Once part of Cherokee country, this rocky edge of the Appalachian Mountains has at points in time attracted prospecting pioneers in search of gold. The treasure proved fleeting, but northern Georgia continues to reward with its unforgettable sights and sounds — towering waterfalls, secluded gorges, orchards and farms wedged among the mountains, and remote little towns that keep watch over timeless folkways.
Leaving behind the high-speed traffic of I-85, the drive begins by following Rte. 17 northwest to the town of Toccoa, which takes its name from the Cherokee word for ”beautiful” — an apt description for this place at the southeastern edge of Chattahoochee National Forest. Ranging across most of the state’s northern tier, the forest abounds with ferns, wildflowers, shrubs, pines, and stands of long-lived oak and hickory trees. The mountainous terrain is laced by rivers and creeks, their downhill journeys punctuated by an abundance of waterfalls. The first, Toccoa Falls, drops about 186 feet. To reach it, follow the signs from Rte. 17 to Toccoa Falls College a few miles outside of Toccoa, where a creekside trail leads to the deep pool at the base of the cascade, whose nonstop melody grows louder as you approach.
2. Tallulah Gorge State Park
The drive follows Rte. 441 north, then turns eastward for a short stretch along Old Rte. 441 (Scenic Loop 15), which clings to the rim of Tallulah Gorge. Drivers will have to keep their eyes on the road, but turnouts along the way let everyone else enjoy the vistas, though all can enjoy the view from the suspension bridge over the gorge. The cleft’s walls plummet to the Tallulah River, which races along about 1,000 feet below. For more views stop at Tallulah Gorge State Park, where a trail overlooks three waterfalls and outcrops known as Lion Rock and Lover’s Leap.
Farther ahead in Clayton, once a trading post for Cherokee Indians, you’ll find a bustling downtown area that brims with stores offering antiques, traditional crafts, and other homespun keepsakes. White-water enthusiasts also can be seen in the streets of Clayton, where three outfitters have set up shop in order to guide adventurous visitors on the nearby Chattooga River down rapids that vary in difficulty from Class III to V. You can visit the waterway via Rte. 76 east, one of only a few roads that lead to the notorious wild and scenic river.