Into the woods

Come along for a personal tour of
White and Habersham counties

My family moved to Cleveland, Ga., in the late 1960s, long before the first alpine facade was ever raised in Helen or before the Cabbage Patch Kids were a gleam in Xavier Robert’s eye.

Alton Brown wasn’t a celebrity in the world of cooking. He was just the kid who lived across the street from my friend. Vineyards and wineries didn’t dot the landscape. In fact, moonshine was still the libation most closely associated with our little corner of Appalachia.

One thing that remains the same is the lure of this area to those who live outside of it. Even before all of the “tourist attractions”, people gravitated towards these foothills because of the natural beauty.

In the center of White County stands Mount Yonah (pictured here) with its stark rock face and accompanying legend of native American star-crossed lovers Sautee and Nacoochee, who fell to their death from atop that stony precipice. Further up the road are the valleys named for those lovers and the Indian Mound with the white gazebo on top where Sautee and Nacoochee are supposedly buried.

As a kid, I was naturally oblivious to the charms of such a beautiful and historically rich community. But, as an adult, I was drawn back home to live after spending over 25 years residing elsewhere. I’m proud to call this area home and when friends come to call, I delight in the opportunity to share some of the hidden gems Northeast Georgia has to offer.

Let me take you on my favorite circle tour of the area.

Photo: Walkers and hikers will find a good trail along Smith Creek, near Sautee Nacoochee. The trail runs for nearly 9 miles, features a waterfall and is rated as moderate.

If you are heading north on 129 towards Cleveland, avoid the brand new bypass. Instead head straight into town for an exceptional burger at the Soda Fountain Cafe. Decorated in a charming retro style with checkerboard floors complete with a jukebox that plays 50s music, the Soda Fountain Cafe serves burgers made from meat ground fresh every morning. They make pimento cheese and chicken salad fresh in-house. A consistent favorite is the Deep South Burger topped with pimento cheese, bacon, ranch and a fried green tomato.

Walk off that burger with a stroll around the square. Be sure to stop in at Erwin Rush, a store filled with an eclectic combination of antiques, home decor, art and home fragrance. owner Rush Mauney has developed the locally-made Habersham Candle Wax Pottery. These unique creations include scented wax bowls and balls as well as filled candles and wax-based personal care products. You can find the entire line in his shop.

A visit to The Old White County Courthouse is well worth your time. Built in 1859, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. It is the current home of the White County Historical Society.

Continue up 75A and head north towards 348 or the Richard Russell Scenic Highway. Right before you get to the Richard Russell, stop at Smithgall Woods State Park. Duke’s Creek, considered one of north Georgia’s premier trout streams, runs through the park. Legend has it that John Witheroods (or Witherow or Wilhero) found a three-ounce gold nugget along Duke’s Creek, spawning the Georgia Gold Rush, but my husband will tell you right quick that the big trout make Duke’s Creek special.

Exiting Smithgall Woods, head up the Richard Russell. Drive about 6 miles to the top for a spectacular view of the mountains including Mount Yonah. Turn around and head back down the mountain. If you don’t you’ll wind up in Blairsville. Turn left back onto 75A and head into Helen. Before you get to North Main Street on 75A, you’ll pass a little white clapboard church on your left that was central in the the 1951 film, "I’d Climb the Highest Mountain," starring Susan Hayward (who lived the last part of her life in Carrollton, Ga., where she is buried) and William Lundigan.

The cast during the filming of "I'd Climb the Highest Mountain" in Helen, Ga., in 1951. The movie starred actress Susan Hayward. Kenneth Rogers\/AJC, photo courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

The cast during the filming of "I'd Climb the Highest Mountain" in Helen, Ga., in 1951. The movie starred actress Susan Hayward. Kenneth Rogers/AJC, photo courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

If you are a craft beer aficionado, stop in a Discount Spirits in Helen. They have a large selection of craft beers and sometimes you can stumble across a rare find. After you’ve perused the beer selection, stop off at Jolly’s Toys and treat your inner child. Helen’s oldest toy store, Jolly’s features vintage toys as well as today’s favorites.

On your way out of Helen, stop at Nora Mill Granary for some stone ground cornmeal or grits. Established in 1876, Nora Mill Granary is still an operational gristmill utilizing the original 1,500 pound French Burr Stones. This method of grinding results in a more nutritious product by using the whole grain (including the germ) and it’s ground fresh with no additives or preservatives.

This antique pump no longer offers gas, but serves as an eye-catching landmark along the highway.

This antique pump no longer offers gas, but serves as an eye-catching landmark along the highway.

After you leave the Mill, take a quick detour by heading south on GA 75 and hang a left on 384 or Duncan Bridge Road. This will take you to the Gourd Place. Here, owners Priscilla Wilson and Janice Lymburner have every iteration of gourd art possible from utilitarian to decorative .They also have Gourd Impressions Pottery. Developed in 2000 by Wilson and patented in 2006, this unique method of using gourd molds to slip-cast pottery results in wonderfully textured dishes and vessels that exhibit the intricate webbing from the inside of a gourd.

Photo: Crescent Hill Baptist Church has stood watch over the valley since 1872 or so.

Back down Duncan Bridge Road, go north on GA 75 and turn right onto 17 at the Indian Mound and the Hardman Farm. Then head up the scenic Nacoochee Valley. On your left you’ll see the Crescent Hill Baptist Church, circa 1872. Sometimes referred to by locals as The Little Gingerbread Church, its gothic architecture and surrounding natural beauty make it a favorite rural church for photographing.

A few miles up the Nacoochee Valley, you’ll come across the Sautee Nacoochee Center. This amazing facility not only houses galleries and classrooms where community members can learn new skills, it is also home to the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia. This comprehensive collection of folk pottery features the works of several of the area’s most prominent “potter” families including the Meaders family and their whimsical (and sometimes scary) face jugs.

No trip through the Nacoochee Valley is complete without a stop at the Old Sautee Store. Dating back to 1872, it gives visitors a peek at what a general goods store looked like in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to providing general goods, The Old Sautee Store served as the local post office until the 1940s. The store also sells its signature farmer’s cheese.

As you continue on up the valley road towards Clarkesville, you will pass roadside produce stands with fruit and vegetables and the ever-popular boiled peanuts. A personal favorite is Fritchey’s Gardens. Surrounded by the fields that provide the produce, Fritchey’s carries a lovely assortment of home grown vegetables, fruits, flowers and homemade jams, jellies and preserves.

Photo: Spring arrives in Sautee Nachoochee.

At the end of 17, take a left onto 115 headed into Clarkesville. Turn right into town and treat yourself at Harvest Habersham farm-to-table restaurant. Because the dishes revolve around the available products from local farmers and foragers, the menu changes constantly. Reservations are strongly encouraged.

Heading south on Historic 441, you’ll come to Demorest, home to Piedmont College. In Demorest are two hidden gems, Sweetbreads on George Street and right next door, the Mason Scharfenstein Museum of Art.

The immensely popular Sweetbreads’ space is a striking, colorful and urbane little oasis for both locals and visitors alike. Their casual menu plays up their baked goods, both savory and sweet. You’ll be hard pressed to avoid sitting down and spending an hour drinking wine and chatting with the friendly owners and trying one of their desserts.

Next door, the museum houses the art collection of Bill Mason and Bob Scharfenstein. Comprised of hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and pieces of art glass and crystal, the museum also showcases special exhibitions on a rotating basis.

Hop back on Historic 441 and take it to 105. 105 will take you to 115. Head back towards Cleveland but before you complete your circle, take a right on 255 and visit Yonah Mountain Vineyards.

With Yonah serving as a backdrop, this two-hundred acre family winery has the rolling hills and sandy soil that provide a rich environment for growing the grapes that make an excellent array of wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Yonah Mountain Vineyards Tasting Room is open to guests seven days a week. Simply walk in for a wine tasting or schedule a weekend Cave Tour and Tasting. Or you can simply sit and reflect on the awe-inspiring beauty with a bottle of wine.

Upon leaving, you can take 115 back into Cleveland, completing this not-really-a-circle tour.

Whether you’re into antiquing, a hiker, a biker, an angler, a history buff, a wine connoisseur, a gastronome, a lover of art or simply someone who enjoys vistas that have inspired poets, Northeast Georgia is a bountiful feast for the senses to all who visit.

Photo: Crescent Hill Baptist Church, built about 1872, overlooks the picturesque Nacoochee Valley.

Insider’s Tip

Winding mountain roads can trigger the heaves in even the heartiest road warrior, especially those who are passengers rather than drivers. Remember to breathe deeply, encourage the chauffeur to drive slow and try closing your eyes to reduce the visual cues to your brain.

Where to stay
Smithgall Woods State Park, camping and cottage rental, 61 Tsalaki Trail, Helen. 800-864-7275,

Where to eat
Sweetbreads, 579 Georgia St., Demorest. 706-894-2653.

What to see
The Gourd Place, 2319 Duncan Bridge Rd., Sautee Nacoochee. 706-865-4048,

Mason-Scharfenstein Museum of Art, 567 Georgia St.
Demorest. 706-778-8500, Ext. 1007