My wife and I love traveling to the mountains! Throughout our adventures, one of the spots that we have discovered along the way is Helen, Georgia. Ever since first visiting the City of Helen for a few hours on a pass-through trip in 2017, we have had the mountainous city in the back of our minds as a place we wanted to visit again and truly “experience”. Nestled within the rich fertile Nacoochee Valley in White County Georgia, Helen is sheltered on all sides by dozens of low-lying mountains abounding with rushing rivers and creeks that meander in and around city itself. The area also has a prominent native American history that dates back thousands of years with the likes of the Creek, Cherokee, and Chickasaw Indian tribes. Now though, after some radical ideas posed by one of the town’s prominent businessmen in the late 1960s the town plays host to creating unique visitor experience by inviting travelers to enjoy a Bavarian town in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The following line is straight from their Visitor’s Bureau Website, “A bustling alpine village set against a scenic backdrop of mountains, forests and riverbanks, you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported to the cobblestone streets of Germany’s famed Bamberg or Lindau as colorful shops dot the landscape and the heavenly aroma of authentic German fare takes to the breeze.”
During our brief visit to the city, my wife and I were captivated by this idea and set about planning an immersive a trip to the area in the Spring of 2022. The following story is the play by play – how the trip unfolded on a day-by-day basis: the highs, the lows, my key takeaways, and a few historical tidbits about this unique place along the way. Hope you enjoy!
On the day of our departure to the lower stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I woke up with the sun, had breakfast with the kids then gathered the final remaining items that need to be added to our luggage cases. As I walked outside to pack the car, I was delighted that we were almost an hour ahead of schedule and was looking forward to getting on the open road. I opened our back door and ambled down our porch steps taking in the cool morning breeze, I felt like one of those allergy commercials, like someone who has just taken a magical pill and now their world is now crystal clear. I neatly packed up the suitcases, cooler, and food items into the trunk of our car, it’s always a moment of pride when everything fits “just right”. As the trunk closes tight, ending with a satisfying mechanical ratchet sound, I hoped in the driver seat to start the car. I push the start button, expecting a smooth crank up, instead my car spits back an alert message – “key not found in vehicle”. “Mhm…Interesting”, I think to myself, I thought that I had put the keys in the diaper bag which were in the floorboard behind me. I quickly checked all the usual areas that I keep the keys, rummaging through the car and the house.
After a full five minutes of searching, I officially report their missing status to my wife, Heather, and we both set about looking for them, she took the house and I took the car, “maybe the car just isn’t registering the key”. When I walked outside again, I noticed something odd about my car, it seems to be angled to one side. I glance back to my rear passenger tire and see that the rim is resting on the ground. Even if we had the key, we weren’t going anywhere on a flat – so much for my hour head start. With no other options, I start prepping to remove the tire and see if I can find a nail or some other reason for the flat. During the process of gathering the tire plugging tools from our laundry room, I noticed a five-gallon paint bucket off in the corner that I can tell has recently been touched. The small pouring cap has been removed leaving an exposed hole about two inches wide, a hole that potentially could be just big enough for a set of car keys to be able to fit inside – “there’s no way” – I say out loud to myself. My mind flashes back to previous evening, I was sorting the clothes as the kids were in the room with me playing in the corner. I distinctly remember them giggling here yesterday and thought they were playing with the beach toys that we keep in a bin in the corner also. I crack open the lid in disbelief. Amidst the crisp white paint, I can make out the black plastic rounded edge of our keys sticking out just a few centimeters above the surface. I pulled out the keys, just as Heather and the kids were rounding the corner and hold them aloft for all to see. In the moment, we are too relieved to be upset with our youngins’ but later ask them if they had anything to do with this. In response, one shrugs his shoulders “ummmmmmmmm!” while the other puts his finger to his mouth, really thinking “ummmmmmmm…keys”. Uggg…so cute…but so trying – kids man!
As Heather set about cleaning the keys, I worked on plugging the tire. The leak was being caused by an old rusty nail, an easy fix with a tire plug. However, much to my dismay, I am fresh out. I dashed over to the local hardware store in search of more and quickly navigate to the tire section and snag the last pack of plugs off the shelf. As I am checking out, the polite attendant chimes “That will be $2.75, sir” as I whip out my debit card, she frowns and relays, “we charge an extra .35 cents for card purchases”. I want to tell her “Ma’am, .35 cents is the least of my worries as my car isn’t going anywhere without this plug” but instead, I smile and reply, “It’s no problem”. I finish the transaction then bolt back home on our golf cart, getting the tire plugged in record time.
Around nine AM, with everything settled, we set out on the open road. Heather and I are both excited to be traveling. With our adventure officially begun, any qualms about the mornings’ earlier setbacks quickly fade away as we exit the city limits of our small town. From our experience raising two-year-old twins, we know a thing or two about rolling with the punches, especially when it comes to traveling and getting things done. As it happens, the extra hour of playtime may have been just what the kids needed, as within minutes all three have fallen asleep. We zoomed down the scenic open highways of southern Alabama and Georgia to put in a solid three hours of traveling. As we make our way past Fort Benning, we set our sights on Columbus, GA for our first pit stop. We wanted to stop at a place where our kids could get out and play. Typically, what we like to do is to grab some food then research to find a city park where we can get out and let the kids explore. This time though, we decided to try our luck and find a place with an indoor playground. Covid-19 had wreaked havoc on the indoor playground situation, but we were optimistic. Cue up one of Heather’s favorite pastimes, researching for the best deal or dining location. In this case, the objective was simple. Find a Chik-fil-a with an open kiddie playground. After calling three different restaurants, on the fourth try her diligence pays off, and we set our sites for every Cow’s favorite eating joint. When we sat down to eat our food, it was an odd experience, there were no hands clawing for food around us, minus Hayes who was perfectly content in his highchair smacking on some fruit and waffle fries, and no chorus of yipping from our kids. Instead, they were having the time of their lives in the playground adjacent to our table. Heather and I shared one of our few meals eating together since our kids have been born – just talking, taking our time, and fully enjoying the moment. After about 20 minutes, the twins alternated from bouts of playground galivanting to quiet moments of scarfing down their lunch. On the opposite side of a 45-minute playground interlude, a twenty-piece nugget, and a large fry we decide we need to get wheels up and hit the blacktop for the last two hour stretch of the journey. A few quick diaper changes later and we’re off to the races.
As we came upon the outskirts of Helen, GA we visibly noticed the rolling hills in the distance slowly transform into low lying mountains. With the altitude around 1,400 feet, it sets our ears to popping and due course, we come up on the Nora Mills Granary and country store, an operational gristmill that has been in business since 1876. On our first ever visit to Helen, Heather and I ventured out and explored this unique site and the small waterfall just outside the store, however this time, with three kids who are all ready to run around, we decided to first get to our cabin and unpack. Our rental cabin sat just a few miles outside of downtown Helen and less than a mile from the entrance of Unicoi State Park, a place that I looked forward to visiting during the weekend. The driveway to our cabin hideaway took us up a steep 60-degree incline that had Heather and I on the edge of our seats trying to keep an eye on the road ahead of us, then on the downhill side we were straining even more to see beyond our VW Atlas’s bulky front end. Thankfully, we made it down winding drive to the covered parking shed that was just outside the cabin. Upon opening our car doors, we were greeted by a rush of cool mountain air and the smell of earthen forest. Our cabin, to me, was the quintessence of what I was looking for in a peaceful mountain getaway and lived up to the pictures from the website.
The cabin rested on a few acres in Sautee, Nacoochee along Coffee Creek, which ran through the spacious tree filled backyard. Before we even go inside, we were drawn to the rushing of water that was flowing along the backside of the property. The creek immediately attracts our twins who, threw off their shoes and began treading up and down the ankle-deep creek water. Multitasking, I kept an eye out for the twins, held our youngest on my hip and took in the scenery around me. As someone who is keenly interested in the writing process, I am always thinking of how I would put what I am seeing into words. It is a fun exercise for me, despite how challenging it can be at times.
At our cabin retreat, I was surrounded by massive heavily canopied trees. The greenery is refreshing here, after just having come off winter back home where the leaves on our backyard trees have only recently started sprouting. Several varieties of trees, such as birch, laurel, hickory, and hemlock litter the open backyard providing ample shade. On the backside of the property there is a break in the trees, giving way to a small open meadow that nicely frames a mountainous backdrop. As the wind blows, the rustling sound of waving leaves and bending trees is overwhelming, everything feels alive here.
After carousing the kids out of the creek, we ambled inside the cabin to discover a well-furnished space. The walls are covered in wooden shiplap paneling giving it a rustic cabin feel, the kitchen is newly updated, and we have two rooms with king size beds; one room is for Heather and I and the other is reserved for Heather’s mom and sister, who were to be joining us the next day of our trip. We unpacked, freshened up, then made the short drive back into Helen in search of dinner. After walking around for a bit, doing some shopping, and letting the kids play at the park, we enjoyed a few minutes as a family at the Helen, Biergarten restaurant before ordering some takeout food from the Hofbrau restaurant. We took our food back to our cabin and enjoyed a meal around the small dinner table as a family. Our dinner that night, some authentic German inspired cuisine, was delightful. We ate our fill of red cabbage, spätzle, schnitzel, sauerbraten, roasted potatoes, and vegetables. Our kids sat around the table with us eating their food quietly, they had been hanging in there all day with mostly great attitudes – being “good troopers” as we like to say. It was well past their bedtime and shortly after dinner, we put them to bed with no complaints. After tucking them in, we settled in ourselves and prepared for more adventure filled days ahead.
On Friday morning, I awoke in darkness. I glance to my watch and it’s already past eight AM, which is quite late for me. As my eyes adjust, I notice a sliver of light shining along the edge of the window, “those are some intense blackout curtains”. Upon my shuffling out of bed, Leo, Fynn, and Hayes all bolted awake. I lead them out to the kitchen area for breakfast while Heather gets a few more minutes of rest. We overslept, but “hey, we’re on vacation” I think to myself, so it’s all good. By the time we get ready, showers and all, it’s lunchtime so we head into town to hunt for some more German cuisine. When we get to downtown Helen, instead of going to the designated pay for parking areas that lined the backside of main street we head to Unicoi Hill Park, which overlooks the entire downtown area, features an awesome playground for kids, a nature trail, and free parking for its users. We took advantage of this discovery and cash in on saving the $5 to $10 we would have had to pay for parking otherwise for the remainder of the trip.
We make the short walk from the park over to Café International, which is in the heart of Helen along the Chattahoochee River. After some nice German fare, we set about burning off those beer cheese pretzel calories by exploring the city and doing some shopping. Heather discovers some unique handmade trinkets at “The Wildewood Shop ” while I occupy the kids by walking down the narrow cobblestone alleyways, pointing out all the wacky items that fill the shopkeepers storefront windows; “Don’t lick the windows” said one shopkeepers sign, referring to their toffee apples on display. We shop until around the boys first nap time and decide to head back to our cabin to let the kids sleep and await the arrival of Heather’s mom and sister.
While the kids sleep, my mind shifts to my hankering for exploration. In my research for the trip, I learned that the Smith Creek Trail, a scenic 10-mile singletrack trail that stretches from the campground entrance at Unicoi state park to Anna Ruby Falls, is less than five minutes from our cabin hideaway. After reading about the trail on the website AtlantaTrails.com I placed it high on my Helen, GA bucket list. The article swept me up in its description of the route, “The trail features mile after mile of quiet, scenic, sun-dappled North Georgia forest. Winding through a fern-covered, green hardwood forest, the trail crosses several small, mossy creeks on the way to stunning double cascades of Anna Ruby Falls.”. I mean, with a description like that, I was sold. With the boys asleep and Heather enjoying the break, I seized the moment; throwing on my running clothes, hydration vest, and running shoes to make a sprint for our Volkswagen Atlas. Here I come trails! After only a short jaunt down Highway 356, I pulled into the state park campground entrance and park by the Smith Creek Trailhead. I hop out of my car, strap my pack down tight, and amble up to the start of the trail that is marked by a large brown National Park Service Trail sign. The sign lists the duration of the trail and the average hike time, the three hours for an out and back trip seems a bit daunting but I think that by running I can come in at well under two hours. With my GPS coordinates locked in on my Garmin I hit the start button and set off onto trails unknown.
Immediately my mind is flooded with flashbacks from a few months ago when I competed in the Cloudland Canyon Ultramarathon. The terrain of the park here was similar to the State Park there, however there is one stark difference with this trail as opposed to the other. When I did the ultra it was during December and most of the area was full of bare trees from the winter season however here at the precipice of springtime, there is growth and greenery all around me. Above me the trees have formed a thick canopy of brilliantly colored green leaves. In just minutes after starting out on the trail I am in a different world. Along with that different world though, comes new terrain and just after a mile the trail turns upward, and I find myself panting heavily while trying to maintain my pace up the steep ascent to the summit of Smith Mountain. I hadn’t prepared for this! I submit to walking for a hundred feet or so to catch my breath and think back to the anticipated hiking time. Three hours you say? Marching up the climb, I take stock of my mental space and physical capacity. Excuses start leaking into my psyche, I’m off by myself in the middle of the woods, in a place I’ve never been. My mind is already thinking of ways to shorten the run, can I run back from Anna Ruby Falls on the hard road where it’s flatter or maybe let’s do half the route then turn back? Physically, the mountain climb makes my muscles scream, but I know I have covered terrain and encountered difficulties like this before. I force myself to come back to center, you can do this, just keep moving forward or as former pro-cyclist Jens Voight would say “shut up legs”. I swallow down the buffalo chicken sandwich that is trying to make its way back up from lunch a few hours earlier and settle into the trail. Instead of fighting the elements, I embrace them. I am surrounded by some of the most beautiful woodlands I have ever encountered. I run on for another 30 minutes in utter appreciation until I find myself somewhere between mile 4 and 5. Now, my whole vibe is different. I’m covered in sweat, keeping up a steady pace and I find myself smiling like a madman about how much fun I’m having. I’ve found a groove; my life is only one step after another. The trail demands my full attention. One slip up and I go tumbling down the mountainside. The inherent danger makes me feel alive and heightens my senses. My footsteps become lighter, bird sounds become clearer, the bark on trees becomes more discernable, roots that would seek to impede my progress stick out like a sore thumb, the sound of the wind rustling the tree canopy above becomes incredibly loud, I distinctly hear the faintest sound of movement from some tiny forest critter shuffling the leaves near my feet – Now this…this is trail running.
I soldier on for the last half mile or so and can hear rushing water off in the distance, which lets me know I am close to my destination. At mile five, I am rewarded by a breathtaking view of Anna Ruby Falls. The 153 feet waterfall is created by two separate streams, Curtis Creek and York Creek, which join together at the base of the falls to form Smith Creek, hence the trail name. As the story goes in 1869, a man named J.H. Nichols, a prominent businessman who served in the Governor’s House Guard in the Civil War, was able to acquire a sizeable amount of land in the Nacoochee Valley, that just so happened to include this waterfall which he discovered while out horseback riding and subsequently he named it after his only daughter Anna Ruby.
I climbed up the wooden stairs that lead to the main overlook platform and stood within the mist of the cascades. The cool air rising up from the falls was refreshing. I checked my watch and saw that I was at 45 minutes in. For all my worry at the start, I am feeling pretty good now and decide to hit the trail once again and head back the way I came. On the way back, now that I have a better idea of the route, my mind starts to drift. On the trail, I see no signs of modern society and wonder what this area was like hundreds of years ago, “Was this area home to any native American peoples?” and “Just how did this area that I am in today get preserved?”. In doing some research, it appears that much like the story of American expansion westward the story surrounding White County, of which Helen is a small part, is complicated and there are few written records about the events leading up its present-day configuration.
Most scholars agree that the Creek Indians were the predominant tribe in the area up until the early 1700s, in addition to other tribes like the Chickasaw, Catawba, or the Soque tribes. Many of these tribes had run ins, some good and many bad with the Spanish missionary groups as the Kingdom of Spain had laid claim to all the Chattahoochee River Basin, including White County, from 1567 until 1745. Following the Revolutionary War Cherokee tribes were the prominent tribe in the area until the arrival of European settlers shortly following the close of the war. During this time the territory and people living there went through various wars and skirmishes until around 1784, when only a few native Americans occupied the territory. A formal treaty ceded the area to the Europeans in 1819 and it became part of the fledgling nation of America. As a colony, Georgia was controlled by an elite group of aristocratic planters. Between 1805 and 1833, the state of Georgia conducted eight land lotteries in which public lands in the interior of the state were dispersed to small yeoman farmers (i.e., farmers who cultivate their own land) based on a system of eligibility and chance. During the twenty-eight years in which the lottery operated, Georgia sold approximately three-quarters of the state to about 100,000 families and individuals for minuscule amounts of money.
From here, the story is a common of the southern states…The land acquired on the frontier by the lotteries was originally used for tobacco cultivation, but with the introduction of cotton and the innovation of the cotton gin, agriculture shifted to large-scale cotton production. The need for labor to toil on these plantations across the state called for more and more enslaved laborers; by 1820, enslaved African Americans made up 44 percent of Georgia’s population. Therefore, the land lottery not only increased the landholdings of common Georgians but also increased their ability to become slaveholders and enter the planter class. This went on for several years in the area until, in 1869, a man named J.H. Nichols, a prominent businessman who served in the Governor’s House Guard in the Civil War, was able to acquire a sizeable amount of land in the Nacoochee Valley, that included the area of the Unicoi State Park. The land remained in private ownership until the mid-1900s when it was turned over to the Federal Government and became part of the Chattahoochee National Forest, which then established the state park.
Suffice it say the area is a hotbed for discovering various Native American artifacts and Civil War era items buried in the ground. On the trail, I zipped down the mountain imagining if these woods were my home, it seemed like a beautiful place to live. As the wind picks up, an opening appeared in the trees giving me a clear view of the expansive Unicoi Lake lying below. As I’m approached the end of my run, I answered a call from Heather who lets me know her sister and mother are about to arrive and whenever I get back, they will be ready for dinner.
Our restaurant of choice that night was the Hofbräuhaus Restaurant & Pub, the same place Heather and I had dinner the previous night except this time we got to go inside. At our table, we had great view of the Chattahoochee River from our window, much to our kids satisfaction as they took turns pointing out the various ducks floating downstream. We ordered a round of German potato pancakes for the table which were to everyone’s liking, especially our kids. For my main course I opt for another Sauerbraten beef roast with roasted potatoes and vegetables. Over dinner, we plot out some things we would all like to do over the next few days and are excited to begin our adventures the following morning. We finish the evening in calm conversation with Heather’s mom and sister. Here, I think it would be a good time to recap the players of the trip as it will help give context to the story and the further adventures we choose. First, there’s me – the dad, then there’s my wife Heather, a sweet and gentle hippie hearted woman whose exuberance for authentic cuisine and culture inspired this trip in the first place. In addition to being the mother of our children, (twin boys, who are two and half and our singleton, who is almost one year old) she is my best friend, life companion, and the one who inspires me to get up out of bed each morning. Then, there’s Heather’s mom; a kind soul, smart, and fit for her age, keenly aware of her nutrition. She possesses a humorous wit about her and a solid foundation from having lived a full life. She is quick to share her life experiences with us and is always trying to instill a lesson in her kids. She is also a very generous person and fortunately for me enjoys taking her kids and grandkids out to dinner. The other member of our group, Heather’s sister, is someone whom you will most likely hear before you see, she has a rollicking personality, full of energy and passion. However, she also needs her alone time to retreat and read a good book. She is someone who likes to look at life glass half full and her easy-going nature makes for a fun travel companion. After dinner, we all make the half mile walk back to the car in the cool night air. I relish the time. I am on vacation, my belly is full, the kids are happy, and I have my family together. I know I will not always be able to push my boys in their stroller nor will I always be able to have my family all together in one place. Our children are growing up so fast. Over my shoulder, I catch a glance of Heather who is happily pushing our youngest along, he is sitting upright looking around, happy to be outside. I smile at Heather, and she grins back, it may be just another moment in time for the grand cosmos, but for me it is a snapshot frame etched into my memory forever – I am happy to be alive.
The next morning, me and the kids are up early. We quickly ate breakfast then get outside to explore the area around the cabin and take an extended creek excursion. When I get back inside, judging from their matted hairdo’s, the girls appear to have just woken up and are all nursing their first cup of morning coffee. We have a morning Bible study together then decide what we want to do for the day. I threw out the idea that we should hit up downtown, grab some coffee and lunch, then hike the walking trail to visit Anna Ruby Falls. From the pictures I had showed them of my run yesterday, they were itching to see it in person for themselves. With the itinerary settled, we headed once again to downtown alpine Helen. On our way to our lunch spot, the Alpine Brew Deck, we stopped in at the Mt. Yonah Coffee shop, named after nearby Yonah mountain which was once an ancient volcano. As it happens, many of the mountains surrounding the area were once active volcanoes that were theorized to have been as high as the present-day Rockies or even the Himalayas. Over time, due to weather and erosion they had since been filed away to their current height, creating that alpine feel.
We grabbed a quick lunch at the Brew Deck and ate our fill of some traditional pub food, each sharing around the table a slew of burgers, sandwiches, onion rings and fries before heading off to the Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area. From the Visitor Center/Gift Shop it is an approximately half-mile walk up to the enormous gushing headwaters of the Anna Ruby Falls. The road is steep but luckily, it’s paved and stroller accessible. I get the twins set up in the stroller and prepare myself for the steep half-mile walk up while pushing close to one hundred pounds of baby and stroller while Heather straps our youngest around her waist and gears up for her own battle. Thankfully, if she gets tired her mom and sister opted to carry him for a bit if needed.
We set about the climb; our spirits are high. The sense of adventure is palpable. We are now pilgrims exploring new ground. There is something exciting about doing some you’ve never done before and fully engaging with the environment you are in. We remarked about the beautiful scenery as we crossed over the luxuriantly flowing creek. Spring is in full bloom; if something isn’t green it’s a budding flower. Although, Heather, her family and our kids aren’t all able to experience the area on the trails the way I did yesterday, I at least get to appreciate the opportunity to have them here and immerse them in this area, with the next best thing to the single track trails. The paved trail makes for mostly easy progress, however as we near the top my calves are starting to rebel. Maybe it was just me, but the stroller seemed to be getting heavier as we climbed. With a final push to the finish, we are rewarded with the familiar (for me) but spectacular view of the waterfalls proper. We unbuckle the twins, who set about finding the nearest boulders and begin jumping from one to another throwing caution to the wind. Just FYI, this is a protective Grandma’s worst nightmare. We wrangle them back into submission and walk up the last flight of stairs to the main overlook. Our twins are somewhat impressed by the mass of water spewing over the falls and take turns pointing at the water. As cool as it was, I’m sure they would have been much happier if they could be in the water. I take the opportunity to snag a few pictures of Heather at this remarkable spot and file away the memories. After basking in the mist for a while we once again strap the kids in the stroller and head back down. Going down presents a new challenge for me as the stroller wants to take off by itself. I end up turning around and walking backwards down the hill to prevent the stroller from escaping with the kids in tow and prevent myself from slipping on the damp path.
Once back to the gift shop area we pick out a few knick-knacks for the kids to play with and head back to our cabin to relax for bit and let the kids have some unrestricted play time. Cue up another round of running up and down the creek. Once we had rested up, we set out to check out the Habersham Winery to enjoy a relaxing evening. On the drive, all the kids quickly fall asleep. Instead of us all going in to the winery, I dropped the ladies off then decided I would take a drive around to explore the area and meet them back there in a few minutes. I headed south along highway 75 and made a left onto highway 17; to my left I observed the Hardman Farm Historic Site, the former home of J.H. Nichols, that same person who had bought much of Valley back in the mid-1800s.
Off to my right, I had a great view of one of Helen’s most famous historic sites, the Nacoochee Indian burial mound. It is an interesting view. Rising up out of the earth, a gigantic 14 feet tall mound of earth stands forlornly in an open cow pasture. The mound is topped with an ornate white gazebo, its bright red roof standing in stark contrast to the rugged mountain terrain in the background. The gazebo was placed there by the Nichols family and it has remained there ever since. I pulled over on the side of the road and read the informative marker that is posted by the right of way. The mound was excavated in 1915 and revealed 75 different bodies that had been buried there from various time periods. In my mind I tried to imagine what this area was like hundreds of years ago, the mound being the beacon from a vanished time reminding me of the weight of history.
I slowly hop back in the car and idle back onto the roadway. I only drove for another minute before I came across a sign for another historic site that sits on the hardman farm estate, and I turn in to investigate. I drove for about two minutes up a steep incline on my way to see the historic site and along the way pass by a sign that reads, “Live Music at Creekstone Winery”, however from my vantage point I am unable to glimpse the winery itself, only another even steeper driveway up the hill, to what I imagine would be a pretty sweet view of the surrounding countryside. On the opposite side of this sign I observed an open grape pasture stretching down the hill in neat lines. The supple muscadines are visibly glistening in the late evening sunshine as I pass by. At the end of the lane, a large roundabout parking lot sits atop a low-lying hill with a short set of stairs leading down to the hardman farm. With the kids asleep I forgo a look around and headed back the way I came. Along the way, Heather gives me a call and lets me know that the Habersham Winery wine tasting was just ending when they had arrived. They were fortunately able to snag a few samples and were now sipping their plunder on the porch area of the winery and eating some cheese and crackers. I let them know that I discovered another winery just a short drive away and that this one had live music. We made plans for me to head over to join them and then all head up to the Creekstone Winery together.
The Creekstone Winery appeared to have been hauled in from the air and dropped into place at its current resting place atop a flat capped mountain. After ascending the steep winding driveway we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the nearby Yonah Mountain as well as the dazzling French Chateau styled mansion that doubled as the winery’s tasting room and music hall. The winery parking lot presented an excellent vantage point to take in the mountain scenery in the late afternoon sunshine. “If the wine is anything like the view, it should be splendid”. We found a table outside in the courtyard area with enough space to let the kids roam free and spent the next few hours enjoying a smattering of wine, beer, pizza, salad, and music all the while basking in the expansive view around us. With our tummies full to our hearts content we headed back to out cabin hideaway for another relaxing night.
As the last day of our trip began, all our minds were set on the same goal. Let’s explore all that we can of downtown Helen! With a quick breakfast and shower to boot we made good time getting out the door and once again found the parking lot of the Unicoi Hill Park to have plenty of good parking spaces available. The plan for the morning was simple, let the girls do some shopping while I take baby duty. I strolled the boys down to the Mt. Yonah Coffee shop, grabbed another brew, then marched the kids back up the hill to let them play in the park. I grabbed a spot on a park bench swing and take in my surroundings. The twins had bolted for the large play structure as soon as I unclipped their stroller harnesses and were now busily taking turns going up down the slide. I sat under the cover of some large shade trees and casually nursed my coffee drink, a white chocolate mocha. This was another one of those moments when all was right with the world, the kids were happy, and my wife was doing something she enjoyed.
After an hour of playtime I rendezvous with Heather and the rest of our group for lunch at the Troll Tavern Restaurant. Essentially, located at the heart of Helen, the tavern sits along the banks of the Chattahoochee River underneath the main street bridge that leads directly into the most historic “Germanesque” park of town. As we enjoy some delicious fried green tomatoes, locally caught trout and some freshly crafted salads and sandwiches we recount the various adventures each of us has had for the past hour and a half. After a full meal, we set off again for some more downtown exploration. This time we all stayed together. Strolling through the downtown area, I get a great glimpse of the German inspired architecture. It is truly astounding to me the concept for the town. To take what was at one point a fledgling mountain village that was on the brink of poverty and to turn it into a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction capable of pulling the masses from all over the world. The story is one that could easily be a Hollywood movie.
Around two hundred years ago, the discovery of gold in the area by European settlers triggered a gold rush and attracted hundreds of gold seekers who then helped to further establish Helen at its current location today. Following the Gold Rush period, these prospectors keen on making a quick buck, turned the town into a logging community in the early and mid-1900s. The logging industry decimated thousands and thousands of acres of trees in the area and when their business began drying up in the mid-1900s the town was left without a primary revenue source. Helen went through a severe economic downturn and was quickly on its way extinction until some of the town’s leaders, namely Pete Hodkinson and Jimmy Wilkins, decided to take a gamble on their community and turn their tiny lumber mill hamlet into a Bavarian alpine village.
Hodkinson and Wilkins had spent time in Germany during their time in the Army and always felt that their small town reminded them of the German territory of Bavaria. To gain support for their idea, they commissioned local artist, John Kollack, who also had German roots, to come up with some designs for the town that would allow them to bring the Alps of Germany to the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. Given the strong influence of German settlers on the history of the area, it was a natural fit. With some coaxing, the city gladly rallied behind idea and the entire town of Helen received a dramatic facelift. The City adopted a set of building and architectural guidelines in 1969 that outlined how all of the buildings were to be styled. Buildings had to conform to set standards regarding things like the use of colors, doorway design, landscaping, roof materials, windows, building facades, and even business signage. The change to the city was night and day and the revamp even extended to the street names which were changed to mirror typical streets found in Germany, all done in an effort to evoke the essence of a true Alpine Village. Once the remodeling began the whole town jumped in on the beautification program to make Helen a true Cinderella town with all the local business owners chipping in and paying for their own building improvements.
As I walked around the town, I was appreciative of the architectural styles that were employed. Having never been to Germany, I wasn’t too sure on how accurate the style was but I did get the sense that I was in a different country. The buildings in Helen are somewhat uniform with red roofs and either white or tan facades. The color scheme presents a sense of unity that pulls your eyes downwards to the smooth stucco facades that are adorned with intricate latticed balconies or elaborate archways and well molded window displays. Each element lent itself to the German style and made you want to explore every shop and navigate down every alleyway just to see what else is there. The only downside to Helen is that it is relatively small, and you can cover most of the city fairly quickly. After another hour of shopping, we hit the free wine tasting at Fox Winery whereupon the twins had reached their limit and were passed out asleep in their stroller. As Heather exits the winery, she takes one look at my still form sitting on the park bench and knows that I need to be in motion. She recommends I go explore the trails for an hour while the kids nap and meet them back down by the river so we can ride the Alpine Mountain coaster together. I heartily agreed to with her idea and set off up the hill back to our car to change into my running clothes. I had observed on the first day of the trip a trail marker for the Unicoi Helen Trail just on the edge of the parking lot and was really itching to see what it was like. The trail is just over five miles in length and amidst mountain laurels and stands of Rhododendrons carves out a winding path along Smith Creek to the Unicoi Lodge Resort. The trail was similar to my earlier experience on the Smith Creek Trail; however this trail was much more utilized by pedestrians and cyclists. With at least a 6 feet wide trail surface to work with in most areas and firmly compacted soil, I made good progress on the undulating terrain. The trail worked with the natural landscape, coming close to the river in many areas and creating several sections of switchback turns to gain elevation quickly. In my mind, the one thing that I was struck by was how beautiful the trail and scenery was, like something out of a nature calendar. I ran along in a daze, feeling out of place in the sereneness until I made it to the Unicoi Lodge building. The massive structure was an impressive sight and possibly one my family wouldn’t mind visiting in the future. On a time crunch though, I took only a view seconds to enjoy the open vista and set off back along the trail. On my way back I was more confident in the route and took my time along the route, even stopping for a few photos of the creek.
When I finally made it back to the family, the twins had just woken up and were busily playing with a set of wooden swords and shields that their grandmother had gotten them while our youngest was still chilling in his solo stroller munching on whatever snacks we threw his way. Once we caught up again, we took turns taking a spin on the Georgia Mountain Coaster. Reaching speeds of up to 25 miles per hour we flew down the mountain on an exposed cart winding through tight twists, turns, and around trees. It was a short ride, but quite exhilarating, as we had the option to control or speed by pulling on a manual brake lever.
Following the coaster, we then went in search of dinner and sidled down off of main street toward the direction of some traditional German music that was being performed by a tuba and accordion. We followed the music to the traditional German restaurant the Bodenese. The restaurant, named after a German lake on the Rhine of the northern Alps, prides itself upon bringing the tastes of “old world Germany” to Helen. Its premier chef along with his wife studied culinary cuisine in Germany for several years before relocating to Helen, GA. Upon taking a seat inside the dimly lit dining room the evidence of their German roots is apparent. All around us are various tapestries and artifacts that exude German culture. To add to the atmosphere we were regaled by the two man duo we heard earlier who proceeded to play a slew of classic German songs, much to the delight of its customers. As it was the last night of our Helen adventure, we went all out on the food ordering a healthy dose of Sauerbraten, Tafelspitz, Hungarian Goulash, Spätzle, and of course more potato pancakes. We enjoyed pleasant conversation with each other as we recounted some of the highlights from our trip. Certainly, traveling with three kids wasn’t the easiest thing in the world but the trip was made all the more memorable because we could all be together. The trip was great, the scenery splendid, and the people even better. It was one for the record books, or at least one for my blog. There you have folks. So long and happy travels!