Southern Sights: A Road Trip to the North Georgia Mountains
Peaches and Georgia may go hand in hand, but there's a lot more to explore across the largest state east of the Mississippi.
With so much focus right now on what you can do — and see and taste — safely in your own backyard, we sent Atlanta influencer and vegan chef Will Edmond (@WillEdmond) on a tour of the North Georgia Mountains in October to see what he'd uncover on his four-day road trip.
"Georgia has so many things that you wouldn't expect," said Will, who lists Dahlonega, Savannah and Jekyll Island among his favorite Georgia getaways. "There is so much diversity across the state."
Despite COVID, he noted all of the places he visited had hand-washing areas and signs posted about social distancing and wearing masks. "I felt very safe while traveling," he said, "and everyone was welcoming."
Read on for a glimpse of Will's experience exploring this part of Georgia.
approximately 90 miles north of Atlanta
It was around 7 a.m. when Will hopped into his car, affectionately known as "Betsy," and left his home base of Atlanta. There wasn't too much traffic at that time, so it was a peaceful drive as he headed northwest on I-75, noting a hint of fall foliage. "The leaves were just starting to turn," he said. As Will approached the North Georgia Mountains, he rolled down both of his front windows to breathe in the fresh mountain air.
His first stop was the Mulberry Gap Adventure Camp, located in Ellijay and within the Chattahoochee National Forest. Here, there are miles of mountain biking and hiking trails as well as trail running, paddling and fly fishing. Will took a guided hike on the Bear Creek Trail, a popular trek that included a chance to wrap his arms around the enormous 200-year-old Gennett Poplar, an 18-foot-around tree that is one of the largest in the state.
All that hiking was followed by a vegan picnic lunch back at Mulberry Gap by in-house chef Ginny Taylor, who made some seriously yummy Thai dumplings.
The dumplings plus the chance to really get away made this was one of his favorite parts of his road trip. Will even recommends downloading Google Maps offline, because there's not much cellular signal in this neck of the woods. "Be prepared to be in the wilderness and escape," he said, adding, "I'm definitely coming back to Mulberry Gap."
approximately 35 miles from Mulberry Gap
Will said his goodbyes to his new friends at the Mulberry Gap and hopped back in his car for the next part of the journey, still within the Chattahoochee National Forest. Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge gets its name from its most treasured feature: Amicalola Falls, a 729-foot waterfall that's the highest cascading waterfall in the Southeast. The park has more than 14 miles of trails as well as ziplining options, guided hikes, scavenger hunts, 3-D archery and survivalist camps.
It also has some serious photo ops. "I've been to Amicalola Falls a few times before, but it never disappoints," said Will.
Once you get your fill of waterfall photos, there are plenty of iconic autumn activities to do nearby, from strolling through a field with sunflowers as tall as your head at Fausett Farms to picking pumpkins at Burt's Pumpkin Farm. (Laying in the pumpkins is optional, but makes for quite the photo.)
Back at the lodge, Will ordered up a vegan dinner at the Maple Restaurant at the Lodge and settled in for the night in a 2-story deluxe room with a patio. Talk about a room with a view...
approximately 35 miles from Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge
Will has lived in Atlanta for a decade, but had never been to the quaint town of Ellijay, which is about a 30-minute drive from Amicalola Falls State Park. Home to fewer than 2,000 people, Ellijay is the county seat of Gilmer County, the Apple Capital of Georgia. (And you thought it was all peaches here!) The town even holds an annual Georgia Apple Festival every October.
"Get off the beaten path and go to Ellijay," Will advised, noting it's an easy 90-minute drive from downtown Atlanta. Even though it was raining, Will said everyone was out and about in this walkable town. "I had no idea there was so much activity there," he said. "People were just living their life, being friendly."
Will got busy exploring Ellijay, starting with some live bluegrass music at Cartecay River Brewing Company, hiking along Tumbling Waters Trail near Carters Lake and sampling the peach and apple cider at Red Apple Barn.
Engleheim Vineyards (German for "angel home") has been around for nearly a decade and offers award-winning wines at its daily taste-testing sessions. After stopping at this family-owned vineyard, Will recommends their muscadine, a type of grape native to Georgia, but the tasting room also offers a large selection of traditional red and white varietals. No surprise since these are the same folks who won the 2018 Georgia Winery of the Year award from The Georgia Trustees Wine & Spirits Challenge.
All this outdoor adventure in the mountains will work up an appetite, and Ellijay is happy to oblige with a menu of options. Will headed to an Asian fusion restaurant called The Shack — not once, but twice! "They have lots of vegan options and their veggie pot stickers are to die for," tipped our vegan expert. (Don't worry, meat lovers, you can also add proteins like chicken, beef or shrimp to your poké bowl.)
Glamping in North Georgia
approximately 15 miles from Ellijay
With a belly full of vegan goodness, Will hopped back into "Betsy" for a short drive to the Elatse'Yi Mountain Retreat & Small Farm, for with a two-night glamping experience in a geodome (think: a jungle gym type structure covered in canvas).
"This was so cool," Will said, describing a setup that gave him his own 30'x30' deck complete with an outdoor shower and a clawfoot tub. His only companions were goats and a friendly chicken, who were likely pretty happy when Will whipped up some vegan nachos in the camp kitchen to share with fellow guests.
Owned by a former teacher from Atlanta, Elatse'Yi is definitely off the beaten path, down a dirt road close to Carters Lake. The remote location felt like home to Will, even if he lives in the middle of Atlanta. "This reminded me of growing up back in Texas," Will said. "When I'm in nature, I want to listen to the sounds."
All glamped out, Will made the final stop of his road trip at the Atlanta Botanical Garden's Gainesville location. "I didn't even realize this was here," Will said, after spending an hour walking and meditating amid the tropical plants and a natural waterfall.
From there, it was back to Atlanta and his busy life as a vegan chef/travel host extraordinaire with a newfound appreciation for all his new home state has available, just a short drive away.
"Georgia has the city life, but you can get away so quick," he said. "You can go north for the mountains, south for the beach and Lowcountry. There's just so many chances to get out in nature and relax.
"Georgia has me spoiled."