I was first introduced to Helen, “Georgia’s Alpine City” by the same friend who first introduced me to nearby Dukes Creek Falls, the fall of my first year in graduate school in Athens. I met Denise my first night in town; I had come up for orientation the next day and had dinner at a popular downtown restaurant, The Spaghetti House. It was my first time there, and she happened to be my server that evening.
We hit it off, and became quite good friends. She was a very talented artist, with a similar quirky sense of humor. She introduced me to several close friends of hers, two of whom became close friends of mine as well, and we often went hiking together on weekends after that.
Helen is a notable tourist attraction, especially in October, when “Octoberfest” is celebrated all month long. That is usually a good time to visit the mountains of north Georgia, as the weather is cooler and the leaves are usually in their full fall glory.
Dukes Creek is just west of town, on the Richard Russell Scenic Highway; and Unicoi State Park is just north of town, with its popular lodge, lake, and Anna Ruby Falls, twin falls named after the daughters of a fellow who discovered them, back in the 1800’s. Another fun place to hike!
Raven Cliffs Falls is another popular hiking spot, just west of Dukes Creek, but less well-known, and a bit harder to find, as the entrance is not marked, as Dukes Creek Falls is. It’s also a longer trail and a more strenuous climb, if you go up the falls to get the view from the top, which is spectacular.
“Betty’s Country Store” is an old-time country store on the west end of town, and it was there that I was introduced to “banana chips” – thin slices of dried banana, with a slight glaze, almost like potato chips. I had never heard of that before, but they were quite good, and every time I came up that way, I would always stop in and get a bag.
Helen is full of restaurants, hotels, and shops of all kinds. But the place that intrigued me the most was the shop of “Fritz, the glassblower.” He was an amazing artist in glass-blowing, and you could sometimes watch him at work, while browsing his shop. I had never seen anything like it before. He could make almost anything out of glass.
The town actually became “Georgia’s Alpine Village” some years earlier, when the chamber of commerce folks were looking for a way to drum up business, which heretofore had mostly depended on summer tourists. So they built a new “downtown” in a style reminiscent of the Alpine villages in Europe, and it worked! Touristscamein droves.
We quickly learned that the best way to get there in the fall was to come in from the south, where the highways met just west of town, rather than from the east – otherwise you’d sit in two-lane bumper-tobumper traffic for a long time, as traffic moved slowly through town.
Sometimes, after that first fall, my friends and I would go there either in late September or early November, when the weather was still nice but the crowds were not so huge. “Leaf watching” is a popular pastime in the fall, as the variety of colors can be quite spectacular. The timing is often dependent on whether the summer was dry, or wet, as the rainfall is what affects the leaf colors the most.
North Georgia has many interesting places to visit. Helen is but one of them; but also one of the most unique! I am glad I found it.
Rafe Semmes is a local writer. He attended Savannah High and UGA.