Breathe in the cool mountain air. Gaze at the majestic peaks. Delight in the Bavarian cottages and shops. No, it’s not a weekend getaway to Germany – it’s a trip to Helen: Georgia’s own Alpine village, one of many day trips easily accessible from the state's capital, Atlanta.
Many years ago the tiny and struggling town of Helen saved its economic future by adopting a German persona. Visitors flock to Helen every season of the year for its many festivals and quaint atmosphere in the North Georgia mountains, also home to notable wineries and fall foliage. Located just under two hours north of Atlanta, Helen is brimming with fun activities for families.
A visit to Helen in the summer wouldn’t be complete without tubing down the Chattahoochee River. Children under 12 should ride with an adult, and if you go, be sure to bring cheap sneakers. Helen Tubing and Cool River Tubing have a variety of inexpensive packages, some of which include water slides.
Explore Helen’s mountain scenery on horseback on a trail ride with Chattahoochee Stables. Children under 5 can ride with a parent. Sunburst Stables offers riding lessons, zip lines and trail rides for kids eight and older.
What would a family getaway be without putt-putt? Alpine Helen Mini Golf is located on Main Street in Helen and looks the part with its Bavarian design. Play “Adventure Golf” a block from downtown at Pirate’s Cove.
Gold and Gem Mining
The North Georgia mountains were the location of America’s first gold rush, and your family can be prospectors for the day by panning for gold (which is hard) and gems (which is fairly easy). Dukes Creek Gem and Mining Company has a variety of mining choices, and their helpful staff will make this activity a highlight of your weekend. You can also tour a historic underground gold mine at Consolidated Gold Mine.
Don’t miss the natural beauty of Helen and the surrounding areas – get out there and hike! Anna Ruby Falls is one of the loveliest waterfalls in Georgia, accessible by a short (though steep) half-mile hike up a paved walkway. A longer 4 1/2 mile hike for experienced hikers connects Anna Ruby Falls with Unicoi State Park. You can also drive to Unicoi to enjoy 7 1/2 miles of hiking trails, fishing, swimming, and mountain biking.
Smithgall Woods is another state park close to Helen with five miles of hiking trails. Hunting and fishing are permitted during specific times of the year.
Festivals and Events
- Held in mid-April, the Spring Volksmarch is inspired by German walking competitions. Compete as a family as you hike through Unicoi State Park.
- In early May, attend Wurstfest, a celebration of the sausage! Competitive sausage eating, Maypole dancing, music and polka dancing are highlights of this festival.
- In June, don’t miss the oldest hot air balloon event in the South: the Helen-Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Festival. You’ll see more than 30 hot air balloons and along-distance balloon race.
- Periodically throughout the summer, Helen hosts Bavarian Fests featuring “oompah” bands and polka dancing in the Festhalle.
- On the 4th of July, celebrate Independence Day with music, barbecue, and fireworks at the Festhalle.
- From late September to early November, you can attend the best Oktoberfest in Georgia. The festivities start with the Oktoberfest Parade.
- The Christmas season kicks off in late November with the annual Lighting of the Village and a visit from Santa.
- On the two Fridays and Saturdays after Thanksgiving, visit the Christkindlmarkt for Christmas food, gifts and decorations.
- See Santa on the first Saturday of December at the Christmas parade.
You have a lot of choices for dining in Helen, but don’t go home without trying some weinersnitchel! Hofer’s of Helen has very good German specialties in their café and bakery. If you don’t want a sit-down meal, there are many hole-in-the-wall places on Main Street where you can get a bratwurst.
If you’ve had your fill of German food, Helen also specializes in old-fashioned Southern cooking for breakfast and dinner. Wendell’s Country Restaurant is cozy and affordable with generous portions of great food. Ma Gooch’s Restaurant is a 10-15 minute drive to Cleveland, but you can’t beat the prices for country cooking. In the mood for barbecue? North Georgia Barbeque Co. is an excellent choice.
If the kids want pizza, visit Nachoochee Village Tavern and Pizzeria or Jordano’s Pizza for a slice.
The best choice for families visiting Helen is a mountain cabin. You’ll get great views and lots of room to stretch out. Whether you are looking for rustic or luxury accommodations, you can find a great cabin for your weekend getaway.
Between the nearby state parks and the private campgrounds, campers have lots of options. Reserve sites early for busy summer weekends.
Helen has a range of motels and condos you’d expect from a tourist destination. Helendorf Inn is a favorite, with Jacuzzi suites and riverfront rooms featuring refrigerators and microwaves. Black Forest River Suites also has a great view of the river with hot tubs and grills on the balconies.