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North Georgia Drive Tour
Explore the Peach State's Northern Cities
North Georgia: it’s loaded with mountains and lakes; historic homes, trails, and battlefields; winding roads and the state’s highest point; Alpine villages and vibrant college towns. Why not check out everything north and east of Atlanta? The North Georgia Tour starts in Fort Oglethorpe just across from Chattanooga and in the shadow of Lookout Mountain. Along the way, we skirt Dalton and head into the Chattahoochee National Forest; Ellijay and East Ellijay, complete with antiques and apples; through Blue Ridge and Blairsville to the Brasstown Bald, the state’s highest point; into the beautiful Alpine village-themed Helen and down through Commerce into Athens, home to the University of Georgia. Six Best Western hotels are available along the way, and with so much to see, do, and enjoy, you might want to make this a six-day tour!
Begin in Fort Oglethorpe, which borders Tennessee and Chattanooga to the north. Awash in history, Fort Oglethorpe sits in the shadow of the famous Lookout Mountain, which offers spectacular scenery allowing you to peer into seven states on a clear day! Lookout straddles the state line, and the Georgia side features the Rock City Gardens, encompassing over 400 native plant species. Other attractions within Lookout Mountain include Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village.
Just over the border on the Tennessee side is Ruby Falls, the largest and deepest waterfall in the nation (not including waterfalls we share with Canada). Standing 1,120 feet below Lookout Mountain, it’s a sight to behold, whether you’re standing at the observation deck or viewing it from the Incline Railway, which is a terrific ride – and a white-knuckler for those uneasy with heights.
Chattanooga also has the Tennessee Aquarium, which boasts a wide variety of waterfowl, an IMAX Theater, and the River Gorge Explorer, a high-tech vessel that hits the Tennessee River at speeds up to 50 miles per hour and brings you to other attractions in downtown Chattanooga.
Lookout Mountain’s expansive grounds extend into Georgia and Fort Oglethorpe. And since we’re about to tour northern Georgia, let’s head further into Fort Oglethorpe itself and explore. Follow U.S. 27 into Georgia and directly into Fort Oglethorpe; or, if you come into Georgia on I-75, follow GA Highway 2 westerly into town.
Of major historical importance is the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. It’s the oldest and largest Civil War Park in the nation, commemorating the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863 (where the Confederates won) and the subsequent battles for Chattanooga in October and November (when the Union Army wrested control of the city and forced Confederacy forces south into Georgia). The grounds are impressive; stone monuments, statues, cannons in fields, historic markers, and more take you through the story of these battles as you drive – and/or walk – through. You can really look at the fields and envision battles that took place. The Visitors’ Center has maps and all the information you need, including audio tours for your drive. It’s without question a must-see for any Civil War buff.
Also in the Fort Oglethorpe area is Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park, a longtime favorite in the region featuring over 40 rides and a water park called “Soak Ya.”
From Fort Oglethorpe, head east on GA Highway 2 to and take I-75 briefly to the U.S. 76 exit east and head south into the town of Tunnel Hill. The town exists because of workers living there during construction of the Historic Western & Atlantic Railroad Tunnel, which took place from 1848 to 1850. The tunnel runs 1,477 feet through Chetoogeta Mountain and was crucial for railroad access from the north to Atlanta prior to and during the Civil War – leading to a lot of war-related activity in and around the tunnel, which is detailed at the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center Museum. The Museum will also reveal details on the nearby Dixie Highway’s nickname of “Peacock Alley”, how exactly Civil War battles left their mark, and how the tunnel was restored after being replaced by a larger tunnel in 1928 and left to rot until people in the 1990s wanted to ensure its preservation and exploration.
From Tunnel Hill, continue on U.S. 76 east across I-75 to Dalton, a city of 33,000 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains well-known as the “Carpet Capital of the World.” Dalton’s history as a crucial railroad transportation center comes alive at the Dalton Freight Depot, a restored old freight station originally built in 1847 that lies along the still (very) active tracks that run through the city. The Chamber of Commerce, a restaurant, and a museum of sorts with a large rail map showing in real-time where the trains are coming and going in the area. On the west side, Dug Gap Battle Park includes earthworks built by Civil War soldiers during the infamous Atlanta Campaign and a beautiful view of the county landscape.
U.S. 76 runs as a northerly bypass of Dalton, and jumping back on it leads you easterly toward Chatsworth and Fort Mountain. Located in the Cohutta Mountains, Fort Mountain peaks at 2,850 feet and is named for remnants of a stone formation in a zigzag line around 900 feet long – and its true origin is widely disputed. Fort Mountain State Park can be accessed off nearby GA Highway 52 just past Chatsworth; the park includes Fort Mountain and nearly six square miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding across 14 miles of trails.
For the Tour, follow U.S. 76 (or GA Highway 52) through the Chattahoochee National Forest to Ellijay and East Ellijay, two towns that were former Native American settlements in the heart of the “Apple Capital of Georgia”, as the surrounding area of Gilmer County is known. The area is dotted with farms and apple-picking orchards, including Red Apple Barn right along U.S. 76 just before reaching Ellijay. Fresh apples, apple-picking, hayrides, all kinds of fun activities can be had at Red Apple, or other nearby farms such as Mountain Valley Farm, Reece Apple House, or R&A Orchards. The towns sit right where two rivers congregate, the Cartecay and the Ellijay, to form the Coosawattee River.
The Cartecay features a class II whitewater run, and outfits like Cartecay River Experience (706-531-4746) offer kayak and tube rentals for a run along the water. In downtown Ellijay, the Tabor House & Civil War Museum traces the area’s history inside the oldest family home in town, built in 1870. The Museum, open Thursday through Saturday also includes artifacts from the historic lower towns of the Cherokee Nation of Georgia, which were located all throughout the county. Ellijay and East Ellijay are also filled with numerous antique stores in their downtowns, and places like JD’s Gem Mining & Antiques (44 N. Church Street, 706-273-1070) have interesting items and activities for the whole family.
Perched atop a mountain along GA Highway 515 just south of U.S. 76, the Best Western Mountain View Inn, a great setting for viewing the surroundings or to stay when attending the annual Georgia Apple Festival, which draws people from all over the country.
From Ellijay, head northeast on U.S. 76 (which is also the Zell Miller Mountain Parkway, which originates closer to Atlanta) back into the Chattahoochee National Forest. The highway winds through the forest on a hilly and pleasant ride into Blue Ridge. Blue Ridge, as its name implies, lies near the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers plenty of outdoor recreation, including water activities on nearby Blue Ridge Lake. The town was established in the 1880s and is now a highly popular weekend and vacation spot for Atlanta residents. It’s the point or origin for the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, a heritage railroad that runs tour trains up to the Tennessee line and back from late March through December, with routes and tours varying by season.
The fall runs are very popular for leaf color viewing; in general, the train provides a nice 2-4 hour getaway. The train leaves from the historic depot in downtown Blue Ridge, which is known as the “Antique Capital of Georgia.” Main Street downtown is lined with antique shops, boutiques, bars and restaurants, and other draws that help make Blue Ridge a popular destination. If you want to augment your Drive Tour with a real Drive-In movie experience, The Historic Swan Drive-In serves up funnel cakes to go with current releases and sometimes double features at this retro drive-in movie theatre that dates back to 1955 (note: they are cash only).
From Blue Ridge, stay on U.S. 76 – now called the Appalachian Highway – to Blairsville, a town of 700 serving as the seat of Union County surrounded by the Chattahoochee National Forest. The Best Western Milton Inn is along U.S. 76 just west of the town square, visible from the hotel. The town is crowned by the Union County Courthouse Museum & Cultural Center, which functioned as the original courthouse when it opened in 1899. The building and a nearby annex hold a wide variety of exhibits, including law enforcement, original signs and parking meters, Civil War history, gold discoveries, a legendary local meteorite, and even unusual dolls and dollhouses. Just down the street, the Mountain Life Museum uses a residence from 1906 to showcase the early lives of those in northern Georgia and colorful history of Blairsville in particular. The site features a large lawn popular for local festivals and events, two log cabins from the 1800s, and several historic farm structures lurking behind.
A quick side trip of interest to history and archeology buffs just might be the Track Rock Gap Petroglyph Site, five miles east of town via U.S. 76 east and Track Rock Gap Road south. History is literally written in stone in a little gap wedged between two mountains, as Native Americans (likely the Woodlands or Archaic tribes) carved messages and patterns into soapstone rock here several thousand years ago. Metal cages protect the relatively soft rock but you can view the petroglyphs easily; the site is free and the best time to go is early or late in the day when the sun is at a low angle.
Our Tour continues south from Blairsville via U.S. 129, where plenty of natural beauty awaits. But first, a bright and flashy man-made stop called Pappy’s Trading Post and Back in Time on Highway 129 is designed to lure you in… and lure you in, it will! Filled with eclectic – stuff – both scattered on the grounds and inside, Back in Time is a Memorabilia Museum in a place known as Pappy’s Plaza. Admission to the full museum is $5, but kids 12 and under are free. To get back to nature, a few miles south Vogel State Park offers 233 acres of hiking and other outdoor activities around Lake Trahlyta and up to altitudes of 2,500 feet. Right nearby, the Appalachian Trail crosses U.S. 129; this makes Blairsville a great place to use as a base if you plan to explore the Trail. The Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center, originally built by a logging company at the foot of Blood Mountain, now functions as a store, an interpretive center (as the name clearly implies) and a hostel for some hard-core hikers. Also known as Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi, it’s the only place along the 2,175 miles of Appalachian Trail where the trail passes through a man-made structure.
As long you’re in the mountains of Georgia, why not go all the way? From U.S. 129 between Blairsville and Vogel State Park (just south of Pappy’s), you can angle east on Highway 180 and hit Brasstown Bald, the state’s highest peak at 4,784 feet above sea level. Highway 180 “Spur” leads up there, following a curvy lane hugging the hillsides to a crest which features a large parking area, general store, and visitor center. You can take a shuttle to the summit or go for a 0.6-mile steep hike through some lush and beautiful scenery, which we highly recommend. The area is heavily forested; north and east of the summit is a “cloud forest,” the only one in Georgia. These areas are filled with wildflowers and lichen-covered rocks (making for some slippery rock climbing, which is why it’s not recommended here). The Summit is capped with a stone and steel observation tower that, on a clear day, allows views into Tennessee and North Carolina – on a very clear day, sometimes the skyscrapers 100 miles away in Atlanta can be seen. A museum at the top includes an exhibit called “Man and the Mountain” that vividly illustrates the area and its history.
From Brasstown Bald, wind carefully back down “Spur 180” to Highway 180 and head east through the forests to Highway 17/75; from there, turn south toward Helen. The drive twists and turns tightly through some beautiful territory, including a high crossing of the Appalachian Trail popular as a rest stop for hikers. From that crossing, the drive drops quickly through more turns, including some hairpins.
Just north of Helen is the access road to Unicoi State Park via GA Highway 356. Unicoi offers scenic mountain trails for hiking and biking, a three-mile trail to downtown Helen, and a more rugged 8-mile trail for bikers. The park features a swimming beach, canoe rentals, and great fishing on its 53-acre eponymous lake, a restaurant known for its fresh-caught mountain trout, and a gift shop with pottery, quilts and other crafts. Highly recommended for everyone but especially waterfall lovers is Anna Ruby Falls, accessible via a half-mile trail just past Unicoi State Park on the same road. Technically it’s two waterfalls, so while there is a small admission charge, think of it as two for the price of one. This is still part of the Chattahoochee National Forest.
West of Helen but sill nearby are two more waterfalls: Dukes Creek Falls (not named after “the Dukes of Hazzard” Duke family… I checked) and Raven Cliff Falls. Next door to the west in Lumpkin County is DeSoto Falls (a triple set of vertical waterfalls), in case you want to make a day of going waterfalling as part of the Tour. Either way, when you head toward or away from Unicoi State Park near Helen, stop at Fred’s Famous Peanuts to get a taste of local goodies like peanut brittle, locally-grown produce, fried pork rinds, and of course boiled and fried peanuts.
Helen was a quiet logging town in decline when in the 1960s they decided to repurpose the town into “Georgia’s Alpine Village.” When you see Helen, you’ll agree; this isn’t the Alps, but the Appalachians work just fine in a beautiful setting like this: Old-world European architecture with some cobblestone streets tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Chattahoochee River; it’s a fantastic combination of natural beauty and things to do. Shopping is plentiful in a series of boutique shops, and if you’re hankering for a stein of bier or some sauerbraten, you’ll be well taken care of in a variety of restaurants and taverns.
The Chattahoochee River is but a small stream at Helen; it’s almost hard to believe this becomes the major river wandering past the Atlanta area on its way to form the Alabama-Georgia border and flow into Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. You can dine above the river on a deck, relax along the riverbank, or even go tubing when conditions merit. Unique attractions include Charlemagne’s Kingdom, a literal work of art featuring a large HO scale Alpine Model Railroad layout of German railroads, depicting them – as they say – from “the North Sea to the Alps.” The railroad layout includes a scale model of the Matterhorn. Other sights in Charlemagne’s Kingdom include a Glockenspiel in a Gingerbread House, wooden carved German dancers, moving mini-hot air balloons, an Autobahn with moving cars and trucks, and more. Owner Willi Lindhorst can trace his lineage directly to Charlemagne, giving credence to the name.
Along with lederhosen, balloons are a big deal in Helen; every June the village hosts the annual Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival, the oldest balloon festival in the South. Along with plenty of local flyers, a competitive balloon race begins in Helen and racers head for the Atlantic Ocean; the official winner is the first balloon to cross I-95, a few hundred miles to the east – and anywhere from Maine to Miami counts! Other festivals celebrate wine, Christmas, and of course Oktoberfest – the largest of its kind in the South.
GA Highway 75 is Main Street through town, which can be quite crowded on weekends and during festivals. The Best Western PLUS Riverpark Inn & Conference Center Alpine Helen is right along Main Street; all the attractions are within a pleasant walk. That includes everything in town and the nearby Habersham Vineyards & Winery, one of the oldest wineries in the state. They offer free tastings and if you want to buy some wine, well, that’s okay too. For the kids, Dukes Creek Gold & Ruby Mines (6145 Helen Hwy, 706-878-2625) nearby should provide some good entertainment; located at an early location kicking off Georgia’s own “Gold Rush” in the 1800s, children and adults alike can pan for gold, screen for gems, and check out a selection of local crafts and pottery.
From Helen, follow Highway 17/75 to where they split, and follow Highway 17/Unicoi Turnpike past Sautee Nacoochee and after a few miles angle south on GA Highway 105. Here, you’re clearly heading out of the mountain areas of North Georgia and making your way toward rolling farmland. At the intersection of GA Highways 105 and 115, you’ll find the marker for the Blair Line, a former boundary between the State of Georgia and the Cherokee Nation lands surveyed in 1817 by James Blair, which means this was, for a while, an international border of sorts.
Continuing to the junction with U.S. 23/441, you can check out Cornelia, a town of 3,800 with one of the world’s largest apple sculptures, the Big Red Apple Monument. A bright red salute to the region’s apple-growing history, it was dedicated in 1926; the 5,200-pound apple has a circumference of 22 feet and sits atop an obelisk in front of the town’s historic train depot. Nearby Fenders Diner is well-known for its original 1950s diner experience, so if a burger and a malt sound good that’s the place to go. Cornelia is where baseball legend Ty Cobb spent his retirement years; he was born in nearby Royston. But another local fave is Elvis Presley; over 30,000 Elvis items can be found in the Loudermilk Boarding House & Everything Elvis Museum, which Guinness salutes as the world’s largest collection of Elvis items, right down to the “maybe Elvis toenail.” Of course they have a gift shop, and a festival in salute of Elvis is held the first Saturday in August each year (thank ya very much).
From Cornelia, follow U.S. 441 south to Commerce, a city of 6,500 that started as Harmony Grove when stagecoach stops and railroads met here. Another burg with the same name in a different part of Georgia kept messing with their mail deliveries and the local citizenry wanted something more “big city sounding” and businesslike for their name; hence, the change to Commerce in 1904. The city successfully lobbied to get the new I-85 routed through their area in 1959 and today its connection to the Interstate is as important now as the railroads and stagecoach lines were then. A Tanger Outlet Center offers massive outlet shopping near I-85 and in Commerce’s downtown area just south of the freeway and west of U.S. 441 you will find a nice selection of antique stores.
From Commerce, continue south on U.S. 441 for the fairly short hop to Athens. Athens is Georgia’s main college town and the fifth-largest city in Georgia with about 115,000 residents; it consolidated with Clarke County in 1991, which happens to be the smallest county in the state by geographic area. The city is home to the University of Georgia, which traces its roots further back than Athens itself; UGA (as it’s called) was founded in 1785 and was the first state-charted university in the United States.
The main campus of the University covers 759 acres in Athens, with satellite campuses in Tifton and Griffin, Georgia. With over 34,000 students and huge research activity, UGA is one of the top-rated universities in the nation across multiple categories; it certainly excels in sports. Georgia Bulldogs varsity teams, which have competed in the SEC (Southeastern Conference) since the conference’s founding in 1932, have pulled in 39 national championships and over 130 conference championships across football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, and more.
The Georgia Bulldogs football team fills Sanford Stadium with over 92,000 fans every home Saturday. Originally opened in 1929, the stadium is one of the ten largest in college football and was built in a low area on campus, so it’s a downhill walk to the games and an uphill climb on the way out for most fans. Sanford Stadium served as a major venue for the 1996 Olympic Games and hosts plenty of concerts and other major events “between the hedges,” named for the privet hedges around the field outskirts that were originally planted the year the stadium opened (it was inspired by the hedges around the Rose Bowl, and have proven useful for crowd control, minimizing how often fans have tried to rush the field after games). The live animal mascot is an English bulldog named Uga; the live, costumed student mascot is “Hairy Dawg,” one of the most popular in the country.
The UGA campus is directly south of downtown Athens and features many stately academic buildings, such as Park Hall (200 Baldwin Street), which dates back to 1938 and has a distinctive portico. The Federal, Classical, and Antebellum styles of architecture factor large on campus, along with a number of the more modern 1960s/1970s styles you see on many college campuses. Walking around campus, you might hear the Chapel Bell, an iconic tradition since 1832 that has marked the start and end of class times, athletic victories, and major events. The Bell sits on the UGA Chapel on North Campus, which houses one of the world's largest framed oil paintings, the Interior of St. Peter's Rome by George Cooke. On the southeast side of campus near Sanford Stadium, you’ll find the Georgia Museum of Art – the state’s official art museum.
World-class permanent art exhibits include the Cesari, Kress, Green Center, and Daura Center Collections as well as numerous temporary exhibits. Outside on the grounds, the Jane and Harry Wilson Sculpture Garden focuses on works by female artists. Related to the UGA campus but located on the south side of the city, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia features plenty of trails through indoor and outdoor horticultural splendor, including many dog-friendly trails. They also have an aviary, a restaurant, a wetlands area, and an herb garden.
Downtown Athens is right across from the northern edge of campus; Broad Street/Business U.S. 78 goes through the heart of it. You’ll see obelisks and columned buildings; there is also a full complement of restaurants, college bars, and influential music venues like the 40 Watt Club (285 W. Washington Street) and the Georgia Theatre. Athens’ vibrant music scene has exposed and help launch the careers of bands like the B-52’s, R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Drivin’ N Cryin’, and many more… Rolling Stone has named Athens “the #1 college music scene in America.”
The Georgia Theatre (215 N. Lumpkin Street) dates back to 1918 and has hopped between movie theater and music venue over the course of its history; recent renovations after a fire has cemented the Georgia Theatre as a concert venue, drawing some of the largest acts in the nation. Music isn’t the only fun art around downtown; check out the “Who Let the Dawgs Out” exhibit, consisting of different-styled/painted/adorned bulldog statues around the downtown sidewalks – one of the more popular and fun examples of public art in the country. The Copper Creek Brewing Company contributes the art of craft brewing, micro-brewing several beers at their popular location on East Washington Street.
Historic buildings abound in the downtown area. There are four “Athens House Museums” within close proximity of each other that can be toured on a single ticket: The T.R.R. Cobb House was built in 1842 in the then-popular octagon shape, functioning today as a museum and conservation center; the Church-Waddel-Brumby House was built in 1820 and houses the Athens Welcome Center; the Greek Revival-style Taylor-Grady House is a National Historic Landmark built in 1844 which housed acclaimed newspaper editor Henry Grady, who was influential in post-Civil War Southern culture; and the Ware-Lyndon House from 1856, which housed the city’s first recreation center and is one of the few antebellum-era homes with Italianate elements left in Athens. All four make for a great walking tour.
Within blocks on the grounds of City Hall on Hancock & College Avenues, check out the Double-Barreled Cannon that was built in a local foundry in 1863. The one-of-a-kind weapon was test-fired once – taking out some unfortunate cows – and the determination was made not to use it again. It has, however, proved a popular landmark for the city. Symbolic of being a Civil War-era creation, the cannon is positioned facing north.
Nearby on Washington Street, the Morton Theatre is the oldest surviving vaudeville theatre in the U.S. It opened in 1910 and was built, owned, and operated by African-Americans from the start. The theatre seats 500 and hosts mostly private events but occasionally features public performances; they do offer guided tours. Within walking distance, the Reese Street Historic District features a host of Queen Anne, Folk Victorian, and Craftsman-styled homes – 11 design types in all – across six square blocks. Guided tours are also available of the district, which lies just west of downtown. A littler further west along Broad Street, the Best Western Athens provides great accommodations and convenient access to all of this and more.
Speaking of animals, Athens also offers the Bear Hollow Zoo on the southwest side, a free, kid-friendly zoo hosting a lot of native species and interesting exhibits; they even have a public pool (in season, of course).
So there you have it: from the northwestern corner of Georgia to the heart of its major university. Along the way, we’ve seen
From Athens, Atlanta is an hour to the west; Augusta is about 90 minutes to the southeast. Check out other drive tours in Georgia, enjoy the Georgia countryside, cities, and drive tours, and stay with people who care!