Road trip towns: Helen, Georgia
While Athens, Georgia, home of the Bulldogs, is a popular weekend hangout at a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive out of Columbia, the North Georgia mountains host a wide variety of equally interesting towns to take up your weekends.
I have spent eight summers (and counting) at a sleep-away camp at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by picturesque views and winding roads. Helen, Georgia, is the town next door to the camp, so many weekends and day trips were spent wandering in and out of cafés and tubing down the natural lazy river.
Founded as a logging town, the city started to decline in the mid-1960s until a plan to turn Helen into a replica of a Bavarian Alpine village saved the town and created a well-off tourist industry.
What to Do:
Anna Ruby Falls is a part of the Chattahoochee National Forest and a great place to spend the day hiking; the Raven Cliff Falls, about 11 miles down the road, offers an easy hiking trail with a beautiful double waterfall at the end. The Cool River Tubing company is easily a highlight of every summer trip I take to Helen — open throughout the summer, it only costs $5 to rent a tube and float down the Chattahoochee River for a couple of hours.
Woody’s Mountain Bikes offers trails, tours and bike rentals through the mountains. Prices start at $50 but include helmets, gear and a shuttle ride.
A landmark in the area, the Cabbage Patch Kids Babyland General Hospital is bizarre yet intriguing place to experience for an afternoon. The once-popular toy brand has its headquarters in Cleveland, Georgia, about a 15-minute drive from Helen. At the “hospital,” you can witness the “birth” of the doll and adopt one to bring home.
From September through October, Helen hosts a pretty wild Oktoberfest. Other attractions include the Folk Pottery Museum and the fun-for-all-ages Helen Alpine Mini Golf Village in the heart of Helen.
Where to Shop:
Founded in 1973, Betty’s Country Store is pretty much a required visit when in the area. Carrying everything from bright T-shirts and handmade cards to local produce and a fresh bakery, there is nothing you can’t get at Betty's. If anything, it’s nice to just sit outside the store on one of the many rocking chairs and take in the mountain view.
The Historic Nacoochee Village has a ton of small, local shops — the Nacoochee Village Antique Mall has hundreds of unique vintage items, the Nora Mill General Store is the best place to pick up souvenirs and post cards and JumpinGoat Coffee Roasters sells the perfect cup of locally roasted coffee.
A trip to Helen is not complete without wandering around the Christmas Shoppe, a store dedicated to the Christmas spirit. The Walmart right outside city limits is nothing special, but the parking lot, hands down, has the most magnificent views out of any Walmart parking lot in the southeast.
Where to Eat:
Bigg Daddys Restaurant and Tavern is loud and inviting, with over 100 bottled house beers, live music every Friday and Saturday night and 50-cent wings every Wednesday. Cimmi’s Café has amazing biscuits, Bodensee Restaurant features classic German dishes and Mully’s Nacoochee Grill is a great place for a more upscale dinner with amazing views from the back porch.
For dessert, there is definitely no shortage of ice cream shops, but Homemade Ice Cream, Gifts and More is the best. The Hansel and Gretel Candy Kitchen has endless rows of candy, but their homemade fudge is the highlight.
Where to Stay:
The Unicoi Lodge Cabins have both large and small cabins to rent with looming hills and flowing creeks in the backyard. Just six miles down the road, the Sautee Inn is the bed-and-breakfast of your dreams. If you are looking to set up a tent and sleep under the stars, Jenny’s Creek Campground has plenty of nearby creeks and hiking trails.