Wintertime Visit To North Georgia
Guest Post by Steve Valise

People feel that the life of a professional vagabond is a carefree one. He’s a leaf in the wind, allowing time, whimsy and the open road to take him to the next stop just over the hill.  That could be true, but I don’t know that’s me.  When I travel it’s typically for a reason.  The reason for my most recent trip to the mountains of North Georgia was simple.  Get out of Florida and find some WINTER!

Cabin on the Chattahoochee River

A nicely appointed cabin, but as is typical with a rented home it just wasn’t “homey”.  Is anything ever “home” when you travel?  A couple of things didn’t work correctly and it was on the side of a mountain, so traveling the gravel and washed out roads to get to the place was a bit tenuous. I was so glad I driving my trusty SUV “Black Beauty”.  She negotiated the roads, both paved and unpaved, with grace and determination.  Like a mountain goat with an attitude, without the typical goat smell of course!  

Cleveland, Georgia

First stop was Cleveland GA., population 3,300 according to the latest census.  I found that only thing this town had to offer was a Super Walmart and a Huddle House.  However, I will say that the few people I did chat with were very friendly and accommodating.  After picking up our supplies of cornmeal, gun powder, ham hocks and guitar strings, we bedded down for our first night is our cabin oasis. 

Helen, Georgia

The first full day started foggy but it cleared to find a cool and pleasant day.  So we loaded into Black Beauty and headed for Helen GA, population 450.  Four Hundred fifty, are you kidding me?  Yep, that’s what they claim.  I must admit, for all of the charm, hills and parks, I was underwhelmed with Helen.  It’s a lovely tourist town with a German or Bavarian theme. 

The Chattahoochee River runs right through the town so there are plenty of canoe, kayak and tube rentals to be found.  Plus I noticed they are building a gravity roller coaster on the southeast part of town.  But outside of this, I found it a bit to touristy for my liking.  I don’t know, maybe it’s me but when I think Germany I don’t envision shops selling, University of Georgia t-shirts, bongs, made in China plastic figurines. And I sure don’t imagine hearing Tom Petty, Lynyrd Skynyrd or Van Halen being played in the beer garden.  Visiting Helen, Georgia felt like the movie Sound of Music and the tourist trap on I-95 “South of the Border” had a bastard child!   

We did stop for lunch in Helen at the Heidelberg House.  The menu was crammed with German fare.  Some familiar and some not so familiar, but I felt it was all reasonably priced.  I enjoyed the Sauerbraten.  Beef that was marinated in vinegar with peppercorns, onions and various other ingredients served with rich brown gravy accented with raisins.  It was served with steamed veggies and a German potato salad.  I’d recommend this dish.  For dessert, the table enjoyed Apfelstrudel, or Apple Strudel for us ‘Muricans.  Apples and cinnamon combined and rolled into a soft pastry served warmed with whipped cream.  This particular strudel tasted very “store bought” and lacked true depth and personality.  I topped off the meal with a typical German beer.  Man, were we stuffed!  It was a good thing because it was off to Unicoi State Park. 

Ruby Anna Falls and Unicoi State Park

Ruby Anna Falls and Unicoi State Park, wow!  I loved it!  The roadway leading to the falls is simple to navigate and a pleasure to drive.  The scenery along the way is breathtaking, even in the dead of winter when I was there.  Once you reach the visitor center of the falls, a small admission is required to get on the half mile path to the falls.  The pathway is wide and paved with several locations for photos, reflection and resting.  Be warned; the climb is taxing if you are on out of shape, overweight, 50+ year old travel blogger.  But once you get to the summit, OH MY!     

Truth be told, I don’t know why I even bother posting photos of this falls.  These pictures pale in comparison to seeing it first hand.  To feeling the mist and the breeze coming off the 155’ falls.  Seeing the rocks that have worn down by thousands of gallons of water rushing over them for millions of years.  Witnessing a work of art no man could ever create.  Go visit this forest, open your mind and allow yourself to be humbled by its grandeur. It’s truly a wonderful stress reliever!

Dahlonega, Georgia

Next on our visit list was Dahlonega GA., home to gold mines, an awesome downtown and the University of Northern Georgia.  I LOVED this town! 

We began by visiting the Consolidated Gold Mine.  We panned for gold, dug for gems and took the tour.  All worth the time!  The staff was super friendly and helpful and the temperature was very comfortable.  I’m sure in the summer months the number of people on the tour will determine the “comfort” level but we enjoyed a tour of only 5 people, giving us the chance to really explore the history and interesting facts of the Consolidated Gold Mine.  Our guide, “Too Tall” Tom, was incredibly knowledgeable, friendly and really took his time to explain and demonstrate the history and geology of the mine.

Dahlonega’s town square is quaint and vibrant.  It’s dotted with many locally owned shops featuring local arts, crafts, leather works, collectables, antiques, food, wine, pubs and restaurants, all lining an easy to navigate town square.  Park your car and get ready to walk because everything is within easy distance. 

When we were at the Consolidated Gold Mine tour, we asked where we should eat and they all recommended the same place.  Once in downtown we stopped by the Visitor Information center, and THEY recommended the exact same place.  Just for laughs, I asked a local worker on the street “where should a tourist eat lunch”, and oddly it was the same response of the others, The Smith House

The Smith House

If you enjoy southern country cookin’, then this place is a must visit for you!  You pay one price and everything is served to your table family style.  The menu did not disappoint, it included: Fried Chicken, Country Fried Steak, Fried Okra, Green Beans, Mashed Potatoes & Gravy, Creamed Corn, Collard Greens, Homemade Yeast Rolls, Corn Muffins, Strawberry Shortcake and Lemon Aid, Sweet Tea, Water.   After walking the gold mines and downtown, this hearty meal kept us satisfied as we headed back to the cabin!

Chestatee Wildlife Preserve & Zoo

Our next day was met with rain in the morning but that wasn’t going to stop us from seeing Georgia.  So we loaded into Black Beauty and headed back to Dahlonega.  This time we’re stopping that the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve & Zoo.  Now before I go any further please understand.  This “zoo” is in northern Georgia… away from any heavily populated areas, away from large tourist destinations, away from over commercialized and heavily manufactured hype.  In other words, this is NOT the San Diego, St. Louis, National or Brookfield Zoo. 

This is a small, independently run, 5013-C rescue and wildlife preserve relying on the kindness of volunteers and donations to help these exotic animals live out their years.  They are in need of donated meat, fruit and vegetables, along with manpower to keep this preserve going. For a small admission fee you are permitted to walk around and view the animals.  It is a “feast or famine” situation with animals.  There are times they have many and then, like the day we were there, just a few.  We were able to purchase small buckets of feed to hand feed the zebras, buffalo, elk and donkeys.  It’s a nice visit for a family with very young children but know that the terrain is hilly and may be challenging for youngsters.

Our cabin retreat in the woods is now done and we’re heading off in a new direction.  However there is still much to see and visit in the Peach Tree State.  One of which is Stone Mountain, just outside of Atlanta.  Frankly I’m not going to give much time to write a review of this location.  But I will give you some facts to help you plan your visit. 

Stone Mountain, Georgia

Stone Mountain is located in a park so you pay an admission fee of $20.  Then there is a “village” comprised of tourist shops, carnival food, shows, souvenirs, basically a Six Flag or Disney World area. They offer a tram to the summit of Stone Mountain and a railroad that encompasses it. The “highlight” is a relief, carved into the side of the mountain of 3 Confederate soldiers; Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson.  This is as far as I will go with my review of Stone Mountain.  I strongly suggest you research the history of the mountain, its association with the Klu Klux Klan, the symbolism and what it represents.  I do believe our history should be remembered however I believe hate should be admonished. 

I’ll see ya on the road!

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