“Thar’s gold in them thar hills” — and also stunning waterfalls, breathtaking mountain vistas, charming small towns, pristine trout streams, award-winning wineries, quaint lodges, apple orchards, and on and on. They’re all in the splendid mountains of North Georgia about a two-hour drive from Atlanta.

View from Tennessee Rock Trail, Black Rock Mtn. State Park, Rabun County (All photos: Charles Seabrook)

Whether you visit for a day, a long weekend or even longer, you’ll find an array of ways to escape life‘s daily rigors. 

Stroll along a scenic trail bounded by wildflowers in the 750,000-acre Chattahoochee National Forest. Learn about the fascinating history of Georgia‘s gold rush, 20 years before California’s. Taste superb wines at some of the more than 25 mountain wineries. Shop for arts and crafts in the inviting towns. Climb to the top of huge ceremonial mounds built by prehistoric Native Americans. Sample down-home barbecue and country cooking at roadside eateries. Rent a rustic cabin. Or, simply relax by a serene mountain lake at a state park or resort. 

North Georgia’s mountains are the southern end of the Appalachian mountain range that extends north into southeastern Canada. In Georgia, the mountains are divided into three so-called “physiographic ecoregions” based on their rocks, origins, and other geological characteristics. The Blue Ridge Mountains region encompasses the northeast part of the state; the Ridge and Valley region occupies most of the state’s northwest section; the Appalachian Plateau covers the extreme northwest corner of the state.

But no matter where you go in Georgia’s mountains, you’ll find an amazing variety of publicly accessible natural treasures — spectacular waterfalls, picturesque valleys, roaring whitewater creeks, and awe-inspiring views from mountain peaks. 

Rushing whitewater creek, Anna Ruby Falls

Among the waterfalls, a must-see is 153-foot-high Anna Ruby Falls (actually twin falls) near Unicoi State Park in White County, one of North Georgia’s premier vacation destinations. Another is Amicalola Falls in the state park of that name in Dawson County. At 729-feet tall, Amicalola Falls is Georgia’s highest waterfall and touted as one of the state’s Seven Natural Wonders. Two other magnificent, don’t-miss waterfalls are reached from a popular trail in Cloudland Canyon State Park in Dade County — Hemlock Falls and Cherokee Falls.

Typical early 19th Century Cherokee homestead, New Echota

North Georgia’s greatest natural treasure by far, though, is the majestic Chattahoochee National Forest, most of which lies in the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains (where Atlanta’s drinking water source, the Chattahoochee River, begins) with a smaller portion in the northwest region.

The Chattahoochee forest is said to be a hiker’s paradise with some 430 miles of recreation trails lush with wildflowers in spring and fall and winding along tumbling streams, cascading waterfalls, and forested ridges. From leisurely, short-day strolls to more strenuous, long-distance ones, there is a trail for nearly every level of hiker, from novice to expert.

Several of the trailheads are along one of Georgia’s most beautiful drives, the 38-mile Richard Russell-Brasstown Bald Scenic Byway, which begins near the town of Helen in White County. One of my favorite hiking trails during all seasons, the Raven Cliff Falls Trail, is easily accessed from the highway. The well-maintained trail winds 2.5 miles (5 miles round trip) around several waterfalls, including one of the forest’s most unusual falls where water gushes from a crevice in a 90-foot-high massive cliff.

Also, along the Russell-Brasstown Bald Byway are several roadside turnouts and overlooks that provide sweeping, far-as-the-eye-can-see views of the mountains. The grandest view of all, though, is from atop Brasstown Bald, which, at 4,784 feet above sea level, is Georgia’s highest peak. A shuttle bus takes visitors from a parking lot to a visitors’ center and observation deck from which, on a clear day, one can see four states — Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

In the northwest mountains is another great scenic drive, the 47-mile Ridge and Valley Byway, offering mountain overlooks and views of picturesque farmlands as it travels U.S. 27, state routes 136 and 156 and county roads. From the highway, you can reach the Keown Falls Scenic Area and the Johns Mountain Overlook, from which you can get a grand view of the serene, fertile Armuchee Valley. 

We would be remiss, however, if we didn’t mention some of the other fabulous panoramas that can be had from vantage points elsewhere in the mountains, including Cloudland Canyon in Dade County and Rabun Bald, Black Rock Mountain State Park and Tallulah Gorge in Rabun County. 

But as if natural beauty and outdoor recreation were not enough, Georgia’s mountains are incredibly rich in human history and culture — and visitor attractions. The countryside holds the histories of the native Cherokee Indian Nation, Civil War battles and early settlers whose 1800’s farmsteads still stand. In 1828, the discovery of gold in the Dahlonega area in Lumpkin County triggered America’s first major gold rush, which quickly spread through Georgia’s mountains. 

Today, reminders of the frenzied quest for gold abound in the mountains. In Dahlonega, tour an old gold mine and visit the Gold Museum State Historic Site, which offers visitors a close-up look at the state’s gold mining history, including a complete collection of gold coins — worth a small fortune — minted in Dahlonega.

The gold rush changed the course of North Georgia’s history. For the native Cherokee Indians, who owned most of the land usurped by thousands of frenetic prospectors, gold mining spelled doom. A bitter tension arose between the gold seekers and the Cherokee people, culminating in one of Georgia’s darkest hours — the forced removal of the Cherokee to lands out west via the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

The Cherokee Nation’s former prominence in northern Georgia is still evident in the region. 

Entrance to the cave in Cave Spring, GA, Floyd County

Most noteworthy is the New Echota State Historic Site in Gordon County, the location of the short-lived but highly significant Cherokee capital on the banks of the Oostanaula River — the spot where the tragic Trail of Tears began.  Today, visitors can see 12 original and reconstructed buildings, including the nation’s Council House, Court House, Print Shop, a tavern, a missionary house, and Cherokee farm buildings – as well as a small museum in the visitors’ center. 

Typical early 19th Century Cherokee homestead, New Echota

Another notable Cherokee site is the Chieftains Museum/Major Ridge Home in Rome in Floyd County, a National Historic Landmark. Major Ridge was a signer of the Treaty of New Echota, which resulted in the Trail of Tears.

But, wait, there’s still much more to see and do in Georgia’s mountains. We’re talking about the region’s captivating towns and cities full of charm, delightful shops, and friendly people. 

Helen, GA

There’s Helen, whose Bavarian-style shops, restaurants, and lodgings seem right out of a storybook. Ellijay, surrounded by orchards and wineries, is home to the Georgia Apple Festival each fall. In Blue Ridge, you can hop aboard the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, billed as a step back in time that takes passengers to the equally charming town of McCaysville and back.

Poole’s BBQ, Ellijay, Gilmer County

Hiawassee is home to the Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa and the site of several concerts and festivals each year. Clayton is a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and close to Georgia’s highest state park, Black Rock Mountain. 

Cave Spring lives up to its name: It has an easily accessible limestone cave in the middle of town and a picturesque spring that gushes water pure enough for drinking. Blairsville is within a short drive of Vogel State Park, one of Georgia’s oldest, most popular state parks with one of the prettiest mountain lakes in the state. 

So, what are you waiting for? Head for the hills.

Charles Seabrook wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than three decades and is a regular contributor to Atlanta Senior Life.