Last week my family took our first vacation since the pandemic started back in March of 2020. We booked earlier this year with some hesitation since we weren’t really sure where everything would be as far as restrictions, vaccinations, etc. Fortunately things have moved in our favor. Everyone in our house who is eligible to be vaccinated has been, and while the threat from Covid-19 and its variants is far from over, there seems to be enough of a handle on it that we were comfortable in going ahead as long as we played it safe.
When we decided to go forward with our plans to travel, we decided that our top priority was to find a destination that wouldn’t be overly crowded, but still offer plenty to do. We wanted to be able to explore the outdoors, but still eat at some new (to us) restaurants, maybe visit some small shops, that kind of thing. So we quickly determined that large cities and well known tourist destinations were out. We did find what we were looking for by staying in the Blue Ridge mountains in a little town called Clarkesville Georgia.
Through the IHG hotel group and Holiday Inn Club Vacations we booked a Sunday-Thurs. stay at the Apple Mountain Resort. The resort itself is tucked away just outside of Clarkesville proper, amid lots of twisty-turny mountain roads with little but farmland and small rural neighborhoods surrounding it. The nearest fast food/Wal-Mart is about a 15 minute drive, as is the quiet downtown itself, although naturally in opposite directions. The resort itself offers quite a bit of amenities to keep their guests entertained. There is a full 18 hole golf course on premises (which I did not use), a full 18 hole mini golf course (which I did), a pool, hot tub, exercise room and sauna, a tennis court, basketball, shuffleboard, table tennis, and a visitors center with pool tables ,a game room, mini-theater, and refreshments. Laundry service is also available on site.
Our unit was basically a two bedroom condo, with full kitchen and balcony. It was very clean and quite spacious. This was an excellent choice to use as home base for our week of exploring the mountains of North Georgia.
PART ONE: CHASING WATERFALLS
We love waterfalls. I think it’s hard not to, once you’ve been to one. Scientifically, the waterfalls change the atmosphere around them, usually causing a slight temperature drop and releasing negative ions in the air which generate an increased flow of oxygen to the brain and bring about all sorts of positive benefits to your mood and overall health. So not only are they beautiful to look at and take in, but they just make you feel good. So once we learned that there were multiple waterfalls within a short driving distance, we made it a goal to see a waterfall a day.
The Minnehaha trail is actually quite difficult to find, since it is tucked away in the back of a lake community with few road signs and marginally paved roads. There’s not really much in the way of parking to speak of at the trail head, and though it is clearly marked it could easily be missed if you have your head in a map or are staring at your GPS screen. However hard it may be to find, it is assuredly worth finding.
The trail itself is mostly flat, despite some rocks and tree roots that you will need to work around. The incline is not very steep, making this an easy trail for hikers of all levels. The only issue with this trail, if you can call this an issue, is that the trail is short. The hike should only take about 5-10 minutes. You’re just walking along this pretty little hillside path with a creek running right next to you and then suddenly BAM! there it is.
The falls themselves cascade over what looks like a natural staircase, and there are plenty of large rock slabs that serve as natural viewing platforms. After sitting by the waterfall a while and getting lots pf pictures, we made our way back down. All in all we spent maybe a half an hour at the falls, which is plenty of time to take in the beauty, and check our fist waterfall off our list. It also left plenty of time for swimming in the afternoon.
TUESDAY-Anna Ruby Falls
Anna Ruby Falls was my favorite of the trip. There is a small admittance fee, and a gift shop at the trailhead, so it’s a little more well known than Minnehaha. It can get quite crowded, but getting there within a half hour of opening the crowds weren’t so bad.
The trail is about a half mile in length, up a mountain side which isn’t overly strenuous, but it does get quite steep in the middle. It’s a little bit of a workout, but a fairly short stretch, and the payoff is absolutely worth it. As with many waterfall trails, there are plenty of picturesque views as you climb and the water rushes down beside you.
The Anna Ruby Falls are created by two streams, Curtis Creek and York Creek, joining together to form Smith Creek at the base of the falls which runs into Unicoi Lake later on. So what you see is the two streams running over the cliffs. The left side facing the falls is taller and comes down with a bit more force. The U.S. Forestry Service maintains the falls and has built several viewing platforms. Anna Ruby Falls is beautiful, very enjoyable and still doable in a reasonable amount of time.
We then ventured into the nearby city of Helen which I will discuss next time.
WEDNESDAY-Tallulah Gorge State Park
“Oh, look, here’s a state park where you can walk across a bridge over the river in an actual gorge. That looks beautiful-and sounds fun too. Let’s go!”-Us before we knew better.
To be fair, the scenery is beautiful, and crossing the bridge is kind of cool, in that it’s long enough to be impressive and it is totally stable, though it does swing a little bit to give you a sense of danger. There is an option once you cross the bridge to go down a little further and see the waterfalls from a closer vantage point. The park also allows limited passage to the gorge floor itself for a small fee and in limited numbers. while we were there the passes were not being offered due to high water but it is normally an option for those who may choose it.
Most of the trails we have taken to see waterfalls are either paved or natural terrain, but this trail is made by stairs. Yep. Stairs. You descend into the gorge, cross over the bridge, and then continue down or come back up. Getting down is easy, and fun. Crossing the bridge and getting close to the gorge floor makes for some prime photo ops and a lovely time. But then you have to come back up.
In the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur and his knights encounter the “Bridge of Death Over the Gorge of Eternal Peril”. This is not that bridge-but halfway up, I’d have taken my chances with that one instead of continuing the climb.
There are signs at the beginning of the stairs warning that this trail is strenuous and people with health issues should not attempt this climb. There are two signs to this effect, and a handy guide to how much water you should be taking with you.
I don’t think this is good enough. I think about a quarter of the way down there should be a third sign saying “No, really, we’re serious, this is going to suck coming back up.” Then halfway down another one that reads “Okay, look back up at how far down you are. Think about it. Do you really want to continue? You are not in the shape you think you are. Turn around.” But no.
So we came back up the staircase. Trudged it, really. The official count of stairs to the bridge is 620, and we went on past that. So now we did 620+ back up. Graciously, there are benches and landings provided throughout the staircase at every switchback so you can not die. I mean, rest. And not die. We sat at every single one of them, because this is a brutal climb. That’s what the sign should say-brutal! Not strenuous. Brutal.
Once we started the climb our goal was not to make it to the top of the stairs. That was impossible, our brains and bodies could not fathom actually accomplishing this. We merely set the goal of reaching the next staircase. Even the kids, who are “kid fit” were hating it after a while. They were not on the verge of collapse as were my wife and I, but their legs hurt and they were not having fun. My son announced about halfway up that he hated the outdoors now, and I didn’t argue. Of course, I was no longer able to form sentences so I couldn’t have argued anyway, but in that moment he had a point.
Eventually, through sheer willpower, determination, and the grace of God we made our way back up the gorge. then we collapsed onto some park benches for about a half an hour. We went inside the information center enjoyed and its sweet, sweet air conditioning. We poked around their exhibits for a while that were actually quite interesting and had I been in a less exhausted state I’m sure I’d have remembered what on Earth they were about.
I did pick up a souvenir t-shirt that has a picture of the steps on it. The caption reads “I survived the stairs! It’s worth the climb!” Well. I did survive. The pictures we took are AMAZING. It was worth having the experience. But worth the climb? Ehh…
THURSDAY-Toccoa Falls/Duke’s Creek
After the previous day’s adventure, a nice, short, less challenging walk was needed if we were going to meet our goal. Preferably a relatively quiet one too-my legs were screaming loud enough to drown out everything else anyway. Man, they didn’t stop hurting until Sunday after we were back home.
Sorry. I digress. On our last full day in town we drove out to Toccoa falls, which is on the campus of Toccoa College. It’s quite a nice campus actually, but not really near much of anything, which would be great for academics, but maybe not for the “college experience”. Once again there is a small entrance fee, and you have to go through the college gift store to get to the falls.
The trail is only 100 yards, and the waterfall itself is stunning. It is 186 feet high and quite powerful. What a wonderful retreat for the students-and a lovely spot to visit for the locals too. Interestingly, there is also a monument at the falls to the 39 people who lost their lives when the dam broke at Kelly Barnes Lake in 1977 and flooded the campus with 176 million gallons of water in minutes. The dam has not been rebuilt. The monument is a reminder of the power of nature transposed by the beauty of nature as you stand surrounded by it. This is a really special site.
After lunch, we decided to try one more trail-the Duke’s Creek Falls trail. you can see the falls from a distance early on in the hike. This was another one where you had to walk down to the falls and then back up. We got about a mile into the 2+ mile hike, and realized that the slope of the mountain was not going to play well with our already hurting selves. So we abandoned that one, but got some nice pictures and a few more steps for the Fitbits anyway. That counts, right?
Overall, our Georgia waterfalls experience was quite enjoyable. Previously our waterfall hikes were mostly done in Tennessee, where you tend to hike up to falls, and then down the mountain at the end. While the Blue Ridge mountains may rival the Smokies in beauty, Tennessee edges them out just slightly on the paths themselves. You’re beautiful Georgia, but some of these trails are built backwards!
Alright, that’s enough for this time. Next week I’ll be taking you through the rest of the vacation. Mostly the charming mountain town of Helen, a sampling of the food enjoyed on our trip, and maybe a little bit about the travel days too.
See you next time for more MonDAVEs!