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.
3. Black Rock Mountain State Park
Black Rock Mountain State Park combines history with some of the boldest ridges in the lower Blue Ridge Mountains. Located on Foxfire Lane under Black Rock Mountain, the Foxfire Museum features exhibits that highlight the region’s traditional mountain culture. Black Rock itself, named for a black cliff composed of the mineral biotite, bestrides what some call the Eastern Continental Divide: water falling on its flanks will flow to either the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. Perched above 3,640 feet, the area has overlooks commanding views that on clear days extend for 80 miles or so.
4. Moccasin Creek State Park
The drive backtracks to Clayton, then follows Rte. 76 westward to Rte. 197 and Moccasin Creek State Park, a pint-size playground that hugs the western shore of Lake Burton. Anglers come here to cast for trout, bass, panfish, and bluegills. Others visit simply to enjoy leisurely walks along the lake’s shoreline and up the nearby slopes, a pastime that is especially appealing during the hot summer months, when the high elevation and deep shade of the forest offer relief from the heat — so much so, in fact, that Moccasin Creek is known as ”the park where spring spends the summer.”
Once back on Rte. 76, you’ll quickly come to the Popcorn overlook, which takes in the rumpled ridges that rise from Lake Burton. Farther along, the highway crosses the Appalachian Trail at Dicks Creek Gap, a slender notch that has yet another inviting rest area with picnic sites and far-reaching views.
5. Chatuge Lake
The drive soon nears the glittering expanse of Chatuge Lake, a reservoir that extends into North Carolina, where the lake’s glassy surface mirrors the mountains that slant down to its shores. Camping, boating, and fishing are popular here, and in the lakeside town of Hiawassee, the trails at Hamilton Gardens traverse a paradise filled with tulip trees, dogwoods, azaleas, and rhododendrons.
After taking a walk through the gardens, follow Rte. 76 past the blue bulk of sturdy ridges to the town of Young Harris. From there you’ll descend beside Butternut Creek, which twists and turns amid a valley graced with apple orchards, cultivated fields, and wind-rippled meadows.
6. Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway
Blairsville, an old-fashioned mountain town, was settled in the shadow of 4,784-foot Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest mountain. The Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, a 41-mile loop along State Rtes. 180, 17/75, and 348, climbs to just below the peak’s crest. You can reach the visitor center on top by trail or, for a fee, by shuttle bus. Descending from the mountain’s flanks, the byway continues past forests and wilderness areas along what is often for first-timers a white-knuckle course.
7. Vogel State Park
After completing the scenic loop, the drive heads south on Rte. 19/129, where you’ll be greeted by a cascade on the approach to 223-acre Vogel State Park. The area’s centerpiece, Lake Trahlyta, is surrounded by a ring of mountains cloaked with dense forests. A Civilian Conservation Corps museum also commemorates that Depression-and New Deal-era work program.
8. DeSoto Falls
As Rte. 19/129 arcs past the rugged Blue Ridge foothills, it threads through Neel’s Gap, a narrow pass shared with the Appalachian Trail, whose southern terminus is just a few ridges away. Called Mountain Crossings, it’s the only spot on the trail that is covered with a man-made structure. Visitors to DeSoto Falls are treated to a trio of tumblers, which can be viewed along a three-mile stretch of trail. Known as Upper, Middle, and Lower DeSoto Falls, they drop, respectively, 200, 80, and 20 feet. As a historical footnote, the falls, like many places in the South, take their name from Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto. According to one local legend, a piece of armor that was found here is said to have belonged to the conquistador, who trudged through this region in the early 1500s searching for riches.
A horde of dreamers and schemers under the spell of gold fever came to comb the hills here in 1828. Dahlonega, a Cherokee word that translates as ”precious yellow,” was in fact named for the treasured metal. Even the federal government had a stake, establishing a mint that was pressing coins until the outbreak of the Civil War. Today Dahlonega wears several hats: gracious southern mountain town, busy county seat, and jumping-off point for wilderness adventures. Visitors can relive prospector days at the Gold Museum State Historic Site; some even try their luck panning for gold on the Chestatee River or at Crisson’s and Consolidated Gold Mines. Length: About 170 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Fine scenery year-round, though the fall can be crowded on weekends and winters are sometimes icy.
Nearby attractions: Amicalola Falls State Park, where a series of cascades tumble a total of 729 feet, off Rte. 52 west of Dahlonega. Lake Winfield Scott, a clear lake high in the mountains, Rte. 180 west of Vogel State Park.
Further information: Georgia Tourism Division, P.O. Box 1776, Atlanta, GA 30301-1776; tel. 800-847-4842, www.exploregeorgia.org.
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