It was my girlfriend’s birthday and she wanted to go someplace she’d never been before. I said, “Try the kitchen.” [rimshot]. Okay, not really, but the classic Henny Youngman one-liner flows so naturally after being teed up like that. Instead, I said, “How about somewhere in the mountains?” knowing she was more a mountain gal than a beach bunny.
Come to find out she had never been to Brasstown Bald before, Georgia’s highest point and only 2.5 hours from home. Accommodations were made at a creekside cottage in Blairsville, the nearest town to Brasstown Bald, one neither of us had visited before.
We planned on driving to the cottage first and doing Brasstown Bald the next day, but the weather was so good on the drive up that we decided to go straight to the Bald for the clear views and do a late check-in at the cottage.
Heading up the steep and winding Russell-Brasstown National Scenic Byway, we found ourselves behind a large tour bus going the same direction so it took us three days to reach the summit that afternoon. When we finally got there a lady in her car near the gatehouse told us everything was closed.
I said, “Do we still have to pay $5 dollars?” She answered, “I wouldn’t because everything’s closed.” I’d never heard of a mountain being closed before. We drove in, parked and walked the half-mile trail from the parking lot to the observation tower, which, sure enough, was closed, but we could still see the view of four states from the expansive deck below the tower.
Though it was late April, the temperature was 40 degrees at the summit at 3 p.m. There were only two other people on the deck, so it almost felt like we had the place to ourselves. I looked through a viewing glass back down to the parking lot and told my girlfriend that a ranger was putting a ticket on our windshield. She didn’t fall for it and kept walking, admiring the panoramic view.
I recommend Brasstown Bald, even when it’s “closed.”
When it’s open and staffed, you can take a shuttle from the parking lot to the summit, go up the observation tower, and visit the visitor center and a museum. Even if the shuttle were running during our visit we still would’ve hiked up to earn that view as the payoff for our efforts. The trail from the parking lot is paved, scenic, and, of course, steep.
It’s said you can see the skyline of Atlanta from the summit on the clearest of days, but we couldn’t make it out. Maybe it was hazier to the south. We could clearly see into Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina, though. Signage on the observation deck helps to point out what it is you’re looking at in every direction.
After heading down the mountain for the late check-in at Creekside Cottages in Blairsville, we were craving tacos and adult beverages. There were a number of chain restaurant options, which seemed odd for such a small town (pop. 724). There was even a Taco Bell, but it doesn’t serve adult beverages.
Luckily, we found Lucky’s, a locally owned taqueria and cantina right off the historic town square. I asked our server why there were so many chains around for a town with only 700-something people. She said it was a crossroads area for the region. Given the mountainous landscape, everyone who lives or travels in the area has to come through Blairsville to get somewhere else, so you’ve got Wendy’s and Zaxby’s and fill in the blanks.
But all the chains are on main highways away from the courthouse square, so the downtown area retains its indie spirit and small-town vibe. At Lucky’s, decked in eclectic artwork inside and out, we ordered tacos, ceviche, housemade chips and salsa; all were authentic and on-point.
I recommend Lucky’s if you want non-chain, non-Americanized Mexican food, draft beer, and margaritas.
On the other side of the courthouse square from Lucky’s sits Granddaddy Mimm’s Distilling Company where they make real-deal moonshine. I was looking forward to a visit but my girlfriend wasn’t since she doesn’t drink hard liquor. I told her they had fruity lower-proof stuff that she might like. We went for a tour and tasting.
Even if you don’t drink the tour is worth it to learn the history of moonshining in the region and hear the fascinating stories about Grandaddy Mimm, the grandfather of the owner, who was the king of the moonshiners in the area back in the days when making and selling it was illegal.
At the tasting after the tour, I was surprised by my girlfriend’s response. She rejected the fruity lower-proof ‘shine and requested another sip of the real-deal stuff. “It’s more flavorful than I thought it would be,” she said.
I recommend Granddaddy Mimms, even if you have a significant other who isn’t looking forward to it.
We got back to our cottage before sunset so we could take in the creekside view and make a fire in the fire pit. Creekside Cottages has four cottages along Butternut Creek inside the city limits of Blairsville.
Stores and restaurants are a short walk/drive away and there’s a mini-golf course right next door, but when you walk out the back door of the cottage, you don’t see any of that – it’s like going through the looking glass into a verdant setting next to the peaceful flowing waters of the creek.
I recommend Creekside Cottages if you want comfortable, well-appointed accommodations convenient to town but the pastoral feel of being out of town.
And this was only day one.
Since we’d done Brasstown Bald on the drive up, we had a lot of free time for the rest of the trip.
Here are some highlights:
- Hiking the loop trail system at the undeveloped north end of Lake Nottely near the dam. You can see the observation tower of Brasstown Bald in the distance from one of the shoreline trails. We didn’t encounter anyone on the hike, so, once again, it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
- Lunch at The Sawmill Place, a popular meat-and-three style restaurant serving locally sourced Southern fare in log-cabin environs. We didn’t have this place to ourselves because every spot in the parking lot and every seat in the restaurant was taken.
- Birthday dinner at Brasstown Valley Resort in their main dining room and amazing sunset views at the overlook of the valley afterward. (See our related story: When the Mountains Call, Head to Brasstown Valley Resort.)
- More than one local told us we had to stop at Sunrise Grocery for their boiled peanuts. As if on cue, this small roadside store at the foot of Blood Mountain had peanuts boiling in giant pots outside when we arrived. The guy behind the counter left us alone inside the store to fetch us a basketful. They did not disappoint.
- On the way up Blood Mountain heading home, we stopped at Reece Farm and Heritage Center, a place dedicated to preserving the early 20th-century Appalachian style of life and honoring the legacy of its namesake, the poet (and so much more) Byron Herbert Reece. Admission is free and it’s a worthwhile stop with friendly donkeys and goats.
- Further up the road is Vogel State Park, one of Georgia’s oldest, established in 1931. We hiked the trail around the lake and saw the lakeside cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and the cascading waterfall below the lake and decided this stop alone was worth another trip to Blairsville and Union County.
After cresting Blood Mountain at Neel Gap – the only place where the Appalachian Trail passes through a manmade structure – we were stalled by highway crews doing a resurfacing of the winding mountain road, so it took us three days to get home that afternoon.
– by Blake Guthrie
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