Growing up in Florida, with only one season of never ending summer, we always took a fall roadtrip to northern Georgia. It’s a place full of childhood memories for me, and somewhere I was thrilled to return to with my husband. We met my family for a Thanksgiving escape.
Helen, Georgia is perhaps the most well known spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its Bavarian charm is a major tourist attraction. Drink beer in a biergarten, purchase real cuckoo clocks, and stroll amongst the German style buildings. Only about 90 minutes from Atlanta, it’s an easy getaway. It can get extremely crowded in the fall! Helen gets enough coverage without me detailing it, so I thought I would focus on the surrounding areas. Get out of town, and explore the area around Helen!
Mining for Treasure
Yes, I’m a rockhound and the mines around northern Georgia get me unreasonably excited. During the early 19th century gold was discovered in Dahlonega, not far from Helen. Commercial mining continued for several decades and the US Mint even opened a branch here. Today, the mines are defunct but some still cater to tourists. Gem mining is also very popular through the Georgia mountains, and you don’t need to go to a paid mining spot to find treasures in the creek beds around here. I’ve turned up plenty of pyrite, aka fool’s gold. As a kid, my grandpa and I found a gorgeous little garnet that I’ve kept forever, meaning to set it in jewelry.
There’s a number of mining spots to choose from, but most recently we visited Gold ‘n Gem Grubbing. They sell buckets to pan through, or, for the more serious, shovel rentals and access to their creek. It was so cold the day we visited, we opted for the easy route and panned in the troughs. To be honest, the buckets are prefilled, and I don’t think it all came from Georgia. I found a couple rocks that just don’t belong there. It’s still fun, and afterwards, they’ll tell you what you’ve got.
Old Sautee Store
It’s too quaint and cute not to stop! Founded in 1872, it’s part general store, part gift shop, and part deli. The front half of the store stands as it would have 100 years ago, full of antique cash registers, medicine bottles, animal pelts and more. Step through to a more gentrified shop selling cheeses and knick knacks.
Nora Mill Granary
Step back in time at the Nora Mill Granary and Grist Mill, its the old south in here. Freshly ground cornmeal, grits and more line the shelves, and if you’re lucky, they’ll be sampling cheese grits or pioneer porridge. Now, these are not the instant grits from Walmart! If you’ve never had proper grits, this is the place for you! The staff will gladly show you the mill itself, and you can step out back onto a narrow balcony over the Chattahoochee River, which powers the mill. Despite having to fly home to Chicago with a carry on bag, I bought several pounds worth of goods!
Ana Ruby Falls
Ana Ruby Falls is easily accessible from Helen, even though it is within the Chattahoochee National Forest. The hike is mostly on a paved trail, and although it has a fair incline, it’s quite short and undemanding. The twin falls are beautiful! With a platform almost directly under them, you’ll feel the spray! During my visit, we witnessed a lovely proposal on the deck- and she said yes!
The falls have a fun giftshop too. I couldn’t rest their adult sized flannel onesie with a butt flap for my husband- we were rocking the hillbilly spirit that day!
Unicoi State Park
If the National Forest isn’t enough nature for you, make time for Unicoi State Park. It has a nice lodge, with quite a few activities. Fish or boat the lake, head over to the archery range, or just hike the trails where you’ll see plenty of wildlife. One portion of the trail goes up the mountain in a series of cutbacks. The hikers ahead of us scared a deer who dashed down directly into our trail- and nearly into me! I don’t know who was more startled, me or the deer!
Babyland General Hospital
Yep, home to the Cabbage Patch Kids! Located in Cleveland, it’s a short drive from Helen and one of the strangest experiences you’ll have around here. The headquarters, or hospital, looks like an antebellum mansion. Upon arrival, the ‘nurse’ will give you a hospital guest pass, where you’ll stroll through the nursery. After, come to the Magic Crystal Tree, and none other than Mother Cabbage herself. Beneath the tree, babies stick their heads out of cabbages, births are announced regularly. It’s fun and weird, the kids and adults will enjoy this stop. It’s free, but of course you can purchase a Cabbage Patch Kid while you’re there.
While you’re zipping about to all these places, enjoy the drive. It’s beautiful, especially in fall, and you’ll find plenty of points to pull off. From scenic overlooks, to unique artisans, or an old fashioned peanut boil, it’s hard to drive far without a stop. Once you get off the main drag, you’ll find many of the roads are unpaved, just adding to the backwoods feel.
The Best Biscuits You’ll Ever Eat…
Literally. I am not making it up, nor am I endorsed by the restaurant. These are just the best darn biscuits you will ever eat. They are so good that we were still talking about our last visit nearly 20 years prior when we came back. I was a small kid, and I know things tend to change from what you remember, but this place did not. It’s a small, country building, rocking chairs out front, and local artists’ works on the walls inside. And they have biscuits. The best biscuits! Oh, right, what’s this place called? The Old Batesville General Store and Restaurant!
Mully’s Nacoochee Grill
Mully’s is in town, and there’s no shortage of restaurants in downtown Helen. However, Mully’s get my recommendation for their delicious shrimp and grits. It’s one of my favorite dishes, and of all the ones I’ve eaten across the south, I can easily tell you my two favorites- Mully’s and Wakulla Springs Lodge restaurant in Florida.
Valhalla Resort Hotel
Valhalla Resort Hotel is a high end spot with a castle theme. We had Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant here. It’s expensive, but really good! They put on a proper southern Thanksgiving, with homemade cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, fried okra and so on. Plus, the Celtic touches throughout were much appreciated. Despite its name, it’s not very Nordic though.
This winery is one of the oldest in Georgia, and sits just across the street from Nora Mill Granary. They offer tastings 7 days a week, no reservation required but you might want one. During Thanksgiving week, it was very busy! This was my first Georgian wine experience, and I found several I really enjoyed.
Where to Stay
There’s plenty of options, from budget motels to the Valhalla Resort Hotel. However, from childhood to now, we’ve always rented a cabin. It’s the Georgia mountains, what could be more fitting than a log cabin in the woods? There are tons of options, including VRBO and AirBnB, but we used Georgia Mountain Rentals. Our cabin was clean, modern and just perfect for the five of us. With three floors and bedrooms on each, we all had our own floor!