Find the Alps in Appalachia: A Visit to Helen, Georgia
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
In reality, there is no link between Helen, Georgia in the United States and Bavaria, Germany, except that both are located in mountainous regions. However, as a way to bring their community back from the brink of economic oblivion, in 1969 the residents of Helen transformed their community of 600 people from an aging sawmill town into an Alpine village. They built cobble alleys, a village square, old-world towers, added gingerbread trim to building facades and brought in plenty of German food, beer, pastries and chocolates, not to mention a host of quaint shops and annual festivals and events.
The town was then promoted as “Georgia’s Little Bavaria” and began attracting visitors from around the world, and especially from nearby Atlanta and along the East Coast. It continues to be an attraction to this day, especially in the fall when the foliage is spectacular and when the town hosts a nearly two-month-long Oktoberfest that starts in September and lasts into November.
Located on what was once Cherokee Indian land on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in the Chattahoochee National Forest, and directly on the Chattahoochee River, Helen first attracted settlers for its fertile soil, then its gold mines. When the gold ran out, lumber barons moved in, but by the 1960s the sawmill industry had dried up and people began to leave Helen to find work elsewhere.
According to the official story of Helen, in 1969, realizing that their town was struggling, three local businessmen met at a downtown restaurant to discuss ways to spruce up Main Street and encourage tourists to stop in the community on their way north to the mountains.
One of the men suggested that he speak with an artist friend of his from church, who might have a vision for the streetscape. This turned out to be John Kollock, whose family had deep roots in the community. John agreed to take some photos and draw up some sketches of what he thought Main Street could look like. According to the City of Helen’s website, “(John) was inspired by seeing the town nestled in a small mountain valley and recalled his time in service in Germany and his visits to Bavarian towns in similar mountain valleys. The resulting sketches were well-received by the citizens and the merchants (of Helen).”
By the fall of 1969, led by the sketches and the passion of many businesspeople, Helen reinvented itself as a tourist town. As more visitors came, so did more businesses, events and attractions. This is a trend that continues to this day.
Above images courtesy of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Historic image below right from the City of Helen, Georgia website.
Using mostly Interstate 75, Helen is located less than eight hours from most of the Miami Valley, or about 465 miles. It is a family friendly tourist destination that is similar to visiting Gatlinburg, Tennessee, only it’s on a much smaller, more intimate scale.
For example, just like Gatlinburg, Helen has taffy and candy shops, themed restaurants, river tubing, mini golf courses, horseback riding, water parks, old-time photos and it’s located next to beautiful mountains that are filled with recreational opportunities. The difference is that in Helen there are not a million people trying to visit these places all at once, or trying to find parking spaces. And, in Helen, everything looks German, whereas in Gatlinburg, only a few things do.
Helen also differs from Gatlinburg in that it offers horse-drawn carriage rides in the downtown, gold panning (some gold still remains in the hills) and it’s home to the new Georgia Mountain Coaster, which combines an alpine slide and a mechanical roller coaster with the tallest hill in downtown Helen, for thrilling results.
Downtown Helen contains more than 200 specialty and import shops and restaurants. Many have German themes, merchandise and food. Others have clothing, jewelry, collectibles, souvenirs and other unique items and gifts unrelated to Germany.
Shoppers at Lindenhaus Imports can find cuckoo clocks, deckelkrugs (beer mugs with lids and fancy designs on them), and other German novelties. Jolly’s Toys is located in a gingerbread house on Main Street and features unique and popular toys from America and Germany. The Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen is a popular attraction that offers locally made German candies and chocolates. Visitors can sample and purchase candy and also watch it being made.
The list goes on.
Popular restaurants include Bodensee (traditional German fare), Hofer’s Bakery and Café (German pastries and food), The Troll Tavern (American and German fare), Muller’s Famous Fried Cheese Café, the Cowboys & Angels Restaurant (steaks and southern fare), Paul’s Margarita Deck and many others.
Several restaurants have seating areas that overlook the Chattahoochee River, making them popular during the day when tubers are passing by and in the evening when the lights from the town’s arched bridge and decorative buildings reflect in the water.
Along with Bavarian food and drinks, many restaurants in Helen offer peach cider (served hot or cold), boiled peanuts and locally sourced trout. In fact, many travelers come to Helen not only to eat fresh trout, but also to watch them spawn. The area’s brown and brook trout spawn in October and November while the more popular rainbow trout spawn in the spring. Restaurants serve the trout in many different ways, but blackened with a little bit of lemon seems to be the most popular.
There are 1,100 hotel rooms, as well as a few bed and breakfasts in downtown Helen. However, most people who visit the area for any length of time choose to stay in a cabin or chalet in the remote mountains nearby. There are hundreds of them to choose from! Many come equipped with their own woods and mountain views, hiking trails, hot tubs, fire pits, wrap-around porches, and some even have pools and other luxuries. With so much competition for tourists, most cabins and chalets cost less than $200 per night (even in peak season) and have three and four bedrooms. Of course, there are more expensive and extravagant options, as well as more affordable ones, including dozens of campgrounds and RV parks in the area.
While the colorful foliage and Oktoberfest attracts visitors in the fall, Helen is also popular in the spring and summer. The Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival attracts visitors in the spring, while summer is when tubing and kayaking on the Chattahoochee River (where the movie “Deliverance” was filmed) and ziplining parks are most popular, as are hiking and mountain biking.
Many hiking trails in the area lead to amazing waterfalls that cascade and tumble down the smooth faces of the mountains, sometimes for hundreds of feet. A number of trails follow the waterfalls from the bottom of the mountain to the top, and then back down again. Other trails are less-strenuous and follow peaceful mountain valleys.
Some of the most beautiful waterfalls in Georgia—Anna Ruby Falls, Duke Creek Falls and Raven Cliff Falls—are all located next to Helen. They are located within several state parks in the area that offer other recreational activities and attractions, including swimming, fishing, boating and camping. (Note: There is a small fee to enter each park.)
Several not-to-miss hiking trails in the region include the Laurel Ridge Trail, Smith Creek Trail and the Martin Mine Trail, but this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hiking options in the Chattahoochee National Forest. It’s nearly endless.
A visit to Helen is really a two-part experience. Part of the time is spent shopping, dining, sightseeing or attending a festival or event in the downtown. The other is spent in the mountains, tubing down the river, hiking to waterfalls in the woods and enjoying the abundant recreation in the area.
A third part, and maybe the best, is the time spent with family and friends at your cabin or chalet.
Chattahoochee National Forest is a beautiful, secluded and quiet place where cell phones don’t work, where there’s no cable TV in the cabins, and where the night sky is so clear, you can see a thousand stars in the sky or easily walk through the woods at night with just the light of the moon. Evenings can be spent talking by the fireplace inside of the cabin, making s’mores by the fire pit outside, playing board games or cards in the screened-in porch, watching mountain sunsets, or sitting in the hot tub listening to the crickets at night. Afternoons can be spent swimming or fishing in a nearby stream or lake, hiking through the forest, seeing great fall foliage, or just sitting in a rocking chair and doing nothing.
With a combination of the entertainment, good food and unique family attractions found in the downtown, plus the natural beauty and peace and quiet to escape to in the mountains at the end of the day, not to mention seeing what a small town can do with a big dream, Helen is a great place to visit. Plan your visit HERE.