Distance: 41 miles
Time: 1 hour
Season: Spring through fall. Fine fall foliage.
This drive travels through the forested foothills, mountains, and valleys of Chattahoochee National Forest, climbing to the top of Georgia’s highest peak.
Begin in charming Helen, a former sawmill town with a Bavarian motif and bustling with German-style biergartens, inns, and shops. From Helen head north on Ga. 17/75 as it follows the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River through the southern end of the Chattahoochee National Forest, one of the most productive hardwood forests in the world.
A mile ahead in Robertstown, you can detour 3 miles on Ga. 356 to the wilderness haven of Unicoi State Park. The park’s 7 miles of hiking trails wind into the surrounding hills. If you continue 1.5 miles farther on Smith Creek Road, you’ll come to Anna Ruby Falls, where a half-mile paved trail through the forest leads to a twin waterfall. Back on Ga. 17/75, the road now moves alongside crystal-clear Andrews Creek, wending through pines, poplars, hemlocks, and oaks. After 3 miles it ascends the slopes of the mountains; along this stretch you’ll find a shady picnic spot by Andrews Creek.
The precipitous road crests at 2,949-foot Unicoi Gap, where the Appalachian Trail crosses on its 2,100-mile journey from Georgia to Maine. Just beyond, High Shoals Scenic Area has a 1.2-mile trail past Blue Hole and High Shoals Falls. Back on the road, turn left onto Ga. 180. This quiet country road climbs the lower slopes of Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest mountain. You’ll get a closer look at the actual bald—the treeless area on the mountain’s summit—by following the Ga. 180 spur. From the parking area, you can either be shuttled or you can hike the last half mile to the 4,784-foot summit, with a modern, exhibit-filled visitor center and a 360-degree view of misty mountain peaks reaching into Tennessee and the Carolinas.
Back on Ga. 180, the drive continues through some of Georgia’s most spectacular Blue Ridge country, then enters a rolling, mountain-fringed valley. At Ga. 348 turn left on the Richard Russell Scenic Byway, which follows the headwaters of the Nottely River.
The countryside gives way to hills, then steep mountains, as the road climbs to 3,137-foot Tesnatee Gap, then to 3,480-foot Hogpen Gap. The steep, rugged drainage on the left is, appropriately, Lordamercy Cove. You are now on top of the Blue Ridge Divide; water flowing west from here drains into the Tennessee River, and east, into the Chattahoochee. As you descend, stop at the overlook perched on the divide for a view of the wild backcountry of the Raven Cliffs Wilderness. Descending along Piney Ridge, with views of the wilds to the right, the road comes to Dukes Creek Falls about 4.5 miles ahead, where a short trail wanders to an observation platform. Soon after, you turn left onto busy Ga. 75A, which leads back to Helen.
Map and information originally published in National Geographic's Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways
Oddity: Oktoberfest in the tiny faux-Bavarian town of Helen packs so much authentic food and frivolity into the town's Festhalle that it takes two months to hold it all.
Before You Come: Throw a jacket or sweatshirt in the car as temps at the top of Brasstown Bald can be significantly cooler than in nearby Atlanta.
Don't Miss: Unicoi State Park offers two unique lodging options: "barrel" cabins and hillside platforms known as Squirrel Nests.
Be Safe: In the cloud forests here, consider rocks and other hard surfaces "slippery when wet" until proven otherwise.
Motorcyclist Memo: Pay special attention to road conditions here; slick conditions are likely.