None of us had ever been up to Helen, Georgia prior to our weekend getaway last month. When we say “us” this includes Daniella’s dad, her mom, her grandma, as well as the family dogs (Niki Isabella Young and Piccolino AKA ‘Lil Biscuit Man’). In the past, when driving down from Boston to Georgia (which we did on three separate occasions before finally moving to Georgia permanently), we usually would stick to the interstate roadway system. But during the summer of 2016, we decided to take as many back roads as possible in order to stop at such places as Brasstown Bald, for example, to really enjoy a few of the hidden gems of the East Coast. Back then, we thought we had caught a good enough glimpse of the beauty of North Georgia by visiting Brasstown Bald. So when we finally had the opportunity recently to go visit Helen, Georgia with Daniella’s family we were truly blown away!
1) Rent a Cabin
Our dog friendly weekend vacation would not have been possible without choosing a temporary abode that would comfortably fit us all--and that would allow dogs!! The furry creatures do not gel well with hotels, but luckily, after a ton of searching online for a good deal, we discovered a roomy enough log cabin courtesy of VaCasa. Technically speaking, our cabin was located in Sautee Nacoochee, which is just a 10-15 minute drive from downtown Helen and all the attractions discussed herein. In our opinion, whether you have dogs or not, a trip up to the North Georgia Mountains is not complete without staying in a cabin. Why would you ever stay at an overpriced, possibly unclean hotel, when you can stay in a unique, cozy log cabin with your own pool table and a hot tub!! Forget sharing the hot tub with other hotel guests, pop open a bottle of beer or sip on a frozen margarita. Let the heavily wooded mountain nature soothe your soul in a private jacuzzi!!
Usually, wet weather and rain can seriously dampen things (pun absolutely intended), but by staying in a log cabin, especially a loft style one like the one we stayed at, you can still enjoy your weekend in the woods by playing game after game of pool. Just remember to also bring some playing cards, or some board games for when you want a bit of a change of pace! You won’t even want to turn on the TV or watch Netflix (yes, there is WiFi in log cabins cos it’s 2017), that’s how much fun a simple pool table can be. If your budget accommodates it, you can even snag a cabin that features a ping pong table and/or an ice hockey table...perhaps next time we’ll opt for one of those! Another underrated feature of the log cabins available through VaCasa are the fully equipped kitchens, which is a fantastic way to save some money. Just pack a couple coolers with ingredients for a few meals (BBQ chicken on the grill anyone?), and only grab a bite out to eat when you absolutely have to.
2) Find Coupons Beforehand
Besides great advice on how to make the most of your trip to Helen, HelenGa.org has printable coupons for accommodations, dining, attractions, and shopping! It is most definitely worth a bit of your time prior to arriving to print out all of these coupons. Ten percent saved here, and another ten percent saved there, well that adds up quickly!! It's also a nice way to make sure that you sample some of the local flair.
3) Eat at Cafe International
When you don’t really feel like cooking (it is a vacation after all), we highly recommend Cafe International located in the downtown section of Helen itself. Parking can be tricky if you try to park in their lot, as it is sort of small, but the good news is there are several parking options nearby. All of these lots are a five minute walk to the points of interest in Helen, and many don’t charge obscene parking fees (generally no more than $5 per car). You can avoid paying any parking fees if you decide to behind all the hotels kind of close to the Dollar General. Better yet, you can grab a to-go order of a reuben sandwich and enjoy it on a tree-shaded bench along the river. Or, if you want to enjoy the ambience of Cafe International, and if your dog needs a fresh bowl of water, definitely eat your meal there at one of the picnic tables outside! You will have a good view of the Chattahoochee from here too, and beyond that, you can conveniently save 10% with the coupon sheet we mentioned!
4) Visit Anna Ruby Falls
Obviously one of the best parts of any vacation is the eating itself...having said that, it doesn’t hurt to be a little active! A convenient way to burn a few calories and get closer to nature is by visiting Anna Ruby Falls, which is even cheaper than the aforementioned Brasstown Bald at only $3 per person. So, why visit Anna Ruby Falls, not to be confused with Ruby Falls (that’s in Tennessee)? Besides the low entry fee, the relative ease of the short hike from the parking lot to the waterfall itself is a major selling point. At only a half mile hike, with an ever so slight grade, pretty much anyone of any age in the family can take in the breathtaking water cascade! Be sure to wear shoes with good traction as the paved hiking trail can be a bit dewy, especially on an overcast/drizzly day.
With plenty of stone benches at various spots along the short trail, you can rest if you need to, or just sit down and slowly breathe in the serene scents of pine in this pristine part of the Chattahoochee National Forest. The benches are perfect spots to take quick pictures of you and your family too, so you won’t clog up the foot traffic passing by! Take care that you have enough room on your camera’s memory card (...or on that roll of film…) for the piece de resistance: the 153 foot Curtis Creek drop and the 50 foot York Creek drop. Both are incredibly spectacular, even the “shorter” one. God was having a grand old time when he created Anna Ruby Falls. As you stare up at the misty, powerful water crashing over the jagged rocks, you will know you are in paradise, and your dogs will too! Speaking of the dogs, keep them on a tight leash because the intrigue of the thick forest around them will tempt them constantly to go off somewhere on their own :)
To recharge your batteries after all this (moderate) physical activity, you can stop for a quick snack or even a full-fledged meal at any of the numerous picnic tables/charcoal grills just off the Anna Ruby Falls parking lot. You have the option of stopping on your drive back out to society through Unicoi State Park to grill up some mean burgers and (hot) dogs, as Unicoi features plenty of picnic tables as well. At this point, you would have earned that extra serving of homemade potato salad, or that second piece of tres leches cake!
5) Explore the Chattahoochee
Weather and time of year permitting, another must-do is tubing via the legendary Chattahoochee River at Cool River Tubing. And your dogs do not have to stay at the cabin for this water-based adventure either! Picture you and your canine, sitting in a tube, being carried along by the current, enjoying Helen from a totally different vantage point!! You might be lucky enough to spot an otter, or was that a beaver...hard to tell looking back, but whatever wildlife we saw was loving its prime spot on the banks of the Chattahoochee :) Once your tubing ride comes to a close, spend more time by the water at City Park, a cute and semi-private strip of public grass. Spread out on an old blanket and soak in the warm Southern sun as you munch on some Deer “Poop” or heavenly fudge courtesy of Kopper Kettle Fudge Shop. There is really no point in calorie counting now!
6) Seek the Unknown
Way back when, Buddha once quipped, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” This is why you absolutely have to push yourself to drive or possibly walk past the downtown section of Helen!! If you don’t, you’ll surely be missing a lot...kind of like us...Alas, it wasn’t until we were literally driving out of Helen to head home, leaving a way we did not come, that we drove past the glorious Nacoochee Mound. Our quick glimpse at 30 miles per hour was awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping, to say the least. If only we had spent just a little bit of time examining the outskirts of Helen proper, we could have seen the Mound sooner. Perhaps we could have even flown our drone in the air to better enjoy it from above.
Never before have we seen so many cows in one area. And never before have cows looked as cool as this, grazing on grass and mooing in sync, flanked by the Blue Ridge mountains in all directions. We would honestly go back just to witness this scene by the Mound again, so as to fully appreciate it rather than whizzing by like ignorant chumps! And for all you die-hard or even casual mini-golfers out there, you will definitely want to go past downtown Helen to not only see the Mound, but to putt your way to pleasure too. We say all that to say this: while downtown Helen with its Bavarian-inspired motifs is quite cool in itself, you will only maximize the potential of your vacation memories by seeing beyond what meets your naked eye. Or, as Buddha might say, “The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground.”