Autumn makes the perfect time to drop down from the highlands to where the Blue Ridge Mountains emerge in north Georgia. Amid these rolling hills, the Tallulah River heads southeast through a beautiful series of manmade lakes before tumbling down the state’s most famous gorge. Each year, as if part of a pilgrimage, I make my down to this hidden corner of the state to roam the lakeshore and relax on a porch overlooking Tallulah Gorge.
Heading south from Highlands, N.C., on the lower section of the famed “Moonshiner 28” the turn onto Warwoman Road sneaks up on you. In a sharp left-hander, you’ve got to be pretty nimble on the bike to make the acute right turn onto Warwoman. It’s worth the technically challenging maneuver to experience the wonderful mix of twisties, rolling hills and gentle bends along the road to Clayton, Georgia.
Plenty of restaurants, shops and gas stations make Clayton a perfect stop while exploring the southern edges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I decide to make a clockwise loop of the Tallulah River valley, namely to stop at one of my favorite places.
They say the roar from Tallulah Falls could be heard from miles away before progress put a hydroelectric dam on the river in 1913. The series of waterfalls drops 490 feet in a just a mile through the scenic gorge, accessible from Tallulah Gorge State Park off U.S. 23. The park offers visitors a chance to hike down into the 1,000-foot-deep canyon where the now-tamed river makes a graceful cascade down the rocky riverbed. Only the first 100 people a day are granted free permits to explore the deeper trails. A few days each year, Georgia Power releases the water from the dams, giving visitors a show when the torrent increases to 20 times the river’s normal flow.
The Interpretive Center on the canyon’s north rim showcases the rich history of the gorge. Jessica James, the assistant park manager at Tallulah Gorge State Park, greets visitors eager to explore the natural wonder.
“We offer a little bit of everything for everybody,” she said. “We’ve got a strenuous hike to the gorge floor, which you have to have a permit for that. We have easy hikes for folks. Hiking on the North Rim Trail, you see the waterfalls. We have the Shortline Trail across the street. It’s a nice three-mile trail on an old railroad bed. We’ve got the swimming beach for people to swim and picnic.”
Hikers can check in at the center for permits. They are first come, first serve to the first 100 people with seasonal restrictions. “The reason why we limit it is for natural resource management reasons and for visitor safety,” she said.
On the canyon’s opposite rim sits a roadside stop full of vintage charm. Tallulah Point Overlook first opened in 1912 on the original route of U.S. 441. For more than 100 years, it has offered travelers the perfect spot to gaze down into the gorge. Inside, the wooden floors sound a nostalgic note as visitors peruse the abundant toys and souvenirs like the ones that so tantalized them on long-ago childhood vacations. The covered porch overlooking the chasm makes the perfect spot to enjoy a cold orange Nehi in a glass bottle and snack on a Moon Pie.
Mary Beth Hughes, the proprietor of Tallulah Point Overlook for more than 24 years, greets customers with a friendly and welcoming smile as they enter the long, narrow store and dig into the roll-top drink coolers from a lost era.
“This building was built in the early 1900s. It was the area’s first gas station in 1923. It was always the place to stop to see the gorge,” Hughes said. “I’ve got some great old pictures showing it when it was a dirt road.”
Before the damming of the river in 1913, the Tallulah River’s rage created a roar heard for miles and tossed up towering clouds of water vapor. Today, six dams help supply Atlanta with power and turn the once angry river to a series of serene mountain lakes.
“The turn of the century, Tallulah Falls was a thriving tourist town. It rivaled Niagara Falls,” Hughes said. “The train came up here, actually the railroad bed is right behind here. It brought people from Savannah and the coast. They came up here on the train and could get away from the heat. The town has an amazing amount of history that you don’t really get when you just drive by.”
Hughes is a motorcyclist, herself. She often cruises north Georgia’s curves on her 2010 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob or her ’86 Softtail Custom. “I taught myself how to ride five years ago. I borrowed a friend’s Yamaha TW 200,” she said. “I think because I ride, it makes me be more conscious of what it is motorcyclists need and what they are looking for. I appreciate them stopping. We’ve been known to give them towels to wipe off their bikes. It’s just a friendly place.”
Tallulah Point Overlook, open year-round, stocks motorcycle-themed shirts and gifts, as well as maps of popular roads. Hughes is happy to offer up some of her favorite routes. “You can get to so many places from here. I’m mean there are just so many amazing rides. Ride up the backroad to Helen. Ride around the lakes. Ride over to Richard Russell Scenic Highway or Wolfpen Gap. It’s just all right here. I truly believe that this is some of the best riding around.”
Indeed, the parking lot of Tallulah Point Overlook frequently fills with bikes as riders make the detour off four-lane U.S. 23/441 to pause along the shady, scenic loop road. They check out the view or stop at Hillbilly’s Hot Nuts, a small shack serving up boiled peanuts, barbecue sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers.
“It’s a great stop because you can use the restroom, you can get something to drink,” Hughes said. “I’ve got all kinds of fun little merchandise that’s directed at bikers. This is just a great place to hang out here on porch. The nice flat, huge paved parking lot makes it a nice place for bikers to stop and stretch your legs. And if it’s raining, we’ve got a big cover out there, so there’s a good place to seek shelter.”
In the summer of 1970, 65-year-old Karl Wallenda of “The Flying Wallendas” walked a high wire across the gorge from what is now the state park to the Tallulah Point Overlook and back. Eight years later, he would die in a 10-story fall while attempting a high-wire walk in Puerto Rico. Wallenda wasn’t the first man to accomplish the feat. Historians say a tightrope walker named J.A. St. John, known professionally as Professor Leon, crossed the gorge on a hemp rope in the 1880s as a publicity stunt for a Tallulah Falls hotel.
With my gorge-viewing completed, I follow the Tallulah River upstream via Lake Rabun Road, Seed Lake Road and Burton Dam Road along the series of lakes created by the hydroelectric dams. Each lake grows larger as you navigate upstream along the quiet lakeside streets. Lake Burton, the largest of the reservoirs, covers 2,775 acres with 62 miles of shoreline. A century ago, the once-thriving town of Burton occupied this scenic valley. A 128-foot concrete dam blocked the river in 1919, creating the shimmering deep-blue lake in this picturesque corner of north Georgia. On the western shore of Lake Burton sits LaPrade’s Marina, an inviting restaurant, bar, gift shop and dock.
The marina on Georgia Route 197 first opened in 1925. A new lodge-style building with a spacious deck on the waterfront makes for a great place to stop while riding the scenic route from Lake Burton to Helen. A large concrete area for motorcycle parking is just steps away from a good meal, a great view and a cold beer. Patio tables by the quiet lake are served from a quaint outdoor bar nestled into the back of the building.
“We do have two restaurants,” said Katie Brotherton, the marina manager at LaPrade’s. “The lower restaurant, Hog Wild, is a barbecue restaurant with burgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs. Upstairs, that’s the Chophouse. Lunch is casual. Dinner can be more upscale casual. For lunch upstairs, they do salads, sandwiches, appetizers, but for dinner they do steaks. You can get prime rib, surf-and-turf.”
For those wishing to trade tarmac for water, LaPrade’s Marina also rents boats by the day, half-day or week as well as providing boat storage. The restaurants and marina close for the winter in November and reopen in April. Just north of LaPrade’s Marina, Moccasin Creek State Park offers visitors a scenic place to enjoy camping, fishing or hiking.
“I think people come for the lake and the environment. It’s a beautiful lake. It’s cleaner than a lot of the lakes around here. The environment is more pristine,” Brotherton said.
At the top of the lake, Georgia Route 197 meets U.S. 76, which makes up the southern half of the Southern Highroads Trail, a scenic loop crossing the ancestral lands of the Cherokee in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee. I pause at the intersection with only the sound of my V-twin burbling patiently. I’d like to head west to explore more of north Georgia’s beautiful lakes — Lake Chatuge, Lake Nottely, Lake Blue Ridge — but the setting sun in my eyes reminds me I’m 100 miles from home with daylight fading and rain clouds brewing. Just as well. One always needs an excuse to one day pack up the motorcycle and head for distant, shining waters.