Those looking for free adventures on vacations in Georgia, or day trips from nearby Tennessee, should include the great outdoors in the Blue Ridge Mountains and a charming little city with the same name. Multigenerational options are abundant in the forests and on trails leading to waterfalls.
Georgia’s barrier islands and metro Atlanta draw families for abundant vacation experiences and the North Georgia Mountains can too. Headquarter in Blue Ridge for these free in Fannin County adventures and open a whole new way to engage in the South.
Blue Ridge offers major trail systems, including access to the famed Appalachian Trail, extending 2,000 miles to Maine. Touch a bit of the AT since it begins in Fannin County at the top of Springer Mountain.
My family prefers shorter paths in this Blue Ridge system of 300 miles, including short trails suitable for beginning hikers.
Three Forks to Long Creek Falls: The hike to Long Creek Falls includes a scenic 5.3-mile drive into the forest following Noontootla Creek to the Three Forks area to begin a two-mile round-trip hike following Long Creek to a beautiful cascading waterfall with two drops totaling 50 feet. Take a picnic.
Swinging Bridge Trail: Ramble the Benton MacKaye Trail south from Hwy 60 for three miles for sweeping views of the pristine Toccoa River flowing beneath the “Swinging Bridge.” The longest suspension bridge east of the Mississippi, the passage was built by the USDA Forest Service and the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club in the mid-1970s.
Aska Trails: Trails on this17-mile system near Blue Ridge intersect and loop from one- to 5.5-miles.
Benton MacKaye Trail to Fall Branch Falls: A short distance away and part of the larger Benton MacKaye Trail, Fall Branch Falls is a double waterfall with mountain laurel and rhododendron growing along the trail and creek bank. The hike to the falls is about 30 minutes round-trip.
Explore Downtown Blue Ridge
Downtown Blue Ridge restaurants, shops and a playground are all in sight of the Blue Ridge Scenic Railroad cars; rides aren’t free but gazing at a real-deal passenger train is.
Find the free downtown playground across the street from the Blue Ridge Mountain Arts Association with national juried shows, changing galleries, artists-in-residence and a full schedule of festivals. Free admission.
The Georgia/Tennessee state line is in nearby McCaysville and inviting the kids to straddle the line is always free fun.
Chase waterfalls and ask the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce for maps and easy-access ideas.
Fall Branch Falls: The upper portion of Fall Branch Falls is a series of cascades that lead to a single major drop of some 30 feet, with the water plunging into a deep pool at the base of the falls. These falls, along the Benton MacKaye Trail, west of Aska Road, are a shorter, although a bit harder walk than Long Creek Falls.
Long Creek Falls: The most popular of the waterfalls in Fannin County is Long Creek Falls, which can be seen by hiking down a short side trail from the combined Appalachian/Benton MacKaye Trail. These falls total about 50 feet in two distinct drops. A leisurely 30-minute hike to the falls is uphill on the way in, downhill on the way out.
Sea Creek Falls: Located in the Cooper Creek Scenic Area, Sea Creek Falls are an easy walk of less than .1 mile. The first, or upper falls are a series of steep cascades ending in a brief drop. The second falls are also a series of steep cascades. The water flow is heavy either in late winter or spring, or after a summer rain.
Amicalola Falls: About 21 miles from Ellijay on Hwy 52 is a spectacular 729-foot falls, the tallest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Also, a strenuous 8.5-mile approach trail leads from the park to Springer Mountain, the start of the Appalachian Trail.
Helton Creek Falls: There are two falls on Helton Creek near Blairsville. A short trail descends to the first waterfall then climbs to the second larger waterfall. Beware – the rocks are slippery. From Blue Ridge, take Hwy 515 north to Blairsville. In Blairsville, take US 19/129 south about 11 miles. Turn left onto Helton Creek Road, the first road past the entrance to Vogel State Park. Go 2.2 miles; the road turns to gravel. There will be a small parking lot on the right in a curve, and the trail is marked.
Another Traveling Mom Susie Kellogg discovered waterfalls and outdoor adventures in North Carolina.
Traveling Mom tip for stunning views of many falls: “Mountains and Waterfalls of North Georgia” by Jack Anthony. No, the book isn’t free but you might find it in your library. Exceptional directions and details provided.
North Georgia’s Blue Ridge is 90 minutes north of Atlanta off Interstate-575; drive a little more and consider these tours free, except your gas. Free driving tour maps from the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce.
Beyond the charming downtown, Blue Ridge is mountain roads and country churches, pastoral valleys and river rapids, history and nature. Hawks and owls offer free glimpse of their soaring skills. Watch for woodpeckers, turkeys and mountain grouse near the forest edges. The flash of a white-tail deer is an everyday occurrence. Rarer, but not impossible, is sighting a black bear or bobcat.
Traveling Mom tip: Do not drive on any rough forest dirt road in low clearance cars.
The Cohutta wilderness mountains rise in the west and the Blue Ridge to the south and east. The Cherokee considered the Cohuttas “poles of the shed,” holding up the sky.
Cherokee hunted the area extensively and played field hockey on the ball fields at Little Bald Mountain, today a group camping area. The Cohutta Wildlife Management Area (WMA) encompasses 95,000 acres, 40,000 within Fannin County.
The Cohutta Wilderness is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River, inhabited by black bears and wild boars, along with smaller animals like bobcats, raccoons, squirrels.
Changing seasons bring blooms to mountain laurel (May), rhododendron (June), and a profusion of wildflowers (early spring), with ferns dotting the landscape all summer.
Averaging 15 to 20 miles along the Forest Service Roads, this is a three-hour drive through the forest. Consider a day-trip with stops to enjoy the view; take a hike and picnic at Lake Conasauga.
Traveling Mom tip: Vehicles need to be in good mechanical condition with adequate fuel; low clearance cars are a bad idea on these rough roads.
On a Free Roll? Day Trips too
Dahlonega and Apple Alley are a day trip originally produced by the U.S. Forest Service, beautiful any time of year, but autumn fall foliage, presents a particularly scenic drive. This half-day drive begins and ends at the intersection of Georgia Highways 5 and 515 in Blue Ridge, with round-trip mileage 102 miles. This tour includes to a swinging bridge, vineyard and apple orchard.
Named for Col. James Walker Fannin who was killed in the Goliad Massacre after the fall of the Alamo, Fannin County was founded in 1854. The land belonged to the Cherokee Indians but gold was discovered in Dahlonega in 1829 and in 1830 the U.S. Congress passed the Cherokee Removal Act resulting in the tragic Trail of Tears.
In 1860, the first Fannin County census counted 900 families or 5,139 residents, mostly small subsistence farmers. Today, some of the unique features of Fannin County are historic rural communities and settlements. Find “hollers” or coves, often in isolated and remote areas surrounded by mountains and nestled along the banks of picturesque streams or rivers.
Links to additional, free self-guided tours can be found here.