After a work trip in June, I enjoyed driving took the scenic backroads from Atlanta, GA to back to my hometown of Raleigh, NC. Instead of plodding up Interstate 85 ( with road work and traffic jams), I decided to explore the mountains of Georgia before crossing over into NC’s Highlands.
My mom and I enjoyed a socially distanced trip into Georgia’s Blue Ridge in 2020 – exploring Tallulah Gorge State Park and Black Mountain State Park… and fell in love with the area. I have wanted to return to Georgia’s Blue Ridge for several years and the chance to enjoy a scenic detour leaving Atlanta was the perfect fit.
I headed north past Lake Lanier (Atlanta’s go to spot for outdoor recreation) towards the mountain vistas of the hamlet of Helen.
I’d read about Helen in a travel magazine – putting it on my bucket list. Helen is known as a true ‘alpine’ village filled with Bavarian style buildings and old-world charm. Located only ninety minutes north of Atlanta is a popular getaway for city goers. It is a bit kitsch with some of the over the top Bavaria tourist traps, but at its heart – Helen is a sweet mountain town that provides the best of alpine beauty and family fun.
For me – Helen is a quaint town, but the reason I would return would be the access to nature. Helen is surrounded by rolling peaks and valleys and lush creeks with towering waterfalls.
Helen is steps away from gorgeous Unicoi State Park – a wonderland of hiking trails leading to the doorway of heavenly waterfalls including Anna Ruby Falls and others.
I had wanted to stop at Anna Ruby Falls this trip but unfortunately a heavy rain set in…I’ll be back soon to view the falls.
If traveling to the area – I recommend checking into the Unicoi Lodge – it provides an elegant, yet rustic lodge experience surrounded by nature.
*So much of this area was sacred to The Cherokee and names like Unicoi are rooted in the Cherokee language
Helen’s backcountry also offers prime rafting and fishing.
Smithgall Woods State Park is a nearby nature preserve worth exploring…it is known as an ‘angler’s paradise’ – for more info click here…
I continued north from Helen, navigating winding roads meandering through rural high country. I reached the NC line, just past Hiawassee (GA). The NC/GA border is united by roaring rivers and the peaceful Chatuge Lake.
After filling up for gas, I continued to mini-mountain metropolis Franklin NC. Franklin is one of the most historic and scenic spots in NC.
Franklin traces its roots deep with the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee formed an important metropolis at Franklin known as ‘Nikwasi’ – which means ‘center of activity.’ Nikwasi was an important Cherokee settlement, centered around a 1000-years-old platform mound. The Cherokee built their Council House on top of the mound…the mound is still visible today as a historic memorial.
In addition to the rich history, Franklin’s proximity to Great Smoky National Park (around an hour away) and the Blue Ridge Mountains has made it a world class destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Franklin, like much of western NC is rich in gems and minerals…giving Franklin the moniker ‘Gem Capital of the World.’
From Franklin, I veered east on US Highway 64 towards The Cullasaja Gorge – aka The Waterfall Highway. This winding narrow canyon, cut by the rushing Cullasaja River is hands down one of the prettiest scenic drives in The Blue Ridge corridor. It is a hidden ‘gem’ – where you’ll enjoy truly breathtaking postcard views. Dry Falls (featured picture at top of blog post) is one of the most dramatic in NC; visitors can scale a trail path to walk behind the falls ‘staying dry’. Bridal Veil Falls is one of the few you can technically drive behind (although the road usually is closed so people can get pictures on foot these days)
To learn more click here.
This mystical waterfall road from Franklin runs roughly nineteen miles to the upscale mountain village of Highlands.
Highlands is the perfect balance of elegant charm and mountain hospitality. Downtown Highlands is lined with locally owned shops, galleries and delicious eateries.
A bit hungry – I stopped for a coffee and frozen yogurt at Sweet Treats/Highlands Deli.
Highlands sits on the top of The Eastern Continental Divide and the views from Highlands east on 64 towards Cashiers and Sapphire force you to slow down and enjoy the view.
Whiteside Mountain is a must stop vista – this cliff boasts the highest cliffs east of the Mississippi.
My mom and I enjoyed renting a cabin in the Sapphire Valley near Mt. Bald and Merrie Woode Camp several years ago. It continues to be a favorite memory and you can read my archived posts about the trip here.
I will take any detour for extra scenery and a bit of history…Instead of heading to Asheville to catch I-40, I continued on scenic 64 east past the charming college town of Brevard, past Hendersonville to Chimney Rock State Park and Lake Lure.
My dad took me to Chimney Rock every year when I was little and it still is a special place to me. While I didn’t have time to stop and tour the state park today, I was able to view the towering stone fortress from the distance. Chimney Rock and nearby Hickory Nut Gorge are must stops if you are in the area...click here to learn more.
Lake Lure has long lured celebrities from 1920s silent film actors and novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald to US Presidents…it served as the backdrop of Dirty Dancing.
Lake Lure is a laid back historic town with some of the best views in NC.
With dusk settling in, I saw the Blue Ridge peaks transition to the pastoral rolling foothills near from Lake Lure to Morganton, where I merged onto I-40.
Until our next adventure…