Harris College, as well as the home of the former, sometimes controversial U.S. Senator, Zel Miller. His residence is a modest one easily seen from its location on the main street of the town.
On the first morning we were off to some new and exciting heights, experiencing the steep, winding road to the top of Brasstown Bald, highest point in Georgia and located in the famed Blue Ridge Mountains. At an elevation of 4,784 feet, this might not sound like a great height to those of us from the Intermountain West, but the stunning views from the observation deck and the nearby visitor center include North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and nearly half the state of Georgia.
One ponders the grueling climb of the 130 bikers who completed the signature stage of the Tour de Georgia recently, accompanied by famed cyclist, Lance Armstrong. Even riding in a car, the tortuous twists and turns of this mountain road come close to being exhausting, let alone attempting the climb on a bicycle. 2007. This was the fifth year that the summit of Brasstown Bald was the finish line of the signature stage for this major cyclers’ event.
If you study your map further, you will see that Brasstown Bald Mountain — and most of the entire Northern part of Georgia – are all part of the densely forested, Chattahoochee National Forest – over 750,000 acres of the land that belongs to all Americans, and proud of it we can be. Parts of this vast forest are designated Wilderness Area, and 75,000 to 125,000 people visit the area annually for biking, hiking, and/or just to get away from it all.
Much of our second day in Northeast Georgia was spent poking around the art and antique shops of Hiawassee and also visiting Funworld at Fieldstone, a bustling 84,000 square-foot, indoor activity center for kids of all ages. This facility is amazingly clean, offers batting cages, miniature golf, 100 arcade games, a go-cart track, rock-climbing wall, laser tag facility, and even hand-dipped ice cream cones. Adjacent to Funworld is Cinemas Six which doubles as a conference center, ideal for business meetings and/or private movie showings.
From Hiawassee, we headed west on Route 76 to the town of Blue Ridge, gateway to the Historic High Country, aptly named for its lush, airy mountain setting. We spent the night in one of the MyMountain cabins situated near Blue Ridge Lake. These upscale cabins – not exactly roughing it — are located along winding roads embraced by serenely beautiful, towering trees. For additional information on the cabins call 800-844-4939. This general area, by the way, is rich in vinegards and wineries.
Our dinner that night was pecan-crusted trout, an inclusive salad bar, and a fudgy dessert, served at the popular Toccoa Riverside Restaurant overlooking the clear, rushing waters of the scenic Toccoa River. Next day, we stopped for breakfast at Mercier’s Orchard, a family-owned and operated apple orchard for more than 60 years, nestled in the North Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains. This popular place is famous for its mouth-watering, home-made apple pies, muffins, scones, fresh apple cider and ample gift shop offerings. From Mercier’s we drove south, again on Route 76 to Elijay, where we turned west on the mountain road just north of Route 76 through a canopy of shimmering green trees laced with sprinkles of gold from the penetrating sunlight.
Our trek led us through more of the Historic High Country to the city of Dalton (population 97,000 and largest manufacturer of carpeting in the U.S. with 150 carpet plants in the general area), then north on Interstate 75 past Fort Oglethorpe to Chickamauga National Military Park – largest and oldest of the national military parks. Known as the Gettysburg of the South, the site commemorates the bloodiest two-day battle of the Civil War, one that tragically left more than 34,000 casualties, 7,000 of which died.
Park Ranger and Historian, James Ogden, was a walking encyclopedia, as we toured the well-designed Visitor’s Center and then by van along the roads through the monument-studded battlefield – over 1,000 stone memorials in all. This is a not-to-be-missed experience for history buffs, particularly those who study the horrendous war that occurred on our native soil, claiming over 620,000 American lives.
The quaint, nearby town of Chickmauga, population 2500, is worth a whole day’s visit. The Cherokee Indians were the original residents until they were relocated to Oklahoma in 1838 on the infamous “Trail of Tears.” A special stop in Chickamauga, if your time is limited, is the restored Gordon-Lee Mansion, which was used as a military hospital following the horrors of the nearby battlefield. It is said that 40 wagon loads of human limbs were carried away from this place of unimaginable pain and suffering. Today, the still-stately mansion is filled with haunting memories of what occurred here. It’s definitely well worth a visit. Leaving Chickamauga, we traveled south again on I-75 to Adairsville, where we turned our thoughts to the joy of spending a quiet afternoon and evening on the lovely 1,300 acres known as Barnsley Gardens, an antebellum site, now a luxury resort where travelers can totally unwind and forget their cares.
The Gardens were built by Godfrey Barnsley, an English immigrant born in 1805, who made his fortune shipping cotton to Europe. Both the home and gardens were a token of his love for his bride, Julia Scarborough of Savannah. She bore him eight children before age 32, then died at age 35. Theirs has been called “a never-ending love story.”
Clent Croker, our well-informed guide, who took us through the remains of the once-stately Manor House (an Italianate villa), has written a book titled, “The Illustrious Dream,” which recounts their love story. The magnificent, 160-year-old Gardens feature 33 garden-themed cottages of various sizes and designs, each unique and inviting and offering the finest in accommodations for the many visitors to the area. All the cottages are situated along tree-lined walkways.
You can expect warm hosting and award-winning amenities at Barnsley – and there’s even a “Fairy Godmother” who works full-time to help make your every wish come true. World-class dining options abound – the goal of the staff being to “make every meal a memory.”
Outdoor activities at Barnsley include golfing on the lush, emerald fairways of the championship golf course, fly fishing on the 10-acre lake or the local river, horse and/or mountain bike riding, paintball, canoeing, kayaking, and on and on. The Spa, meanwhile, offers ten treatment rooms and a fitness center to begin or end your day. During our visit, after a relaxing bath in an old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub, followed by a refreshing night’s rest, we were off on our final day, heading west, then south to Rome, Georgia, which, like it’s big sister in Italy, is appropriately set on seven hills. Outside Rome is Oak Hill, the remarkable home of Martha Berry, Georgia’s most renowned, 20th Century philanthropist, whose theme was “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” Never wishing to be a “leaner, but a lifter,” she started a school for the poor, which is now the elegant, 1800-student body Berry College campus set on 28,000 acres and the largest contiguous college campus in the nation.
Heading back toward Atlanta, we completed our visit to Northern Georgia with a stop in Cartersville at the Booth Western Art Museum, a venue that makes those of us from the West both proud and properly impressed. Opened in 2004, this is not just any art museum. Rather, it offers an outstanding collection of Western art, representing all aspects of paintings, drawings, and sculptures dealing with cowboys, Indians, pioneers, and related subjects. Each seems to almost literally reach out and grab visitors, shaking them into remembering what the famed Old West was all about.
There’s even a “Reel West” room with artwork from the movies, as well as a bottom floor featuring an interactive gallery called Sagebrush Ranch where kids, young and old, can learn about art and the American West. While there, you might even meet up with Jim Dunham, Director of Special Projects, and a real, live gunslinger. Jim is happy to entertain visitors with a tour, and he might even be coaxed into an exciting display of his gun slinging skills.
We’ve only touched, of course, on all there is to see and do in this tucked-away part of our nation. However, all in all, for a great adventure in some bright, beautiful, and memorable mountain country, you simply cannot beat the many fascinating sights and delights that Northern Georgia has to offer.