Anna and I began our fall vacation to the North Georgia mountains Saturday morning a little after 7:00. The air was cool and the sky was overcast but we were too excited about our trip to care. We stopped at a McDonald's in Buford for breakfast and then headed up US 23 to the mountains. Because we're both literary types, we decided to take the first day's attractions in alphabetical order: Anna Ruby Falls, Brasstown Bald, and Helen.
Anna Ruby Falls
Anna Ruby Falls was named after Anna Ruby Nichols, the only daughter of Colonel John H. Nichols, who purchased the Tray Mountain parcel of land containing the twin waterfalls in 1869. The waterfalls are formed by Curtis Creek, which drops 153 feet, and York Creek, which drops 50 feet (and therefore suffers much less damage than the Curtis). The two creeks merge at the base of the falls and lose their individual identities, becoming the Smith Creek, which feeds into Unicoi Lake.
We made it to Anna Ruby Falls around 10:00. Rain had begun to fall lightly as we drove through Unicoi State Park toward the falls, and when we arrived at the Anna Ruby Falls Welcome Center, the rain began in earnest.
Fortunately, I had brought my rugged outdoorsman hat (it used to be a sophisticated man-about-town hat until the feather broke off) and a couple of extra denim shirts, and my umbrella was in its usual place in the back seat, so we didn't even consider letting a little rain deter us. We spent a few minutes in the gift shop and then walked up the four-tenths of a mile trail to the falls.
The walk itself is beautiful. The leaves displayed every possible fall color, and the creek, alternately to our left and our right as the path meandered upwards, was in some places a gentle, fluid babble and in others a gushing, liquid roar. The waterfalls themselves are splendid. We stayed at the top for about 20 minutes, took lots of pictures, and then headed back down. After a stop at the drink machine for a Nestea and Mr. Pibb, we set out for our next destination.
There's a loop of highway—actually three different highways: GA 75, GA 180, and GA 384—that's been designated by the Federal Highway Administration as the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway. It winds through the Chattahoochee National Forest, going up mountains and down into valleys, past various rivers and streams, and crossing the Appalachian Trail twice. We drove the whole length of the Byway, about 40 miles. Even with the rain and fog and clouds, it was wonderful. Fortunately, the Byway goes past both Anna Ruby Falls and Brasstown Bald, plus a few other places we didn't stop at because they didn't fit in with our alphabetical scheme.
At 4,784 feet above sea level, Brasstown Bald is Georgia's highest mountain. On a clear day, it is said, you can stand atop Brasstown Bald and see into four different states. Strangely enough, those four states are Wyoming, Arizona, Illinois, and Rhode Island. I have no idea how such a thing is accomplished. I'm pretty sure it's a miracle.
Okay, I made that up. The four states you can see into are Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and, naturally, Georgia. Frankly I don't think Georgia should count. I mean, you're in Georgia, so of course you can see Georgia. Even if you take your glasses off and close one eye and squint with the other, you can still see Georgia. On the other hand, if you keep both eyes open and leave your glasses on, you can see as far south as Atlanta, which is a good 100 miles away.
But of course we couldn't see any other states or Atlanta—it was still raining, even harder now—but we did get an incredible view of clouds that one normally gets only from an airplane. As the clouds would move across the sky, we could see the mountains in an area, and then they would slowly disappear behind thick white clouds.
But we had to rest a bit from the grueling walk up before we were able to appreciate the scenery. Unlike the walk up to Anna Ruby Falls, the trail to the peak of Brasstown Bald is pretty steep in places and fairly strenuous, especially if you're walking in the rain, trying to hold an umbrella some of the way, and you're already out of shape to begin with. Every once in a while we would pass a group on their way down. “You're almost at the top,” they would say encouragingly, though really we weren't. The encouragement helped, though. I think it's what kept me from having a heart attack.
But we finally did make it to the top. We spent a while in the information center up there, reading every sign and pushing every button to light up the maps representing the mountain ranges and rivers and sites where gold had been discovered, and then we walked around outside, looking at the mountains and the clouds and taking pictures.
We stayed at the top for over an hour, then returned to the car, descended the mountain in low gear, drove the rest of the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, and checked in to our Holiday Inn Express room in Helen.
I love Helen, the faux Bavarian village in North Georgia, because it combines the cheesiest imaginable roadside attraction-type atmosphere with the beauty of the mountains. I don't care who thinks it's tacky, I love it, and I will tolerate no harsh words about it.
Helen was born as a sawmill town in 1912, and when the sawmill was shut down in the late 20s the town began a gradual decline. It might have faded away altogether if not for three men, Jim Wilkins, Pete Hodgkinson, and John Kollock, who got together in 1968 and decided to save the town by remaking it as a tourist attraction in the form of an Alpine village. Their scheme was wildly successful; now, hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Helen every year to buy hand-blown glass items, cuckoo clocks, and airbrushed license plates, to eat bratwurst and sauerkraut and drink dark imported beer, and to gawk at those local merchants who really get into the spirit of things and dress in funny feathered hats and lederhosen.
We walked the half-mile from our hotel to the Farmer's Market Cafe and had dinner. It was our first real meal since McDonald's, nine hours earlier, unless you count Cracker Jacks. After we finished eating we walked around the town for an hour or so, along with a few hundred other people, this being the last weekend of Helen's colossal month-long Oktoberfest celebration. At Flossie's Funnels we ate a funnel cake, and then we returned to the hotel, exhausted but happy.
Day Two: Helen (Again), Dahlonega, and Amicalola Falls
Out of the Hotel and Back to Helen
After a free continental breakfast that consisted almost entirely of miniatures—little-bitty muffins, croissants that were about one-third the usual size, bagels the size of those little chocolate donuts—we checked out of our room and headed back to Helen. Our mission: to acquire our wedding candle.
During another trip to Helen earlier this year, we had seen someone in the Kandlestix store making an elaborate cut candle. It was neat to watch, and the results were beautiful. Anna decided back then—and that was before we were actually engaged—that we should have such a candle as our unity candle. Once in the store, it took us a few minutes to pick out the exact design we wanted, and a few more minutes to choose just the right colors, but once we did the candle was done within 10 minutes. In fact, it had to be done within 10 minutes, the young woman who cut it for us said, or the wax would harden too much to work with.
We killed a few minutes walking around town while we waited for the candle to dry, then returned to Kandlestix and picked up our candle and headed away from Helen. We stopped at the West Family Restaurant in Clevland for lunch, gorged ourselves at their Sunday lunch buffet, and set out for Dahlonega.
Dahlonega was the site of the nation's first gold rush in 1829, a good 20 years before the California Gold Rush of 1849. Between 1838 and 1861, the U.S. Mint in Dahlonega created over $6 million in gold coins. Today, the little town commemorates its heritage with its Dahlonega Gold Rush Days every October, drawing hundreds of thousands of people annually. You could say that tourism is Dahlonega's current gold.
We didn't find gold in Dahlonega, but we did spend an hour walking around the square, browsing in various shops. All we bought, however, was some candy at the candy store—I got some of those buttered popcorn jelly beans that I like so much; they're almost as good as gold to me. Then we headed west towards Amicalola.
Amicalola Falls is Georgia's highest waterfall; in fact, it's the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. The Amicalola Creek forms the falls in a series of seven different cascades which total 729 feet, after which it feeds into the Etowah River. Amicalola Falls State Park is one of the main entry points to the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. If you've read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods you may remember that he spent the night in the lodge here before he and his friend Katz started their walk. Anna and I are staying at the lodge, too, though we have no ambitions about walking the AT, since we both have to be back at work on Tuesday.
We didn't see the falls on our first day at the lodge, but we did see some spectacular views of the mountains. It wasn't raining and the sky was fairly clear, so the view from our room in the lodge was fantastic. After we got settled in, we went down to the porch and sat in the rocking chairs for a while. Anna painted with her new watercolor set. I walked around and took pictures, then sat and read Silent to the Bone, the new novel by E.L. Konigsburg. It was nearly dark, and quite chilly, by the time we went back in.
We had dinner at the lodge restaurant, an all-you-can eat buffet, then went back up to the room to feel stuffed in peace. Around 8:30 I went outside to walk around and look up at the night sky. As I rounded a curve along a sidewalk at the front of the lodge, I saw a young deer, not 15 feet ahead of me, munching on flowers. It cocked its head and examined me cautiously; I stayed still until it went back to its meal. On my next step, however, it ran up the hill towards the parking lot. I followed it around for about 10 minutes before it got tired of me and headed back into the woods.
Day Three: Burt's Farm and Amicalola Falls
The folks at Burt's Farm estimate that they get about 50,000 visitors a week during the fall harvest season. People come to select their Halloween pumpkins, to drink apple cider and munch on pumpkin muffins and boiled peanuts, and to go on the two mile, twenty-minute hay ride through the Appalachian area surrounding the farm.
But Anna and I had the place practically to ourselves when we went Monday morning around 11:00. I was a little disappointed at first to learn that Burt's Farm had not been started by Ernie's friend, but I enjoyed my cider and cream cheese pumpkin roll so much that I decided I didn't care. Actually, Burt's Farm had its beginnings in 1972 when Johnny and Kathy Burt planted two acres of pumpkin seeds in their backyard. Now they have a total of 76 acres, 54 devoted to pumpkins and gourds and 22 devoted to popcorn and Indian corn.
It was chilly and overcast while we were there, but we still spent almost an hour walking around, being very careful to obey the signs that said, “Please do not stand on, sit on, kick, or drop pumpkins.” Before we left we bought a large loaf of pumpkin bread and a bag of toffee popcorn, both of which were very good.
Hiking to the Falls
I've already written that Amicalola Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi, with a total drop of 729 feet. Monday morning we finally got to see it.
We returned to Amicalola Falls State Park from Burt's farm around noon. We spent half an hour or so walking around the visitor's center, reading about the various flora and fauna that inhabits the park and looking at the stuffed bears, bobcat, and owl.
We drove up to the reflecting pool, which is about half-way between the entrance to the park and the top of the falls, parked, and set out on the trail to the base of the falls. The trail is not too strenuous and it only took us a few minutes to make it to the base of the falls. It was beautiful. We stayed at the platform at the top for a few minutes, listening to the rush of the water and taking pictures, and then we returned to the car.
It was beginning to rain again as we walked down, so we decided to go ahead and head back to Lawrenceville. We stopped for lunch at a Chinese buffet in Dawsonville, and made it back to my house by 3:00.
I drew on two books for the background information in this travelogue: Highroad Guide to the Georgia Mountains by the Georgia Conservancy, and The Georgia Conservancy's Guide to the North Georgia Mountains edited by Fred Brown and Nell Jones. I recommend them both.
(I originally published this travelogue on my AOL Web site on the dates shown above, and transferred it to our family blog in late October of 2017.)