Wintertime is a magical time to visit the North Georgia mountains. Bare, deciduous trees open up the landscape for spectacular views, and cooler temperatures make hiking more enjoyable. There are many hidden gems nestled in the scenic foothills and mountains, but we are going to focus on a few on the northeast side of the state. You can make this a long day trip or choose to spend the night in any of our charming North Georgia towns.
Toccoa Riverside Restaurant, Blue Ridge: Get an early start and drive north to Blue Ridge, about 120 miles and 2 ½ hours from Fayette County. Begin your adventure with an early lunch at the scenic and acclaimed Toccoa Riverside Restaurant, 8055 Aska Rd. in Blue Ridge. The popular restaurant first opened in 1992 and served mountain residents and visitors for 20 years until a fire destroyed it in 2012. The owners rebuilt and reopened the restaurant in 2013. The views of the Toccoa River from the back deck are stunning, and the food is delicious. Try their specialty – fresh North Georgia trout! To view the complete menu, go to: toccoariversiderestaurant.com.
Toccoa River Swinging Bridge: After enjoying lunch and the vibe at Toccoa Riverside Restaurant, you are ready to explore! First up is a visit to the 270-foot-long, Toccoa Swinging Bridge – the longest swinging bridge east of the Mississippi River! The bridge was built in 1977 by the USDA Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Club to make crossing the Toccoa River easier for day and through hikers on the Benton MacKaye Trail.
To reach this secluded spot, start off from Blue Ridge on GA 515 E and then take GA 60 S to Morganton. Continue on GA 60 toward Dahlonega for about 12 miles. You will pass the Skeenah Hill Campground on your left. About a half mile after the campground, turn right on a gravel road, USFS 816. (Note: this forest service road is recommended for high clearance vehicles only!) Follow the gravel/dirt road for 4 miles until you reach a dirt parking area. Park and continue to follow the road on foot for ¼ mile to the swinging bridge. As you cross the swaying bridge, pause to view the beautiful Toccoa River and shoals below. On the other side, you can choose to hike a portion of the white diamond-blazed Benton MacKaye Trail or the blue rectangular-blazed Duncan Ridge Trail before returning to your vehicle. For more information on the swinging bridge and suggested hikes, go to: atlantatrails.com/hiking-trails/toccoa-river-swinging-bridge-benton-mackaye-trail.
Sleepy Hollow Enterprises, Blairsville: After driving back on the gravel road from the swinging bridge parking lot, retrace your route on GA 60 to GA 515 E to Sleepy Hollow Enterprises in Blairsville. The brainchild of former Disney artist, Art Millican, Jr., Sleepy Hollow is a delightful, stop for those who love the magic of Disney, or want to add some wonderful, whimsical artwork to their gardens!
Millican started his career at Disney selling popcorn on Main Street. During that time, he was mentored by artists in the art department on drawing, sculpting and welding and was subsequently hired by the art department, where he worked for many years before leaving to help Michael Jackson create his Neverland Valley Ranch. Over his career, Millican designed displays for many theme parks, including Six Flags and Dollywood, until he decided to open his own shop in Blairsville to build handcrafted garden art to sell to the public.
At Sleepy Hollow you will find hobbit houses, gnome houses, fairy houses, birdhouses and a variety of fantastical creatures to charm you and your children. As you wander through the display area outside, expect to see a fairy or hobbit ‘round every corner! Inside Millican’s shop, you can purchase artwork or order something custom. Sleepy Hollow is located at 5279 Hwy 515 E, Blairsville. (If you are using GPS, use the address 4339 Young Harris Hwy, Blairsville). For more information on Sleepy Hollow Enterprises, go to whimsicalfairygarden.com.
Mountain Crossings at Walasi-yi: From Blairsville, travel south on GA 19/129 for about ten miles to where the highway intersects the Appalachian Trail at Neels Gap. Here you will find the historic Mountain Crossings at Walasi-yi. (“Walasi-yi” is the Cherokee Indian name for the gap, meaning “Place of the Great Frog.”) Over 80 years old, this vintage, stone structure is the only place on the entire Appalachian Trail where the trail actually crosses through a building!
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Mountain Crossings was first used as a restaurant and inn for hikers and mountain travelers. The restaurant closed in 1963 and many lessees tried to make use of the building, with little success, until 2001 when Winton Porter, formerly of REI, leased the building as a hiking gear store and hostel. The store became a popular destination for day-hikers, through-hikers and those just driving through the mountains. In 2009, Porter wrote a “must-read” book for all who love hiking and the Appalachian Trail, called Just Passin’ Thru: A Vintage Store, the Appalachian Trail, and a Cast of Unforgettable Characters.
In 2013, through-hikers, Logan and Georganna Seamon took over operation of Mountain Crossings. Stop for a picnic on the patio or to purchase hiking gear, t-shirts, books, pottery and novelty items in the store. In 20014, Mountain Crossings was named a “Top 100 Outfitter in the U.S.” by Outdoor Magazine. Expert staff can assist novice hikers to select the best gear for a day hike or evaluate packs for through-hikers. From the store, you can challenge yourself on a moderate-to-difficult, rocky hike up Blood Mountain for spectacular views. For more information about Mountain Crossings at Walasi-yi, go to: mountaincrossings.com.
Dahlonega: End your exciting day in the mountains with dinner in Dahlonega. If you have the time, plan to spend the night and dedicate another day to exploring this historic city where the first gold rush in the U.S. started in 1828. Bourbon Street Grille, on the town square, offers food with Cajun-Creole flair, including seafood and burgers. There is a nice terrace overlooking the square that is the perfect place to dine if the weather is nice. After you enjoy dinner, head back home with your memories of the splendor of these hidden North Georgia gems.