[Updated April 19, 2022]
As the metro Atlanta population continues to grow and expand, more and more people are heading for the wide open vistas of the North Georgia mountains. And it’s not difficult to understand why.
With lots of charming towns surrounded by scenic summits and the wilderness of the Chattahoochee National Forest (with its array of hiking trails and waterfalls), the mountains of Georgia are a nature lover’s paradise.
Located at the confluence where the Ellijay and Cartecay rivers come together to form the Coosawattee River, Ellijay GA is one of the increasingly popular small towns in North Georgia.
With Blue Ridge GA 15 miles to the northeast, the 37,000-acre Cohutta Wilderness 30 miles to the northwest, and the I-285 perimeter just 65 miles south, the town of Ellijay is perfectly positioned to take advantage of all the natural beauty North Georgia has to offer.
Downtown Ellijay is surrounded by the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
But the town’s lower elevation (1,280 feet) makes the weather in Ellijay great for agriculture, with loads of apple orchards, pumpkin patches, and wineries in the area.
Ellijay GA Map
Best Things to Do in Ellijay GA Guide
- Apple Picking at B.J. Reece Orchards
- Day Trip to Amicalola Falls State Park
- Explore Downtown Ellijay
- Family Fun on the Farm at Hillcrest Orchards
- Harvest Celebration at the Georgia Apple Festival
- Hike the CCC Fire Tower Combination Loop at Fort Mountain State Park
- Hike the Gahuti Mountain Trail
- Picnic at Harrison Park
- Sample the Best Ellijay Restaurants
- See the Cascades of Tumbling Waters
- Shop at Panorama Orchards & Farm Market
- Spend a Day at Carter’s Lake
- Tackle the Trails at Talking Rock Nature Preserve
- Visit the Gilmer County Historical Society’s Tabor House Museum
- Wine Tastings at Engelheim Vineyards
1. Apple Picking at B.J. Reece Orchards
Gilmer County is widely known as “the Apple Capital of Georgia.” So it probably comes as no surprise that most locals will recommend apple picking if you ask them what do in Ellijay.
Apple picking in Ellijay is best from early September through the end of October, right as the peak fall colors begin to emerge in North Georgia.
And while there are many great apple orchards in Ellijay to choose from, the family-owned B.J. Reece Orchards ranks among the perennial favorites.
The farm encompasses 120 acres and features 30 different kinds of apples, from classics like Cameo, Fuji, Gala, and Red Delicious to lesser-known varieties like Candy Crisp, Mutsu, Shizuka, and Winecrisp.
They typically offer u-pick apples starting around Labor Day, but their market offers bagged apples, apple cider donuts, “World Famous” fried pies, and other tantalizing treats throughout the year.
Visiting Reece Orchards is also one of the most popular things to do in Ellijay for other reasons, including activities such as a petting farm, cow milking demonstrations, and old-fashioned wagon rides.
2. Day Trip to Amicalola Falls State Park
Located 20 miles southeast of downtown Ellijay in Dawsonville GA, the 829-acre Amicalola Falls State Park is home to the tallest waterfall in Georgia (729 feet).
It’s also home to Georgia’s Appalachian Trail approach, which leads 8.5 miles from the park to the beginning of the AT on Springer Mountain.
Their Appalachian Trail Kick-Off Weekend attracts hundreds of thru-hikers, naturalists, and vendors every year on the first weekend in March.
Casual trekkers who aren’t interested in the 2,190-mile trek to Maine will find lots of more sensible hiking trails at Amicalola, including the 1-mile Mountain Laurel Loop, the 0.6-mile Creek Trail from the Visitor Center to the reflection pool at the base of the falls, and the wheelchair-accessible 0.3-mile West Ridge Falls Access Trail.
But the most popular hike is the 1-mail Base of the Falls Trail, which climbs to a remarkable view of Amicalola Falls via a series of stairs and observation decks.
It’s rated moderate to strenuous due to the steep slope, but it’s an absolute must if you want to see one of the state of Georgia‘s 7 natural wonders up close.
3. Explore Downtown Ellijay
Ellijay is the anglicized form of the Cherokee name Elatseyi (meaning “new ground” or “green place”), and the area was likely inhabited by indigenous people dating back to the Mississippian culture.
The city of Ellijay was incorporated and designated as the Gilmer County seat in 1834, but remained fairly isolated until the Marietta and Northern Georgia Railroad came to town in 1884.
To get the lay of the land today, head to the Welcome Center across from the courthouse on the square in Downtown Ellijay.
Ask for Joe, the information guru who turned us onto all of the best hiking trails and scenic overlooks in the area.
The town square is home to many of Ellijay’s best restaurants. It’s also where you’ll find Ellijay shopping hotspots such as Mountain Treasures (gift shop), Live the Trail (modern general store), Artful Ellijay (home goods), numerous antique stores, and much more.
Note that the Ellijay square gets extremely busy and congested with traffic on weekends and at lunchtime on weekdays, especially in peak tourist season.
We recommend going early in the day if you want a parking spot, or when you’re not in any particular rush.
4. Family Fun on the Farm at Hillcrest Orchards
Now in its 75th year of operation, this family-owned farm is run by Janice and Lynn Hale along with their daughter, Kristin, and grandson Jackson.
Widely considered one of the best u-pick apple orchards in Georgia, Hillcrest Orchards also offers an array of other fun, family-friendly activities, from corn mazes, cow milking, and a petting farm to pig races and wagon rides.
Their apple season begins September 1, with a u-pick orchard that includes Rome Beauty, Golden Delicious, Mutsu, Granny Smith, Goldrush, Arkansas Black, and Yates apples.
The Hillcrest market also offers other types of apples (including Pink Lady, Fuji, Cameo, and Jonagold), as well as honey, jams, jellies, and delicious fresh-baked apple pies, cider doughnuts, and apple fritters.
Pre-registered tours of the farm also are available on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
5. Harvest Celebration at the Georgia Apple Festival
Between leaf-peepers hoping to catch the vivid fall colors and partiers heading to Oktoberfest in Helen, October is the peak season for visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia.
Held over two weekends every October, the Georgia Apple Festival is easily the most popular of the annual events in Ellijay, attracting thousands of people to the Ellijay Lions Club Fairgrounds.
Celebrating its 51st year in 2021, the Apple Festival in Ellijay features more than 300 vendors selling an array of food (including apples, naturally), drinks, and Appalachian-influenced arts and crafts.
Some even offer on-site demos of how their traditional crafts are made.
Other festival attractions include the ever-popular parade, antique show, and children’s activities (such as a climbing wall).
Note that parking at the fairgrounds is limited, but there’s a free shuttle service. You can find a map of shuttle bus routes and parking areas on the Georgia Apple Festival website.
6. Hike the CCC Fire Tower Combo Loop at Fort Mountain State Park
But even if you can’t stay overnight, Fort Mountain makes an excellent day trip for some of the best hiking near Ellijay GA.
In fact, the #1 thing to do at Fort Mountain State Park is to explore its 25+ miles of hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking trails.
If you can only do one, the CCC Fire Tower Combination Loop is our favorite!
It’s listed as a mile, but you can easily extend it to around 2 miles. From the parking lot, take the trail on the right, going past the “Stone Tower Trail” sign and continuing east on the Stone Wall Trail.
This takes you on a rarely-traveled path around the Fort Mountain summit, with incredible views and massive boulders.
It eventually connects to the West Overlook Trail, leading to an incredible overlook of the surrounding landscape. Retrace your steps and you’ll see signs leading to the 4-story CCC Stone Tower, which was built back in the 1930s.
Head back down the mountain from there to see the stone wall and CCC-built steps.
7. Hike the Gahuti Mountain Trail
The longest of the hiking trails at Fort Mountain State Park, the Gahuti Mountain Trail is a moderate to strenuous 8-mile trek around the edge of the park.
The vast scenic landscapes provided by the Cool Springs Overlook and various other scenic viewpoints along the trail are excellent at any time of year, but especially so when the area’s fall colors peak.
The trail offers a good bit of boulders and elevation changes as it meanders through deep valleys, eventually crossing Goldmine Branch Creek and descending alongside its small, multi-tiered waterfalls.
You could easily extend this hike by making a 2-mile detour to explore the Stone Wall, Overlook & Tower Trails. If you’re interested in an overnight hike, there are 4 backcountry campsites that are available by permit only.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Cabin Rentals in Ellijay GA
8. Picnic at Harrison Park
Located a short walking distance from downtown Ellijay, the 26-acre Harrison Park is situated along a lovely stretch of the Ellijay River.
The historic Pinson Barn is evidence of the property’s past as farmland.
But Friends of Harrison Park, the City of Ellijay, and the A. E. Harrison Foundation have created a 10-year master plan to make this a hub for local community gatherings.
The dog-friendly park currently features paved walking and running trails, riverside benches and picnic tables, and lots of open green space for events such as live music, the Scarecrow Invasion, and the Sasquatch Strut Fun Run.
After the success of a recent fundraiser, future plans include building permanent stages for concerts, movies, and festivals, as well as improving the park’s infrastructure.
In the meantime, it’s a great place for an afternoon picnic, sitting in the shade of massive old growth trees with the gentle-flowing river just a few steps away.
9. Sample the Best Ellijay Restaurants
Ellijay restaurants run the gamut from laid-back and casual to upscale foodie fare, with prices to suit every budget. But most of the places we’ve dined have been surprisingly affordable.
Our picks for the best restaurants in Ellijay GA include the inspired Asian fusion of The Shack of Ellijay, the sensational soups and sandwiches at Cantaberry Restaurant, and the Back Porch Bistro, and the intensely flavorful artisan pies at Ellijay Wood Fired Pizza.
If you visit Downtown Ellijay, make sure to save room for desserts from the Bavarian Chocolatier.
The owner, Michael Ferst, is from Bavarian Germany, and crafts exceptional homemade chocolate truffles, fudge (try the chocolate gingerbread!), dark chocolate peanut butter cups, buckeyes, pralines, and more.
READ MORE: The 13 Best Restaurants in Blue Ridge GA
10. See the Cascades of Tumbling Waters
Another one of our favorite places for hiking near Ellijay, the Tumbling Waters Trail begins at the Ridgeway Recreation Area at Carters Lake.
From the well-marked trailhead at the parking lot (which also features a public boat ramp), the trail descends into a gorgeous forest that features colorful North GA wildflowers in the Spring and gleams with vivid red, orange, and yellow leaves in Autumn.
The easy hiking trail is just over a mile, but there are several scenic stops along the way, including an overlook and a 150-foot long bridge that crosses over Tails Creek.
The bridge leads to a perfect spot for seeing the beautiful cascades for which the trail is named up close. Calling it a waterfall would be overly generous, as the water never drops more than a few feet.
Still, it’s a lovely little hike, not to mention a great place for an afternoon picnic with friends and family.
11. Shop at Panorama Orchards & Farm Market
With origins dating back to the 1920s (and formerly known as Blue Ridge Mountain Orchards), this Ellijay mainstay became Panorama Orchards after farmer Joel Stembridge formed a partnership with his son Gene in 1965.
Today they grow 20+ different varieties of apples, including early season varietals like Ginger Gold, Detroid Red, Gala, and September Wonder, and late season offerings such as Cameo, Granny Smith, Mutsu, and Stayman Winesap.
They also grow a variety of other fruits (including strawberries and Georgia peaches) and vegetables, including an excellent array of pumpkins for carving and seasonal decor.
Located right off Hwy 515 in Ellijay, the Panorama Farm Market makes a great stop on any North Georgia road trip.
They have everything from homemade fried pies and fudge to apple cider, baked apple pies and breads, and myriad jams and jellies. All are made from scratch in the market kitchens, using fresh fruit from the orchard!
12. Spend a Day at Carter’s Lake
Located 12 miles from downtown Ellijay, the 3200-acre Carters Lake is a man-made reservoir fed by the Coosawattee River. It’s the deepest lake in Georgia (max depth 450 feet), formed by the tallest earthen dam east of the Mississippi.
Arguably among the best lakes in the North Georgia Mountains, Carters Lake boasts 62 miles of shoreline with no houses or commercial development. But there are 7 Carters Lake campgrounds offering myriad recreational activities.
Fishing, boating, water skiing, kayaking, and swimming (which is limited to the public beach area) are all popular pastimes in summer and early autumn.
But hiking and mountain biking the area’s trails are popular all year round.
Some of our favorite Carters Lake hiking trails include the lakeside Amahady Trail (3.6 miles), the kid-friendly Big Acorn Trail (0.6 miles), the scenic Oak Ridge Nature Trail (1.5 miles), and the tranquil Hidden Pond Songbird Trail (1 mile).
13. Tackle the Trails at Talking Rock Nature Reserve
Created in 2012 by the Southeastern Trust for Parks & Land, the Talking Rock Nature Reserve protects 220 acres of land located 12 miles south of downtown Ellijay.
The preserve features over 10 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. Cyclists will love the 3-mile green trail loop, known as Jon’s Trail, which is smooth and flows well, with gentle, gradual climbs and descents.
The Pickens and Grinning trails are considered the prettiest for hiking, taking you through a lovely forest that’s dotted with lots of colorful wildflowers in spring and early summer.
There are lots of conservation projects at the preserve as, including environmental enhancements geared towards supporting pollinators and birds (such as bat and butterfly houses, native tree and shrub installations, apiaries, and more).
The STPAL has also been awarded grant funding to build 2 chimney swift towers and 4 environmental educational kiosks at the preserve in the near future.
14. Visit the Gilmer County Historical Society’s Tabor House Museum
Run by the Gilmer County Historical Society, the Tabor House Museum is located in an 1870s Victorian-era reconstruction period home in the heart of historic Downtown Ellijay.
Gilmer County was the location of the Lower Towns of the Cherokee Nation of Georgia up until the Treaty of New Echota led to Indian removal via the Trail of Tears in 1838.
The Tabor House (the oldest family home in the city of Ellijay) is now home to a museum of the area’s history, featuring artifacts dating from the Cherokee Indians and the early Appalachian pioneers to the Civil War and World War II.
From arrowheads and examples of Cherokee clothing to Union and Confederate rifles, Victorian period antiques, and a room filled with military helmets and flight suits, it’s a fascinating place for anyone interested in the history of Ellijay GA.
15. Wine Tastings at Engelheim Vineyards
The climate and geology of Georgia’s Blue Ridge region provides the perfect conditions for growing grapes and producing wine.
But Georgia wineries didn’t start gaining national acclaim until fairly recently.
Ellijay is home to some of the best wineries in North Georgia, many of which offer tasting rooms where visitors can sample the fruit of their vineyards while surrounded by breathtaking mountain views.
Launched by the Engel family in 2009, Engelheim Vineyards is one of the most popular wineries in Ellijay, winning accolades such as 2018 Georgia Winery of the Year and the Best Georgia Wine in 2020 and 2021.
Their award winning North Georgia wines include the Petite Manseng, a 100% Estate grown white wine with tangy notes of honey and melon, and the Red Blend Doxology, which mixes Petite Verdot, Syrah, and Zinfandel grapes.
Tastings are available 7 days a week from 12:30 pm to 6 pm, with live music on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
They offer a 4-wine flight board for $12, and you can taste their port-style dessert wines for an additional $3 each. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted