- Distance from Atlanta: 40 miles
- Best time: March to October
- Best for: FamilyRomanticOutdoor
About an hour's drive from the bustle of Atlanta is one of the best-kept secrets of the South: the north Georgia Mountains, a mecca for outdoorsy types with an abundance of options for hiking, camping, and watersports. Its location at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains makes it a pristine spot for nature lovers, while small mountain towns overflow with character and charm. In addition, a burgeoning wine industry with more than 30 wineries, gives travelers a wonderful new way to enjoy the area. Here's how we recommend making the most of this under-the-radar getaway. (Note: Public transportation is relatively non-existent in this area, so we recommend driving your own car or renting one.) –by Blane Bachelor
1 Your first stop is Lake Lanier. Just a 45-minute drive north of Atlanta, this is the go-to spot among city dwellers for boating, waterskiing, and simply enjoying the serenity of nature. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountain range, the lake offers gorgeous views and over 700 miles of shoreline. On long spring and summer evenings, enjoy kayaking, swimming, or simply lounging by the lakeside at the Lake Lanier Islands Resort.
2 When you're waterlogged and hungry, it's a short drive to nearby Flowery Branch for dinner at the renowned Antebellum, a fine-dining restaurant located in a restored 1890s home. The menu features locally sourced ingredients and Southern cuisine with a twist, such as fried green tomatoes topped with bacon jam and a fried egg, and grilled quail with cornbread puree.
3 Not quite ready to turn in? Depending on when you visit, the local watering holes along the lakeshore offer a relaxed way to enjoy warm evenings. One that's good for families is the waterfront Fish Tales, where the little ones can play in the sand while the adults enjoy a nightcap and live music on the outdoor patio.
1 Start your drive to the mountains on a sweet note at Jaemor Farms, which is located in Lula, about 20 minutes north of Flowery Branch. At this local market, you'll find decadent fruit pies (even fried ones!) plus an assortment of breads, jams, and locally grown fruits and veggies.
2 Next, you're off to sample some Georgia wines, which are enjoying growing popularity in Georgia and beyond. From the farmers' market, you'll make your way north toward Helen, stopping along the way in the town of Sautee. One winery that's getting lots of recent buzz is Yonah Mountain Vineyards, which took home some impressive rewards at a recent California wine competition. The nearby Habersham Winery is another solid bet, with a quaint tasting room, self-guided tours, and complimentary tastings.
3 Just down the road from Sautee, the kitschy but cute Bavarian-themed town of Helen is your stop for lunch. Here, German food specialties beckon from under the gingerbread roofs of shops and eateries. Enjoy a hot pretzel and bratwurst at the Old Bavarian Inn, followed by some tasty schnitzel at Hofer's Bakery.
4 From Helen, it's about a 30-mile drive to Tallulah Gorge State Park, whose 1,000-foot-deep canyon is one of the most spectacular in the eastern United States. More than 20 miles of trails include beautiful rim overlooks, and don't miss getting your photo snapped on the 80-foot-high suspension bridge across the gorge. If you happen to visit during a full moon, the full-moon hikes across the bridge are extraordinary.
5 After exploring the gorge, make a stop at Tallulah Point, a souvenir shop and overlook point with an enclosed deck so you can see the gorge even if the weather's bad. Vintage tin signs and old-school toys like rubber ducks and kaleidoscopes make for unique souvenirs.
6 Dinner is where you'll bed down for the evening: the Glen-Ella Springs Inn. This historic mountain inn serves up some of the best meals around—think pecan-encrusted rainbow trout, or jumbo shrimp with andouille sausage over fried Parmesan grit cakes—in a cozy, country dining room.
1 Sunday starts with breakfast at the inn, which is widely regarded as one of the best in North Georgia. Along with homemade granola and baked goods, the delectable blueberry pancakes and two-cheese strata earn rave reviews.
2 For a serious workout, head back to Tallulah Gorge to hike the approximately 1,100 steps down to (and back up from) the gorge floor. Just 100 permits are issued daily, so arrive early, especially when the weather is nice. Another option for outdoor adventure: the town of Toccoa, about 20 miles south of Tallulah Falls. There are several hiking options around 900-foot Mt. Curahee, where Army paratroopers trained during World War II.
3 On your way back to the city, fuel up from your outdoor pursuits with a burger or chili cheese dog at the Norcross outpost of Atlanta institution The Varsity for their beloved burgers and chili dogs, along with an "F.O.", or frosted orange. If it's your first visit, make sure to brush up on the Varsity's unique lingo beforehand, so you can answer the world-famous question, "What'll ya have, what'll ya have?"
Where to Stay
On Friday night, you'll be in Lake Lanier, and the Lake Lanier Islands Resort offers rooms at its lodge (standard rooms from $259), plus villas and lake houses (though a two-night minimum at the latter two may apply). For a more rustic (and budget-friendly) experience, throw your tent into the trunk and sleep under the stars at one of the excellent campsites.
On Saturday, we highly recommend the quaint Glen-Ella Springs Inn. A stay here features rocking chairs on the front porch, four-poster beds in some rooms, and a restaurant serving Southern favorites for dinner and breakfast (rates from $180; breakfast included), all in a lovely woods-and-meadows setting.
When to Go
Spring and fall are the best times for outdoors enthusiasts to visit, when temperatures are mild during the day and cool off considerably at night. In addition, spring finds flowers in bloom and rivers and waterfalls are at their peak from winter snowmelt. Autumn, meanwhile, brings prime camping weather, fall festivals, and the spectacular visage of the leaves turning colors.
During June, the Georgia Wine Country Festival, which will celebrate its 12th anniversary in 2013, draws wine enthusiasts from all over the Southeast. Another noteworthy happening is Helen's Oktoberfest, which celebrates German food, dancing, and drinks starting in mid-September.
How to Get There
By Car from Atlanta: Take I-85 north from the city for about 28 miles until you reach I-985 north, following the signs to Gainesville. After 8 miles, take Exit 8 for GA-347/Lanier Islands Parkway and turn left toward Lake Lanier. Eventually the road becomes the main entrance gate right into Lake Lanier Islands Resort.
From Lake Lanier, it's a little over an hour up GA 365 north and regional roads to the towns of Sautee and Helen, and another approximately 40 minutes to Tallulah Falls and Clayton. The roads in North Georgia often have several names, so navigation can be tricky for first-time visitors. We recommend using both a GPS and a print map to make your way around.