The North Georgia Mountains beckon with stunning fall foliage, quaint shops and scenic waterfalls
Autumn is one of the most popular times for motorhome travel, and the North Georgia Mountains area is a popular place to go. Envision a colorful patchwork quilt sprinkled with small towns with whimsical names like Blue Ridge, Helen, Tallulah Falls and Dahlonega. Among those North Georgia Mountains are the Chattahoochee National Forest, several state parks, many rivers and, of course, waterfalls galore — all of which make the North Georgia Mountains a great place to visit year-round. But it’s the stunning technicolor landscape throughout the season that makes exploration during fall truly special.
There are no interstate highways crossing through the mountains. That welcome respite provides ample time to admire the countryside and the colorful trees as the curvy and twisty roads wind their way through the mountains connecting the unique towns. The town of Helen is the center of the North Georgia Mountains and is one of the most popular to visit, especially in the fall. Founded in 1913 as a logging town and named for the daughter of a railroad surveyor, the town declined as the timber industry did. After all the timber was cut, people simply left Helen, but in 1968 local businessmen met to discuss what could be done to resurrect the town. An artist from Germany was enlisted for ideas. He made sketches of buildings, depicting a quaint alpine look to the entire town.
His ideas stuck and the local business owners began turning those ideas into reality. The town was reborn and took on the appearance of a Bavarian village.
Today, Helen is a very popular and thriving destination. The town has shops and restaurants lining its streets, all reminiscent of an alpine village. Nearby Creekwood Resort (706-878-2164, www.creekwoodresort.com) is a good option for RVers, although there are a number of other campgrounds in the area, including sites at local state parks. Three state parks, Vogel, Unicoi and Tallulah Gorge, all have campgrounds and other features that make them worthwhile to visit or use as a home base.
Unicoi State Park is situated just north of Helen. It has 1,050 acres and the 53-acre Smith Lake, sometimes called Unicoi Lake. The lake is the centerpiece of the park and allows fishing, swimming and picnicking. As with all Georgia State Parks, there is a parking fee of $5. But passing through to gain access to the Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area is free.
Anna Ruby Falls is operated by the Cradle of Forestry within the Chattahoochee National Forest and has a nominal $3 entrance fee. Holders of the National Parks senior pass are admitted free of charge.
Anna Ruby Falls is actually twin waterfalls created by two separate streams that join at their base to form Smith Creek, which flows into Unicoi Lake. The waterfall is named for a daughter of Captain J.H. Nichols, who owned the land containing the waterfall; he discovered it while horseback riding. The paved half-mile hike leading to the observation area for the waterfall is uphill but worth the effort.
Vogel State Park, established in 1931, is also located in the Chattahoochee National Forest at the base of Blood Mountain, and is the second-oldest state park in Georgia. In elevation it is one of the highest in the state, at 2,500 feet above sea level. The main features of the park are Trahlyta Lake, a waterfall of the same name and 17 miles of hiking trails. Hikers can choose from a 4-mile loop (an easy lake loop that leads to Trahlyta Falls) and a longer 13-mile backcountry trail that takes hikers up Blood Mountain and the Appalachian Trail near Neel’s Gap.
Tallulah Gorge State Park is located east of Helen and near the town of Tallulah Falls. The 2,700-acre park surrounds the 2-mile gorge formed by the Tallulah River. The 1,000-foot-deep gorge contains six waterfalls along its length. Visitors can hike trails along its rim to several overlooks to view the waterfalls, or they can obtain a permit to hike to the gorge floor. However, there is a limit to the number allowed. Just above the gorge floor, a 200-foot-long suspension bridge provides great views of the river and its waterfalls. The gorge has been used by two tightrope walkers in its history, one of which was the famous Karl Wallenda. The Jane Hurt Yarn Interpretive Center sits atop the gorge, honoring a conservationist and environmentalist who had an interest in Georgia.
Southwest of Helen is another historic town, Dahlonega, which in 1828 was the site of the first major gold rush in the U.S. The Dahlonega Gold Museum State Historic Site is housed in the 1836 Lumpkin County Courthouse located in the center of town. Here, visitors can see displays of the gold mining methods and samples of gold coins minted in the mid-1800s.
The town of Blue Ridge, 60 miles northwest of Helen, is located along U.S. Highway 76 and is part of the Southern Highroads Trail, a 364-mile loop across the Appalachian Mountains that winds through four national forests and four states (Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina). The town’s center is home to the 1905 historic depot, where the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway operates. The seasonal train runs Fridays through Mondays and generally follows the Toccoa River through the countryside to the sister towns of McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee. The 26-mile round trip takes about four hours, with special trips offered during the autumn leaf-peeping season (September 20-November 11), during the winter and for New Year’s Eve.
Helen is generally considered the center of the North Georgia Mountains area. From Atlanta, take Interstate 85 North for about 28 miles. At Exit 113, take Interstate 985 North toward Gainesville, and follow for about 24 miles. Keep straight on U.S. Route 23 North/Georgia SR 13 North/SR 365 North for 17 miles. Take Georgia SR 384/Duncan Bridge Road for almost 16 miles, then turn onto Interstate 75. Follow the signs to Helen.
Just 4 miles from Helen, the town of Sautee Nacoochee offers visitors a few interesting attractions. The center of the unincorporated community is the Old Sautee Store, an old-fashioned country store established in 1872. The rocking-chaired front porch welcomes visitors, the first room is preserved with antiques, and beyond that is a shop with apparel, cheeses and canned goods.
Another stop for visitors who enjoy covered bridges is 2.7 miles north of the Old Sautee Store. The current Stovall Mill Covered Bridge was built in 1895, after the original one had washed away a few years earlier. According to the historical marker at the bridge, it was featured in a 1951 movie “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain,” starring Susan Hayward.
The Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is one of several scenic byways in the North Georgia Mountains. It forms a circle route through the Chattahoochee National Forest. At its northernmost point (the highest point in Georgia), Brasstown Bald stands at 4,784 feet at its peak. A road to the top of the mountain is by way of State Route 180, a spur of which is steep and winding, and not recommended for Class A motorhomes; Class B’s and compact Class C’s should be OK.
The entrance at the base of Brasstown Bald has a parking area where visitors can either ride a free shuttle to the visitor center at the top or hike the .4-mile trail. A National Parks pass is honored at the entrance to the parking area. The visitor center has exhibits on local culture, geology and wildlife. There is also an observation deck that provides a 360-degree panoramic view.
Another section of the 40.6-mile Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway includes all of State Route 348, also known as the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway. There are several scenic overlooks along this not-to-be-missed route in the North Georgia Mountains. There are also campgrounds, trail heads to waterfalls and other natural attractions along the way.
With all there is to do and see in the North Georgia Mountains, plan a trip to do and see it all. But in autumn, when fall colors blaze, the area is simply too amazing to forget.
Georgia Adventure Lodges
Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge – 800-573-9656
Located in the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest, Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge is one of Georgia’s top hiking and camping spots with the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeast. In addition to the activities available during the daylight hours such as hiking, ziplining and more, visitors can sleep immersed in nature under a canopy of stars at one of Amicalola Falls’ 25 wooded campsites, which accommodate RVs and tents. Those looking for an especially unique camping experience will enjoy the Survivalist Camp. This class is perfect for those interested in improving their outdoor and survival skills through lessons like reading the terrain, staying warm and building a fire with minimal materials. A comfort station with laundry, restrooms and showers is also located within the campground.
Unicoi State Park & Lodge – 800-573-9659,
Tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains and located near the charming alpine-Bavarian town of Helen, Georgia, Unicoi State Park and Lodge is a camper’s paradise. Those looking to sleep under the stars can do so at its “Squirrel’s Nest,” a primitive camping platform situated in the trees. Unicoi also offers ADA-accessible campsites and 30- and 40-foot RV sites. Each option is pet-friendly, so families are welcome to bring along their canine companions. This destination is also part of the Adventure Lodge program, offering paddleboard lessons, mountain biking, a new archery and air-rifle range, and more.
For More Information
Alpine Helen/White County Convention & Visitors Bureau | 800-858-8027
Blue Ridge/Fannin County Chamber of Commerce | 706-632-5680
Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber & Visitors Bureau | 800-231-5543
Georgia State Parks | 800-864-7275