The population of Hiawassee, Georgia, is fewer than 1,000, and yet the town is an important stop along the Appalachian Trail. For thru-hikers heading north, it’s typically the first place to truly recharge and buy needed gear. But beyond that, it’s a lovely mountain community perfect for a weekend escape or day trip, as it’s about two hours from Atlanta; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Greenville, South Carolina.
If you had a full day to spend in Hiawassee, here’s what I’d recommend:
Hike: High Shoals Falls
This 2.4-mile hike only takes an hour and a half, and is a good way to start the day. The trailhead is on Indian Grave Gap Road, and from there, you’ll descend on green blazes toward Blue Hole Falls, known for its beautiful hue. Continue another bunch of steps to High Shoals Falls, which fans over a cliff. Dip your feet in the water, if you’d like.
Hiawassee is also about 25-30 minutes from Brasstown Bald and 20 minutes from the AT crossing in Blairsville (at Georgia Route 180).
Visit: Hamilton Gardens
Named for a Sears, Roebuck & Co. executive who bred plants, the gardens (96 Pavilion Road, 706/970-0011, www.hamiltongardens.org, 8am-8pm daily, donations appreciated, $5 guided tour) are home to more than 1,500 rhododendrons and azaleas, plus many more native trees and wildflowers. Spend about an hour to 90 minutes here, sitting peacefully and enjoying the colors.
Eat: The Happy Hawg
Chances are you worked up a big appetite. Lucky, because this barbecue joint (1586 US-76 W, 706/896-0012, www.thehappyhawg.com, 11am-7pm Wed.-Sat., 11am-3pm Sun. summer, 11-7am Thurs-Sat. winter, under $20) has smoked meat, hush puppies, fried corn, and more. Chow down while looking out at Chatuge Lake.
Shop: Hiawassee Antique Mall
With more than 40 dealers, this is like most antique malls you’ll find (518 N. Main St., 706/896-0587, www.hiawasseeantiquemall.com, 10am-5pm Mon.-Sat., noon-5pm Sun.), but it’s also the largest of its kind in Georgia. You can always spend an hour getting lost in an antique mall.
Stay: Top of Georgia Hiking Center
You can also do Lake Chatuge Lodge (653 US-76, 706/896-5253, www.lakechatugelodge.com, $130-$250), but if you’re a person of few necessities, this popular AT hostel (7675 Hwy. 76 E, 706/982-3252, www.topofgeorgiahostel.com, $30-$70) will do. You’ll need to bring your own sheets and pillows (or just buy some at the Walmart over in Blairsville), but there’s a full kitchen here, and a bathroom with hot shower.
My first book, Drive & Hike: Appalachian Trail, will be released on May 7. Please pre-order the book today to get your copy upon release!