Nestled in the hills of northeast Georgia, lies the German Alpine city of Helen. It has become well known among astute travels, for its Bavarian style buildings and nearby vineyards. Located in the southern Appalachian Mountains, the terrain has afforded the area four impressive waterfalls and numerous areas for hiking. It is the state’s third most visited city, yet only has a population of some 542 residents. It is the 18th stop in our series Off The Beaten Path.
The city of Helen, began its history as a Cherokee Indian site, which was later settled by settlers from Europe. These early colonists came first for the gold found in the area and later for the timber. As lumbering industry began its decline, in the second half of the 20th century, the community began to look for a way to revive earlier economic prosperity.
The city leaders decided to resurrect their community as a Bavarian alpine town, which became mandated through a change in zoning. Beginning in 1969, Helen adopted a classic south-German style, that today is present on most buildings.
Even the small number of national franchisees in Helen, have been induced to incorporate the traditional Bavarian architecture, into their business.
Over the decades, the city became transformed. Today, travelers can stroll through cobblestone walkways, past a variety of quaint shops and boutique hotels.
The community offers over 200 different shopping experiences that include antiques, baked goods coins, fine candies and chocolates, homemade ice cream, jewelry, fashion accessories, pottery, toys, quilts, imported handmade gifts, holiday items and endless more.
There are a significant number of eateries, cafes and restaurants, that provide the traveler a wide variety to choose from. A portion of these offer the visitor, a chance to sample the cuisine of southern Germany.
Helen is fortunate to be located along the Chattahoochee river, which affords the city the ability to stage events and activities along the water, for riparian outings.
As tourism has become the mainstay of the city, there are a number of artisan tours, festivals and events that often incorporate many South German traditions. These are held periodically, throughout the entire year.
The city hosts a German inspired Oktoberfest, during the months of September, October and November.
One of the most well known events is the Southern Worthersee, which is a stateside Volkswagen and Audi event, that pays tribute to the Worthersee Tour in Austria. About 20,000 people attend this extravaganza in Helen, on an annual basis.
The first weekend in June, the city of Helen hosts the annual hot-air balloon race.
Although the city of Helen began as a weekend getaway for people from the Atlanta area, it has gradually grown to become a tourist site for individuals, not only from all over the United States, but also from visitors coming from abroad.
Helen has also become a major destination for motorcycle enthusiasts, who look forward to riding on the scenic roads of Helen and the surrounding areas, during all four seasons.
Outside the city, one is surrounded by natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a number of wineries, and other attractions that affords the visitor, a variety of venues to satisfy different interests.
The city of Helen becomes very crowded in late October, when the autumn foliage reaches its peak.
Tourists may want to begin their experience of the area, by visiting the Helen Welcome Center/Visitor Information building. There one can get an overview of things to do, as well as shop for gifts and souvenirs.
Naturists may enjoy the Smithgall Woods Conservation Area, which comprises thousands of acres featuring diverse wildlife. Tourists can also enjoy both nature trails and participate in the catch and release trout fishing.
Nearby Yonah Mountain, offers hiking, climbing and bouldering.
Located immediately to the northeast of Helen, is Unicoi State Park and Lodge, which spans a total of 1,050 acres. Within the park is Unicoi lake which encompasses 53 acres, offering tourists outdoor activities throughout the year.
Amenities of Unicoi Lake include a swimming beach, trout streams, fishing docks, and seasonal canoe, kayak and paddle boat rentals. Visitors will also find seven picnic shelters, with charcoal grills and three playgrounds for children.
Bird enthusiasts and wildlife admirers, will find many ideal spots, for viewing the local population of creatures, attracted by both the lake and surrounding forests.
One will also find 7.5 miles of hiking trails within the park, that continue in the adjacent Chattahoochee National Forest. In addition, there are 8 miles of mountain biking trails inside the park, with plenty of places to stop and enjoy, the natural beauty of both the lake and park.
Inside Chattahoochee National Forest, visitors will find Anna Ruby Falls. These waterfalls are located on the Curtis and York Creeks. At the base of the waterfalls, the two streams join to create Smith Creek before emptying into Unicoi Lake.
The falls can be accessed for a small admittance fee, through a half mile (800 meters) paved trail. The pathway is found in Unicoi State Park. It is designated to be a National Recreation Trail in Georgia.
The three other waterfalls in the area of Helen, include Dukes Creek Falls and Raven Cliff Falls both located in White County and DeSoto Falls, which is found in neighboring Lumpkin County.
Raven Cliff Falls first consists of two different drops at 60 feet and 20 feet, the latter falling into a deep pool. A third drop also at 20 feet, creates a cascade before entering Dodd Creek.
Two other sites of interest are the Sautee Nacoochee Center and the Helen Arts and Heritage Center. The former is a community arts center for creative programs.
The latter is a Bavarian style building, with an art gallery and pottery studio. A history museum is also located at the facility. Classes are offered on site, to those who are interested.
Another place located in the area, is the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia. This building serves as a place to display traditional pottery from the region, with both permanent and temporary exhibitions.
Three other museums found in the area are the Old Sautee Store/Old Sautee Market from 1873, Gourd Place which is another unusual art gallery and the African American Heritage Site.
One particular place of interest is the Hardman Farm Historic Site. It is an 19th century estate, with an 1870 Italianate mansion, the Nacoochee Indian burial mound, a nature trail and a visitor center. Guided tours are available for the house.
A unique attraction in the area, is the Charlemagne’s Kingdom. Here, one will find a Germany-themed model railroad exhibit, with an assortment of miniature villages along with Alpine scenery. Visitors will be treated to traditional German music, as they tour the site.
Other tourists may enjoy, depending on the time of year, the Helen Tubing & Helen Water Park, the Alpine Mini Golf, which offers a Swiss-themed course, or the Bavarian Mountain Miniature Golf amusement center. The latter offers a video arcade and a playground, as well as 2 mini golf courses.
You can also contract for horseback riding outings at Chattahoochee Stables. Other may be interested in the trying their luck, with pan mining at Gold ’N Gem Grubbin.
For the more adventurous, Screaming Eagle Aerial Adventures at Unicoi, provide Zip lines or one may decide to have a higher aerial view of the area, by going to either Bristol Balloons or Scenic Helicopter Tours.
An intriguing bit of history that might interest movie buffs, is the fact that a scene from the 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit, was shot on Chimney Mountain Road, just outside the city of Helen.
One can easily spend a number of days in the area and find plenty of activities and interests to enjoy.
Alpine Helen/White County
Convention & Visitors Bureau
726 Bruckenstrasse Helen, Georgia 30545
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 730 Helen, Georgia 30545
Phone Number: (800) 858-8027
Website: HelenGeorgia.com and http://www.helenga.org/
How To Get There
The main route to and out of town is Georgia State Route 75. The city of Helen is located between 86 and 89 miles (138 -143 kilometers) northeast from Atlanta, depending on the route taken.
Is readily available in the city of Helen, but it is advisable to make reservations in advance. There is a wide range of accommodations, to fit the needs of all travelers in nearby communities as well.