Fall colors in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Photo by Brian Poole, @wde_94
Photo by Brian Poole, @wde_94

Fall colors in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Photo by Brian Poole, @wde_94

Mountain Wonders: Hidden Waterfalls and Fall Colors in North Georgia

There are many vivid reasons why the first settlers arrived and put down roots in the North Georgia mountains. From the views to the sunsets to the natural resources, they built their lives in this beautiful but untamed wilderness. They soon established traditions, legends and towns with intriguing names like Ellijay and Cohutta that still call us to the mountains today.

When you set off to explore this area of the state this fall, you won't see the abundance of gold that led to the rush of miners as part of the first major gold strike in the United States in the 19th century.

These days, treasure seekers travel the winding, two-lane highways for a different kind of gold — the gold (and burgundy and auburn) of the richly hued Georgia landscape as the greenery gives way to autumn. In this region, where the Blue Ridge Mountains meet the Appalachian Mountains, big vistas show off the fall colors in grand, panoramic style.

Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest
Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest

Travelers also find a people deeply in tune with their surroundings, their roots and the mountain folklore that locals share through their food, crafts and their love of the outdoors. Each small town offers interesting spots to drink, dine and do some shopping, and time seems to move at its own unhurried pace. Locally owned vineyards and apple orchards dot the surrounding areas, where tours, tastings and fall events are offered throughout the season.

Getting to the mountains is an easy drive from several Southern metros, and visitors can find many little discoveries and big adventures hidden in these hills and valleys.

Helton Creek Falls in Blairsville, Georgia
Helton Creek Falls in Blairsville, Georgia

Get your feet wet

For the start of an outdoor adventure, follow the Helton Creek Falls Trail and you'll instantly discover two waterfalls along this path just south of Blairsville. If you're more advanced, hike the rugged trails and soak in the views of Blood Mountain, which happens to be the highest peak on Georgia's portion of the famed Appalachian Trail.

You'll be stunned by the rustic beauty of this place, so explore Vogel State Park, at the base of Blood Mountain, which is one of Georgia's oldest and most scenic areas. Hikers can traverse a variety of trails, including the 4-mile Bear Hair Gap, a leisurely loop around a lake that leads straight to scenic Trahlyta Falls.

View of Blood Mountain from Vogel State Park in Blairsville, Georgia
View of Blood Mountain from Vogel State Park in Blairsville, Georgia

Cottages, cabins and campsites are available for overnight accommodations if you're tuckered out after a full day of hiking, or if you just like the idea of spending the night and waking up next to 22 acres of pristine water with a mountain view.

You won't want to stop there. Near Helen, the natural serenity is interrupted only by the tumbling rush of water flowing over the cliff at Anna Ruby Falls.

In the Cohutta Wilderness, Jacks River Falls offers a pleasant reward along the Beech Bottom Trail.

At the summit of Brasstown Bald, an observation deck offers gorgeous views of the Chattahoochee National Forest to the south and east, and North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest to the north.

Sunset at Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa
Sunset at Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa

Bold and bright

When fall makes its appearance in North Georgia, nearby Brasstown Bald, with its 4,784-foot summit, is among the first peaks to display the season's brilliant new colors.

You'll want to capture Georgia's grandeur from above the clouds. There's more walking, but keep going. After the half-mile climb to the observation deck, you'll be rewarded with a panoramic view of four states.

It's all downhill from here. When the day is done, step into luxury at Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa.

If hiking up the mountainside isn't your thing and you'd rather drive, visit Rabun Bald. At 4,696 feet, it's the second highest peak in Georgia. The observation tower at the top provides views that extend for more than 100 miles.

Apples at B.J. Reece Orchards in Ellijay, Georgia
B.J. Reece Orchards in Ellijay is a u-pick orchard and farm, which features zip lines, pony rides and apple cannons.

Apples are king

Georgia is known as the Peach State, but you may wonder why after a trip to Ellijay, the "Apple Capital of Georgia."

In this town and along a 10-mile stretch of Georgia Highway 52, make a day of touring Apple Orchard Alley, where you'll find several apple houses.

Indulge in fried pies and fritters and take the chill off with a cup of hot cider. Load up on applesauce and preserves or pick your own basket of crisp and juicy Pink Ladies or Granny Smiths from the U-Pick at B.J. Reece Orchards.

Ellijay is the home of the Georgia Apple Festival and rolls out the red carpet in honor of one of America's favorite fruits every second and third weekend in October. But there's more than just eating. This celebration includes a parade, a vintage car show and a slew of vendors.

Kayaking on the Toccoa River in Blue Ridge, Georgia
The Toccoa River is perfect for paddlers who are looking for a few rapids and beautiful scenery.

Stay for more leaves

Rent a kayak or a pontoon and paddle along the crystal-clear Toccoa River while you take in the new fall foliage on the picturesque countryside.

If you can't go without modern convenience, big city sophistication meets small-town Southern charm in Blue Ridge. After a day exploring shops, galleries and the mountains, quench your thirst at Blue Ridge Brewery. The establishment represents a growing craft beer focus in this region of Georgia. Rabun County hosts the occasional distillery and brewery tour, but if you can't make that date, you could always plan your own. Wineries and orchards abound in Georgia's Historic High Country.

You'll also find the unexpected in the North Georgia mountains. You can get a breathtaking look at the changing colors of the Chattahoochee National Forest and the serene waters of the Toccoa River from your seat on Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. You can take this 26-mile round trip in a vintage open-air rail car or one with the comforts of climate control. Fall foliage tours on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway run from the end of September to the beginning of November.

Cloudland Canyon State Park in Rising Fawn, Georgia
Cloudland Canyon State Park in Rising Fawn, Georgia

Adventure calls

You may want to put your feet up for a while, but if the hiking bug has bit you — and for bragging rights — make plans to knock off all four parks in the Canyon Climbers Club. The challenge is to hike Amicalola Falls in Dawsonville, Cloudland Canyon in Rising Fawn, Tallulah Gorge in Tallulah Falls and Providence Canyon in Lumpkin. For your sweat and effort, you'll be rewarded with a T-shirt.

It's easy to be swayed by the famous signs touting Rock City and Ruby Falls. But forge your own path to Cloudland Canyon State Park, where you'll find more than canyons. There are caves, creeks, cliffs and cottages for overnight stays. And here's a word that you'll even have fun saying: yurt. Book a night, or more, in these round tent-like structures that can sleep up to six.

Tallulah Gorge State Park. Photo by @thegreatoutdoorsphoto
Tallulah Gorge State Park. Photo by @thegreatoutdoorsphoto

You can go from the depths to the heights in Rabun County, where you'll discover magnificent blue mountains, clear lakes and lush forests, including Tallulah Gorge State Park.

Hike the 1,200-foot deep Tallulah Gorge or stop and marvel at the natural splendor from the suspension bridge that connects both sides.

If you're comfortable driving on steep mountain roads, pack the RV and trek to the highest state park in Georgia. The summit of Black Rock Mountain State Park is a great place to picnic, but be sure to bring a jacket as the top of the mountain is much cooler than down below. You'll also find miles of trails, a lake and a few waterfalls.

For an adrenaline rush while you're appreciating the outdoors, check out the Adventure Lodge at Unicoi State Park, near the Alpine village of Helen and Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville.

More than just a place to stay, the Adventure Lodge is the place to become one with nature and have fun doing it. From paddle boarding to fly-fishing classes and guided hikes, there's a little something for everyone at this getaway. And you'll get a chance to see lovely leaves, too. Because you'll be zipping through the trees on its high-flying adventure course.

Archery at Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia
The archery course at Amicalola Falls State Park offers obstacles such as shrubbery, trees and inclines.

Treat yourself to a weekend of "glamping" from the comfort of a native-American teepee outfitted with heat and A/C, lights and electricity, courtesy of North Georgia Canopy Tours in Lula.

Or if your preference is a "normal" backcountry lodge, that's exactly what you'll find at the Len Foote Hike Inn, just outside of Amicalola Falls. That is, after you make the 5-mile trek on foot through the foothills of North Georgia to get there. A hot meal and a soft bed await you at trail's end.

Though often overshadowed by Atlanta's bustling metro and the beach fun of Savannah, the North Georgia mountains still stand as one of Georgia's true gems for travelers. Frommer's wrote that this region "may be one of the South's best-kept travel secrets." With idyllic towns, highland scenery and a range of outdoor offerings, these mountains provide all the makings of an unforgettable autumn adventure.

Published: July 2019