Southeast

Land of Tumbling Water – North Georgia Highlands

Woodlands and Waterfalls Combine to Make a Trip to the North Georgia Highlands a Journey to Remember.

A summer hike through the mountains of northern Georgia is a bit like swimming in a lake – one moment you’re moving through a pocket of warm, moist air, the next you’re hit by a cool, dry breeze. The difference can be dramatic and unexpected. No need for alarm. That cool gust may be a welcome draft from a nearby waterfall.

In northern Georgia, waterfalls are a natural wonder, occurring so frequently it’s actually a little hard not to stumble across them. For avid hikers, waterfall treks are icing on the cake — a great place to catch your breath and soak your feet, and another excuse to hit the trail.

Waterfalls are only one reason RV enthusiasts make annual treks to seek refuge in the northern end of the state. Mix the scenic beauty of dense, sun-dappled forests, towering mountain vistas and sprawling mountain lakes with the guarantee of some of Georgia’s most pleasant temperatures, and for many, it’s a formula that’s hard to beat.

Just ask Ray Jones, of Georgia, who’s been coming to camp in the north Georgia Mountains for over 30 years.

Tumbling waterOn a day that left the rest of the state wilting in steamy temperatures, Jones could be found happily kicked back in the cool shade alongside his 22-foot Class C motorhome.

Nearby, Frogtown Creek gurgled soothingly, while a short walk away, Upper DeSoto Falls plunged to meet it.

“We’ve just always liked this place,” Jones said, who brought extended family along on this trip. “It’s always cool, comfortable and quiet. That’s what keeps us coming back.”

“In fact, we make a point to get up here once or twice a year — sometimes three times. Even in August, it’s cooler than it is at home, and in the fall, you’ll see some of the best color in the state.”

For travelers, Georgia is a destination chock-full of variety. From grassy savannas along the coastal plains to sprawling cotton fields and swampland to the south and glistening urban high-rises in upscale Atlanta. But north Georgia is something altogether different.

Here, you’ll find a region that still bears strong vestiges of past people and culture. From its original Cherokee inhabitants to hard-working pioneers, from big-dreaming gold miners to weathered loggers, this is a place that pulses with a sense of the past.

Yet there is much in the present to attract visitors — quaint towns, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, assorted festivals and recreation opportunities galore. Best of all, the region offers a natural driving loop — with many appealing side trips — that will take you to a handful of some of Georgia’s most popular state parks, campgrounds and natural attractions.

We’ll start at the western side of our route, near the state’s tallest waterfalls, then arc north and east through the Chattahoochee National Forest, bending back south to view what many consider “The Grand Canyon” of Georgia.

Amicalola Falls State Park

Cherokee Indians called it “Amicalola” — roughly translated, “tumbling waters.” And so it is.

At 729-feet, the waterfall at the heart of this park is a whopper — It is among the tallest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River, according to the state parks department. Today, it is an extremely popular destination for travelers, among the state’s most visited parks.

Though it’s definitely off the beaten path, it’s not hard to find. From the west, follow Georgia Highway 136 east to Georgia Highway 52 and look for signs for the park turnoff. From the east, pick up Georgia Highway 53 and head west to Georgia Highway 183, then north to Georgia Highway 2.

The drive to the park can be a treat in itself, especially in the fall, when hardwood trees that cloak these Southern Appalachian foothills ignite into a blazing carpet of color.

The 825-acre park features camping, a lodge, restaurant, and numerous hiking trails, include a well-maintained trail of stairs that will lead to the top of the waterfall.

Like many mountain falls, this cascading stream is at its most robust in the spring or after a heavy rain, but can be enjoyed year-round, weather permitting. Park at the base of the falls — look for the trout pond, dip a line — and take your time enjoying a hike to the top — or even a portion of the way — beneath a leafy canopy of trees that create an undulating landscape. Arrive early to avoid crowds.

If time is short, just drive to the top of the falls — you’ll find parking and lovely picnic grounds — and peek over the edge. With its panoramic view, you’ll understand why this is considered one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders. There is paid parking, as you’ll find at most of Georgia’s state parks.

The park is also a popular destination for serious hikers, since the southern terminus to the 2,135-mile Appalachian Trail begins eight miles away at Springer Mountain, a popular access point for hikers. In fact, many tackling the trail north to south spend their last night at Amicalola Falls.

Campers will find 24 tent, trailer and RV campsites — with water and electricity. The campground is open year-round. Park officials say they can accommodate just about any size of RV, but caution that parts of the campground are steep. “If you can handle a 25 percent grade, you’re on your own,” a ranger said.

Visitors will find bathhouses and laundry facilities; leashed pets are permitted. Sites may be reserved up to 11 months in advance. For reservations, call (800) 864-7275 or visit www.gastateparks.org.

For park information, call (706) 265-4703.

DeSoto Falls Campground

Legend holds this site took its name from Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto when a breast-plate of Spanish armor was discovered in the area in the 1880s.

Scholars initially discredited the find — that is, until a sword dating from the 1540s from one of DeSoto’s expeditions was later found in northern Georgia.

Today’s DeSoto Falls Scenic Area and campground is conveniently located just off U.S. Highway 129/Georgia Highway 19; just follow the signs.

Visitors can pay a small parking fee and hike a well-groomed two-mile trail along Frogtown Creek to view Middle and Lower DeSoto Falls. You could also elect to self-register at the adjacent campground and stay awhile.

A walk to the falls is a fairly easy ramble; it’s not unusual to see couples tackle it with very young children in tow. The creek is regularly stocked with trout, so bring your fly rod.

To reach the falls, cross a small footbridge; once you’re across, turn right and walk .7 miles to reach the Middle Falls, head left to find the Lower Falls — about .2 miles. Both hikes are short, easy-to-moderate treks, and offer an excellent sample of north Georgia’s forested ecosystem. Visit from mid-April to late May, and you’ll be treated to wildflowers and rhododendrons in bloom. In late summer, butterflies abound.

Feeling ambitious? Only 1.5 miles north on U.S. 129 you can visit Neels Gap and the Appalachian Trail, which you can follow about 2.5 miles to the top of Blood Mountain — the highest point of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. On a clear day, the views are stellar.

This is Cherokee Country, and reminders are everywhere. Even the name “Frogtown Creek” derives from a Cherokee myth about “Walasi,” a great frog who stood guard over nearby Blood Mountain — considered a holy site in Cherokee culture.

The campground hosts 24 campsites, complete with picnic tables, grills, warm showers, flush toilets, piped water and drinking fountains. Trailers may not exceed 22 feet in length. Campsites are scattered between two creek-side loops beneath a dense forest canopy, so you’re more likely to hear the burbling creek than nearby road noise. Several sites actually border the creek.

The campground is open May through October on a first-come, first-served basis, no reservations. For more information, call (706) 864-6173.

Need provisions? Don’t miss a stop just down the road at Walasi-yi, a state-owned hiking and gift shop at Neels Gap and a central stopover for Appalachian Trail hikers.

Vogel State Park

Lake Trahlyta dominates Vogel State Park like a shimmering jewel — a 20-acre lake near the base of Blood Mountain, ringed by the Chattahoochee National Forest, and adorned with a broad, sandy swimming beach.

Little wonder it’s one of Georgia’s most popular state parks, as well as one of its oldest. This was one of two parks that literally helped establish the Georgia park system in 1931.

Created by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the park is also a living monument to Georgia’s CCC, with a small museum dedicated to the young men. In fact, the park hosts an annual reunion for surviving CCC members.

Vogel State Park virtually buzzes with fun family activities — on weekends, it can be like watching an anthill. It can also be hard to get into; reservations are a must, particularly in the fall, when surrounding forests are ablaze with autumn color and local towns offer a variety of regional festivals celebrating apples, sorghum, folk crafts and Oktoberfest.

Here is a park with much to offer. In addition to lovely scenery, you’ll find camping, hiking, water sports, music and regional history, all neatly intermingled.

From renting pedal-boats to sunning on the soft sand beach, hiking the one-mile lake loop or the more challenging 13-mile Coosa Backcountry Trail, playing miniature golf, “beach” volleyball or simply taking in live music in the covered pavilion, this park is a people-pleaser.

And at 233 acres, there is enough elbowroom that no one feels too crowded. A well-stocked general store at the heart of the park goes far to cover most camping needs. The closest town, Blairsville, is about 11 miles away.

Camping is a big draw here; the park features over 100 well-spaced RV-suitable sites, at $20 to $22 a night. Campsites range from primitive to those with electric/water hook-ups. Comfort stations offer bathrooms and hot showers.

At an altitude of 2,500 feet, the park can grow quite cool, even on summer evenings. Pack and dress accordingly.

Parts of the campground can be hilly; be sure to ask about campsite access based upon the size of your rig. Reservations are recommended, and may be made by calling (800) 864-7275. For park information, call (706) 745-2628.

Moccasin Creek State Park

Lenny and Brenda Clardy were camping in North Carolina when a fellow camper kept raving about a Georgia campground. His tip? Check out Moccasin Creek State Park.

“He told us that the lots were big, it was right on a lake and really shady — just peaceful and quiet,” said Brenda Clardy. “And we’ve always liked the mountains better than the beach.”

Within the week, they loaded up their 27-foot fifth- wheel and headed south, following Georgia Highway 76 and south on Georgia Highway 197.

They found a state park that seemed steeped in a quiet sense of nostalgia, a relatively flat campground in the Blue Ridge Mountains dotted with sprawling, mature trees smack-dab on the shores of Lake Burton — a 2,800 acre resource managed by the Georgia Power Company — and adjacent to the Lake Burton Fish Hatchery, which offers tours.

The park promotes simple pleasures. Two-seated swings overlook the lake. A fully accessible fishing pier juts out at the mouth of a trout-filled creek open only to seniors, children or anglers who are physically challenged.

Surrounding forests and trails invite hikers to roam. Rental boats lay in tidy rows along the shoreline, beckoning your company.

The park is small, but serene, and a sentimental favorite among campers. “We started coming here 25 to 30 years ago,” said Frank Everett, of Georgia, who arrived in a 30-foot travel trailer.

“At first, we came here only because of friends we knew. Now, we find our way back to take the grandchildren — especially in the spring and fall. They can ride their bicycles, go fishing and enjoy the playground.”

“We like the park itself because of the atmosphere — laid back, easy-going and friendly,” added his wife, Annette Everett. “And the shade is great.”

The park does project a family-friendly atmosphere. In fact, camping there is such a hit with Andy and Sandy Braselton’s daughters, they clamor to come back several times a year.

“Last year, we asked them, ‘Do you want to go to Disney World or go camping for fall break?’” recalled Sandy Braselton, also of Georgia, who was camping with her family in a pop-up camper. “Twice now, they’ve chosen this campground over Disney World,” she explained.

Braselton’s all for it. “We live in a neighborhood where there’s always someone who wants the kids to come play or go do something. Here, it’s just us. They ride their bikes together; they run outside and play all day.

“For us, that’s the main thing — just being together. Here, it’s not about spending money or getting things. It’s about being together. Our friends have all bought trailers now. They get it, too.”

A one-mile nature trail in the park is great for kids, and seasoned hikers will want to try Hemlock Falls Trail, which will take you just a few miles along a babbling creek to picturesque Hemlock Falls. To reach it, you’ll find a trail head just south of the park entrance. Take note: Depending on conditions, the trail can be wet and muddy.

The park offers camping year-round, though local road conditions can limit access. Campers may choose from 54 sites, which offer water and electric hook-ups.

Most sites can handle RVs up to 40 feet long, though overflow parking is available for detaching tow vehicles. Visitors will also find flush toilers and hot showers. Reservations are strongly recommended and may be made by calling (800) 864-7275. For park information, call (706) 947-3194.

Black Rock Mountain State Park

Named for its rugged, sheer cliffs and distinctive dark stone, Black Rock Mountain State Park is a photographer’s dream — a destination known for its magnificent, sweeping views.

Famous for offering some of the most outstanding scenery in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the park straddles the Eastern Continental Divide. At an altitude of 3,640 feet, it is literally Georgia’s highest state park, as well as some of the oldest landmass on earth.

Though reaching the park’s summit is a steep climb, scenic overlooks along the way are proof that this is going to be worth it. At the summit visitor’s center, venture onto viewing platforms and enjoy the 80-mile vista overlooking the Southern Appalachian range, or settle into a picnic site and soak in the scenery.

To reach the park, follow U.S. Highway 76 to U.S Highway 441, turning north. The entrance is three miles north of Clayton — a good town to load up on provisions. Look for the brown signs in Mountain City that will lead you up the mountain.

Notice that we said up the mountain. As the name suggests, the park is essentially one big mountain.

Though RVs up 40 feet long are permitted, staff cautions that the way up is steep and curvy. “It’s a matter of what you’re comfortable with,” one park employee shrugged.

Visitors will find 48 campsites nestled beneath towering patches of rhododendron — as tall as your house! — and hemlock, with water, electric and TV hook-ups. Campers can access flush toilets and hot showers.

Springtime brings wildflowers, and plenty of visitors. Ranger-led hikes lead past blooming bowers of flame azalea, rhododendron and mountain laurel, as well as patches of ramp, violets and blood-root. Call for dates and details.

Black Rock is a popular destination for hikers. Near the campground’s camp store you can catch the trail to Ada-Hi Falls — a fairly easy half-mile walk. Other trails lead past cascading streams through verdant forests, which provide spectacular fall color.

Reservations are recommended, as visitation remains steady throughout the year. To make a reservation, call (800) 864- 7275. For park information, call (706) 746-2141.

Tallulah Gorge State Park

On this journey, we saved the best for last — a visit to Tallulah Gorge, a magnificent two-mile-long canyon that plunges almost 1,000 feet past towering granite walls.

One of Georgia’s most famous series of waterfalls, and an enduring tourist attraction, the gorge is among the state’s newest parks, charged with a breathtaking natural beauty.

Little surprise that it’s sometimes referred to as the “Niagara of the South.” it is considered among the oldest gorges in the United States.

There is a good reason this spot is dubbed as one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders. Rugged cliffs tower over the churning water that creates a chain of a half-dozen consecutive waterfalls, dubbed with picturesque names, such as “Tempesta,” “Oceana” and “ L’eau d’Or (Water of Gold).”

To reach the park, head south on U.S. Highway 441. The entrance is right on the highway.

The waterfalls are compact and, depending on the time of year, intense. In the course of one mile, for example, the Tallulah River drops about 500 feet. Because Georgia Power dammed the river, both whitewater releases (on weekends in April and November) and aesthetic releases (weekends in September and October) push the falls to peak glory.

The Tallulah Gorge Nature Trail traces the canyon rim, providing at least seven scenic overlooks. You can also walk down a steep series of stairs to get a closer look — though the climb back out is extremely strenuous. Cross the river with a memorable stroll across a suspension bridge that dangles 80 feet over the bottom of the gorge.

Arrive early, and you can request one of the 100 free permits that allow you to hike to the floor of the gorge. Permits are also required for rock climbing and rappelling. Whitewater paddling is offered in April and November, and biking is allowed on a “Rails to Trails” path, as well as more than 20 miles of hiking trails.

Start your journey at the Jane Hurt Yarn Interpretive Center, where you can pick up maps of the park’s hiking trails, fill your water bottle, or enjoy exhibits about the region’s history and fragile eco- system. If you can’t make it down into the gorge, watch a film that takes you there, instead.

The park stretches over almost 2,700 acres, and facilities include a campground managed by the Georgia Power Company. Campers may choose among 50 campsites, which accommodate RVs with a maximum length of 40 feet.

Sites offer water, electric and cable TV hook-ups, flush toilets and hot showers, and easy access to the falls and hiking trails.

Though the campground is open year-round, campers are on the honor system to self-register December, January and February. Reservations are strongly urged, and may be made by calling Georgia Power at (706) 754- 7979. Non-reserved sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

If hiking around the gorge sounds too rigorous, consider crossing Highway 441. On the other side of the Tallulah Gorge Dam, visitors can enjoy a white sand beach on Tallulah Lake, with fishing and picnic shelters — a great place to kick back.

 

For more information about hiking North Georgia Highlands, visit www.georgiatrails.com

For links to hikes that will lead to waterfall, http://georgiatrails.com/waterfalls.html

To make reservations at ant Georgia State Park, call (800) 864-7275 or visit www.GeorgiaStateParks.org

 

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