[Updated March 20, 2022]
Widely known as “Georgia’s Alpine Village,” Helen is a former mining town nestled near the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains range.
The tiny Georgia mountain town (population: 582) resurrected itself in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a quaint re-creation of a traditional Bavarian village, providing a taste of the Alps in the foothills of the Appalachians.
Set along the beautiful banks of the Chattahoochee River, the town attracts outdoor enthusiasts with its river tubing, horseback riding, canoeing, fishing, hiking, and other activities.
But arguably the biggest sport in Downtown Helen is shopping, with more than 200 import and specialty shops selling everything from German food (you can’t swing a stick without hitting a schnitzel or wurst) and cuckoo clocks to homemade candles, fudge, and Southern-style arts and crafts.
Autumn is the busiest time of the year here, with their immensely popular Oktoberfest festival lasting from mid-September through the end of October. But there are lots of great activities and attractions in Helen to explore all year round.
Best Things to Do in Helen GA Guide
- Adventures in Unicoi State Park
- Catch Sunrise/Sunset at the Nacoochee Mound
- Marvel at Horsetrough Falls
- Celebrate Oktoberfest
- Climb Yonah Mountain
- Drive the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway
- Explore Downtown Helen
- Trek to Raven Cliff Falls
- Get Cultured at the Sautee Nacoochee Center
- Guided Tours at Hardman Farm State Historic Site
- Hike to Dukes Creek Falls
- Picnic at Helton Creek Falls
- Ride the Georgia Mountain Coaster
- Sample Helen Restaurants
- See Anna Ruby Falls
- Tubing in Helen
- Hike to DeSoto Falls
Shop at the Old Sautee Store
- Celebrate Christmas in Helen GA
- Swim at Water’s Creek Falls (a.k.a. Dick’s Creek Falls)
- Shop at Betty’s Country Store
- Play at Alpine Mini Golf
- Wine Tastings at Habersham Winery
- Visit the Nora Mill Granary
- Visit Babyland General
READ MORE: The 15 Best Fall Fairs in Georgia
1. Adventures in Unicoi State Park
With a history that dates back to the 1930s (nearly 40 years before “Alpine Helen” became a thing in 1969), Unicoi is one of the most beloved state parks in Georgia.
Located in the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest, Unicoi grew out of the 278-acre White County Area State Park, which opened in 1954.
It really took off in the ’60s, after they dammed Smith Creek to create Unicoi Lake and launched the “Unicoi Outdoor Recreation Experiment Station” to attract more visitors to explore Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Today, there are tons of things to do in Unicoi State Park, including fishing, kayaking, and swimming in the lake; target practice on their rifle and archery range; the Unicoi Zipline & Aerial Adventure; and hiking trails such as the Unicoi Lake Loop and the rugged Smith Creek Trail to/from Anna Ruby Falls.
There are also plenty of accommodation options to suit every budget, from the 100 hotel-style guest rooms of the Unicoi State Park Lodge and 30 Unicoi cabin rentals to nearly 100 tent and RV campsites.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Rental Cabins in Helen GA
2. Watch Sunrise/Sunset at the Nacoochee Mound
One of the most iconic Indian mounds in Georgia, the Nacoochee Mound is located on the banks of the Chattahoochee River right at the intersection of GA State Routes 17 and 75 near Helen.
This ancient site predates the Cherokee people (who, according to many historians, never lived there at all). It was first occupied during the Woodland period (circa 100 to 500 AD), but was more extensively developed from 1350 to 1600 by people of the South Appalachian Mississippian Culture.
Excavations of the property in 1915 by the Smithsonian uncovered 75 human burials from this era.
After the archaeological dig was done, former Georgia governor Lamartine Hardman had a reconstruction built of the late 19th-century gazebo that was installed on top of the platform mound. It now sites in a cow pasture directly opposite the Hardman Farm State Historic Site.
Part of the Sautee Valley Historic District, the Nacoochee Mound was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
Although the mound and pasture (which is actively used for grazing cattle) remain off-limits to visitors, there’s a roadside parking area that offers perfect places to watch the picturesque sunrise/sunset on the mound.
3. Marvel at Horsetrough Falls
Located about 14 miles from Downtown Helen, with a trailhead at the Upper Chattahoochee River Campground, Horsetrough Falls is one of the few waterfalls near Helen where there’s a fairly good chance you may have the trail to yourself.
This lesser-known waterfall lies at the end of a rugged, rocky 5-mile forest service road, which is best navigated with a 4X4 vehicle (or by someone familiar with driving on uneven, pothole-riddled terrain).
Also note that the Upper Chattahoochee River Campground has been closed for several years now due to storm damage.
So you’ll need to park outside the gate and hike the road leading through the overgrown area to reach the trailhead, which adds maybe a half-mile to the hike each way.
Regardless, it’s worth the effort. The pristine forest is lush and gorgeous, lined with wildflowers in spring/summer and even more glorious once the fall colors begin to pop. It’s one of the most beautiful Georgia waterfalls we’ve ever seen.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Waterfalls Near Helen GA
4. Celebrate the Helen GA Oktoberfest
Since it was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, Helen Oktoberfest 2021 will mark the event’s 50th year (the longest-running celebration of the cultural festival in the US).
Hosted by the Helen Chamber of Commerce, this year’s Oktoberfest at the Helen Festhalle will begin on September 9 and run through November 7. Check out their website for the full schedule of events.
This is the ultimate annual celebration of Helen’s Alpine inspiration, filled with oom-pah bands, boot-sized beers, bratwurst, Lederhosen, and lots of comely lasses in Dirndls.
The venue offers rows of long tables where visitors can eat, drink, and be merry as they listen to German-style bands. Or, if you’re so inspired, you can grab a partner and hit the dance floor for your Polka pleasure.
Admission is $8 Monday through Friday, $10 on Saturdays, and free on Sundays. Kids ages 5 and under are free every day, while ages 6 to 12 are half-price.
READ MORE: The 20 Best Fall Festivals in North Georgia
5. Climb Yonah Mountain
Universally ranked among the best hiking trails in North Georgia, the Yonah Mountain trail is epic in every sense.
Located between Helen and Cleveland and named after the Cherokee word for bear, Yonah rises some 3,166 feet above the rolling hills of White County.
The iconic summit is the site of an old Native American legend about a Cherokee maiden named Nacoochee who fell in love with a Chickasaw warrior, Sautee. Their love was forbidden by tribal elders, and Nacoochee leapt to her death after a Cherokee war party tossed Sautee off the mountain.
Today, the 2.3-mile trek to the top is one of North Georgia’s most popular hiking trails, with steep drop-offs and a moderately challenging climb to the summit rewarded with exceptional panoramic views.
If you choose to tackle this trail, we urge you to exercise caution, wear sturdy hiking shoes with good traction, and avoid the temptation to approach the edge of the cliffs.
The granite peak can get very slippery after a rain, and several hikers have died here in recent years.
6. Drive the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway
Though North Georgia doesn’t offer any epic winding roads to rival the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway offers a stunningly picturesque mountain route on a much smaller scale.
The highway (a.k.a. Hwy 348) stretches 23 miles from Helen to Blairsville GA. But it’s easy to extend the drive by heading further north to Young Harris and Hiawassee, or simply following the larger Russell-Brasstown National Scenic Byway loop (40.6 miles total).
For my money, there are enough cool things to do along the Richard B. Russell stretch to make a full day of it.
You can start the morning fishing or hiking at Smithgall Woods State Park, then head north on Hwy 348 for fairly easy hikes at Dukes Creek Falls (2 miles round-trip) and Helton Creek Falls (0.3 miles). You could also explore the 5.8-mile Raven Cliff Falls trail, but I’ve never found the views there to provide enough ROI for my tastes.
If jaw-dropping scenic vistas is more your speed, don’t miss the three roadside scenic overlooks along Hwy 348.
All of them are worth a gander, but our favorite by far is Hogpen Gap, which is located along the Appalachian Trail and is a great place to soak in an amazing sunset!
7. Explore Downtown Helen
Like a lot of native Georgians, I have a love/hate relationship with Downtown Helen.
My inner child adores the colorful Alpine village-style buildings, the Bavarian-meets-Appalachian hospitality, the unabashedly touristy attractions, and the Chattahoochee River that runs through the heart of it all.
The grownup in me loathes the crowds, the traffic, the difficulty in finding parking, and the generally overwhelming “mass tourism” vibe that results from cramming some 3 million visitors into a tiny 2.11-square-mile town.
In our experience, the best way to explore Downtown Helen is to go early in the morning or late afternoon/early evening, when the streets aren’t quite so jam-packed.
Or visit during the week in the off-season, rather than the weekends or peak seasons of summer and autumn.
When you have a bit more elbow room, it’s easier to relax and enjoy Helen’s eclectic mixture of gift shops, fudge shops, shops selling Christmas décor all year round, rustic country stores, and restaurants overlooking the river.
8. Trek to Raven Cliff Falls
It’s located just 6 miles from downtown Helen along the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway, with Dukes Creek Falls and Helton Creek Falls nearby.
The picturesque path through the Chattahoochee National Forest is surrounded by towering hardwood trees, verdant moss, and creeks lined with wildflowers in all sorts of different colors.
Starting out at a gravel trailhead, the trail meanders upstream beside Dodd Creek before crossing a wooden bridge and continuing through the forest (and gaining 400 feet of elevation along the way).
You’ll come across a few other streams and smaller cascades before you reach the 40-foot Raven Cliff Falls, where the water tumbles over large boulders and into a serene pool at the bottom.
9. Get Cultured at the Sautee Nacoochee Center
Sautee Nacoochee is considered the cultural heart of Helen GA, and the Sautee Nacoochee Center is at the unincorporated community’s epicenter.
A staple of the community for nearly 40 years now, the SNC is one of the strongest community arts organizations in North Georgia.
The Center is also home to the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia (an exquisite collection of a local art form formally recognized by the Library of Congress) and the SNC History Museum (which focuses on the Sautee and Nacoochee valleys).
Call ahead to request a tour of their African American Heritage Site, which features a historic cabin built by a local farmer in 1850 for enslaved Africans who worked his plantation.
10. Guided Tours at Hardman Farm Historic Site
Although the Sautee Nacoochee Indian Mound may be the most iconic landmark of this historic site, the gorgeous home of former Georgia Governor Lamartine Hardman is worthy of a visit in its own right.
Lovingly preserved and donated to the state of Georgia in 1999, the Hardman Farm Historic Site offers guided tours of the house (which was built in 1870 by Captain James Nichols) every Thursday through Saturday, with the first tour departing at 10AM and the last tour leaving at 3PM.
The tour begins on the picturesque tree-lined road leading from the Visitor Center to the Italianate mansion. This road was part of the Unicoi Turnpike, which once stretched 200 miles from Toccoa GA to western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
Moving into the house, highlights of the tour include the posh 19th century parlor, a bedroom belong to Anna Ruby Nichols (for whom Anna Ruby Falls is named), innovative telephone and climate control systems, and period antiques.
Outside you can explore the kitchen, a massive barn that was once home to the Nacoochee Dairy, a spring house, and a barn featuring several 19th century carriages.
11. Hike to Dukes Creek Falls
Dukes Creek was one of the first famous GA waterfalls, because gold was found along the 8.76-mile creek in 1828. That discovery, plus one in neighboring Lumpkin County, led to the Georgia Gold Rush of 1829.
But gold isn’t the only reason for Dukes Creek Falls‘ enduring popularity. There’s also the extremely well-maintained trail, which is 2 miles round-trip. The first 1/10-mile is wheelchair-accessible, leading to a viewing platform.
The rest descends along three sharp switchbacks through a sensational section of the Chattahoochee National Forest dotted with majestic mountain peaks.
And then there’s the waterfall itself, which is technically two waterfalls that converge. Davis Creek tumbles over a ledge and drops 150 feet into Dukes Creek, which has its own 15 to 20-foot cascade.
There are also 3 viewing platforms (not to mention a swimming hole) at the bottom for soaking it all in before making the moderately strenuous climb back out the way you came in.
READ MORE: The 25 Best Fall Activities in Georgia
12. Picnic at Helton Creek Falls
Commonly ranked among the best North Georgia Waterfalls, Helton Creek Falls offers maximum ROI in terms of sheer natural beauty in exchange for minimal time and energy.
The hardest part of getting to Helton Creek Falls is the drive in via a rugged, pothole-laden gravel road, which requires a creek crossing. This can be a little tricky after heavy rains, but we made it in our Hyundai Elantra just fine.
Once you reach the parking lot (which we recommend doing EARLY on a weekend), the 0.6-mile round trip trail is wide and well-maintained. The forest here is stunning, especially when Georgia’s Fall colors are popping.
You’ll reach the staircase down to Helton Creek’s lower falls at about 0.2 miles. Its smooth rock slide reminded us of Sliding Rock (one of the most famous North Carolina waterfalls), with a tranquil pool at its base.
The upper falls is just a few hundred feet ahead, with a nice little observation deck offering a great view and large rocks all around the base.
So get there early to beat the crowds, bring a picnic, and enjoy one of the the most spectacular waterfalls in Georgia!
13. Ride the Georgia Mountain Coaster
One of the newer Helen attractions, the Georgia Mountain Coaster (a.k.a. the Helen Mountain Coaster) opened on Main Street in the heart of downtown in 2019.
It’s different from traditional roller coasters in that only one or two people can ride at a time (max weight 330-375 pounds, depending on weather conditions), and the driver controls the speed via a hand brake on the side.
The alpine coaster’s max speed is only 25 mph, which may not seem like much compared to theme park coasters. But because the track is designed for mountain terrain, the twisting turns can leave you feeling shake, rattle, and rolled after multiple rides.
Each ride takes about 4 minutes. And though it does cost $15 per adult, $12 per child 7-12, $6 per child 3-6, the second ride is half price.
Mary was a bit trepidatious in the beginning, but after her first “full throttle” run she decided the Mountain Coaster was one of her favorite things to do in Helen!
14. Sample Helen Restaurants
For traditional German fare, check out Bodensee Restaurant, which is owned by Chef Aurel Prodan and his wife Doina (who worked in Bavarian restaurants for decades).
We also love Hofbrauhaus, which offers an excellent outdoor patio overlooking the river and flies traditional German pretzels in from Munich weekly.
For a more casual meal, there are the German-inspired dishes and killer views at Cafe International and the extensive assortment of craft beers and burgers at the ever-popular Bigg Daddys.
Great breakfasts can be found at Hofer’s of Helen (baked goods and deli sandwiches), while Yonah Coffee and Betty’s Country Store offer some of the best biscuits in town.
For fine dining in Helen, don’t miss Bernie’s Restaurant at the Nacoochee Valley Guest House. Led by a mother-daughter team, the kitchen at this cozy mountain inn churns out impeccable chef-inspired dishes and superbly crafted cocktails. If you’re looking for a special night out, this is the place!
15. See Anna Ruby Falls
Though it’s owned and operated by the U.S. Forest Service, this top-notch Helen waterfall is located within the boundaries of Unicoi State Park.
With its twin cascades, Anna Ruby Falls is arguably one of the most attractive waterfalls in Georgia.
It originates atop Tray Mountain (GA’s 6th highest peak), and is the point of convergence for Curtis Creek (which drops 153 feet on the left) and York Creek (which drops 50 feet on the right).
At the base of the falls they come together to form Smith Creek, which flows into Unicoi Lake.
You have two options for hiking to Anna Ruby Falls: The rugged 8-mile round-trip Smith Creek Trail from Unicoi (which is lined with wildflowers in spring), or the more popular 0.8-mile paved trail from the Visitor Center.
There’s also the wheelchair-accessible Lion’s Eye Nature Trail, a short loop trail near the Visitor Center that offers interpretive signs (including Braille for the vision-impaired), touch boxes, and benches to sit on.
READ MORE: How to Get to Anna Ruby Falls in Helen, GA
16. Tubing in Helen
“Shooting the Hooch” (a.k.a. floating down the Chattahoochee) has been a popular pastime in North GA since I was a kid, nearly 20 years before country star Alan Jackson made the river famous.
But tubing in Helen is a different beast altogether. The chilly mountain waters offer a refreshing break from Georgia’s hot summer temps, not to mention a unique perspective on downtown Helen as you float right through the heart of it.
There are two main companies who offer tubing tours. Cool River Tubing (known for their bright green floats) boasts a Main Street location as well as their Chattahoochee and Headwaters Outposts. They also have a shuttle service to take you back to your car after your 1- or 2-hour float trip is finished.
Helen Tubing & Waterpark (which has bright pink floats) similarly offers Chattahoochee tubing trips that last 2 to 2.5 hours. But they also have a waterpark with a lazy river, 4 waterslides, a rock wall, changing rooms, showers, and more.
Note that river tubing in Helen is not without danger. People have gotten their feet stuck in rocks and had to be rescued.
We highly recommend wearing water shoes, bringing or buying a push stick, and bringing a leash to attach any young children’s tubes to yours.
17. Hike to DeSoto Falls
Located just a few miles east of the Blood Mountain Wilderness, DeSoto Falls is named for famed Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, because armor from his expedition to Georgia in the 1500s was reportedly found there.
There are technically five different waterfalls here, but only three of them– the 100-foot Upper, the 80-foot Middle, and the 20-foot Lower DeSoto Falls– are accessible to visitors.
The hike begins at the DeSoto Falls Recreation Area parking lot and follows a paved path to a wooden bridge across Frogtown Creek. You’ll get your first sight of the lower falls soon thereafter, reaching a wooden viewing platform at around 1/4-mile.
If you keep going along the well-maintained path, you’ll cross another wooden bridge before you reach the magnificent cascades of Middle DeSoto Falls.
There’s a viewing platform where you can stop for a rest, picnic, or just savor the beauty of the nearly 80-foot falls. The round-trip hike will be approximately 2.2 miles, or 3 miles if you continue to the Upper Falls.
18. Shop at the Old Sautee Store
Opened as a general store back in 1872, the shop’s front room looks much like it might have 100 years ago, with vintage products, signs, and kid-friendly coin-operated machines everywhere you turn.
From there it heads back into a more modern store, with everything from old-fashioned candies and sodas to boutique-style clothing, souvenirs, and more.
Right next door, The Market at The Old Sautee Store is one of the area’s most popular eateries, offering fresh-made sandwiches, baked goods, coffee, ice cream, and Scandinavian-style Farmer Cheese.
There are only a few seats inside, but there are several tables on the shaded patio, and their food makes for a great picnic lunch if you’re hitting up the hiking trails near Helen.
19. Celebrate Christmas in Helen
For a unique holiday celebration with a heaping dose of Bavarian flair, it’s pretty hard to beat Christmas in Helen GA.
The oddly endearing mountain town has served as the picturesque setting for Lifetime Christmas movies such as 2019’s Christmas Love Letter and 2020’s A Taste of Christmas.
Last year the North Georgia Christmas events were scaled back considerably due to the need for social distancing. But the Alpine Helen/White County CVB suggests that this year’s holiday celebration will be as grand as ever.
The 2021 festivities will kick off with the arrival of Santa & Mrs. Claus to Riverside Park for the annual Lighting of the Village on Nov 26, which will include live music, photos with Santa, Christmas trees, and more.
There’s also a Christkindlmarkt on Nov 27-28 and Dec 4-5. And the Helen Christmas Parade on Dec 11 will feature costumed characters, festive floats and, of course, Santa Claus himself spreading some holiday cheer.
20. Swim at Water’s Creek Falls (a.k.a. Dick’s Creek Falls)
Its name is a matter of debate. The US Forest Service, Google Maps, and AllTrails (our go-to app for hiking trails) refer to it as Water’s Creek Falls, despite the fact that it’s located on Dick’s Creek.
The White County Chamber of Commerce and City of Dahlonega call it Dick’s Creek Falls, despite the fact that there’s a waterfall of that name in Clayton, just 50 miles to the east.
Regardless of what you call it, this is one of our favorite waterfalls near Helen for swimming, with two waterfalls located less than 50 yards from the parking lot.
This is a very popular North Georgia swimming hole, so it can get quite crowded on weekends in summer. Go early on weekends, or anytime on weekdays, if you want to avoid the crowds.
21. Shop at Betty’s Country Store
Established back in 1973 by Betty and Georgie Fain, Betty’s is an old-time country store located in the heart of Downtown Helen.
It’s an unabashedly nostalgic throwback to simpler times. There’s a courtyard filled with shaded benches and rocking chairs, a checkerboard on a barrel, a vintage Coca-Cola machine, and a candy shop filled with beloved classics.
If you’re looking for a hearty breakfast or lunch in Helen, their deli’s biscuits, sandwiches, and side dishes (including fruit salad, potato salad, and slaw) are perfect for picking up before you head out to hike Mount Yonah or some of the other great local trails.
Check out their daily sandwich specials, which run $5.99 to $6.99 and include a cookie and a pickle.
22. Play at Alpine Mini Golf
From tubing and ziplining to chasing waterfalls and riding rollercoasters, there are lots of fun things to do in Helen GA with kids.
Playing mini golf is another perennial favorite. And while Alpine Mini Golf is one of three mini golf courses in Helen, it’s our favorite thanks to its Swiss theme, gorgeous landscaping, and the fact that it is pet-friendly.
We also love their ice cream shop, Scoop De Scoop, which 20+ flavors of Mayfield Ice Cream as well as floats, shakes, and specialty sundaes.
The 18-hole course is open daily from March to November (10AM-10 PM), and on weekends in December, January, and February as weather permits. The course is especially lovely when covered in Christmas lights for the holidays.
Call ahead (706-878-3328) before visiting to make sure they’re open during winter months.
23. Wine Tastings at Habersham Winery
Opened in 1983, the family-owned winery boasts two different vineyards. The original Stonepile Vineyard in Clarkesville GA boasts 30 acres of grapes on a picturesque farm. The 5-acre Mossy Creek Vineyard just south of Cleveland GA was added in the late ’80s.
Their tasting room is open Monday to Saturday from 11AM to 5PM, and Sunday from 12:30 to 5PM, offering a 5-wine tasting flight for $12.
Check out their Habersham and Creekstone labels, which include varietal vinifera wines as well as blended wines using vinifera and French-American grapes. And if you like sweet wines, you’ll love their Southern Harvest label, which is made using the distinctly Southern Muscadine grape.
READ MORE: 8 Great Wineries in Dahlonega GA
24. Visit the Nora Mill Granary
Established in 1876, the Nora Mill Granary is a historic (and still operational) grist mill and country store nestled alongside the Chattahoochee River near the heart of Downtown Helen.
The Mill still uses their original 1,500 pound French Burr Stones to grind an array of different corn– and wheat-based products, including legendarily tasty grits, cornmeal, pancake & waffle mixes, flours, biscuit & bread mixes, and more.
You can shop for all of this and more at their classic country store and gift shop, “Nora Mill Next Door.”
The store includes an old-fashioned kitchen where they cook up fresh samples of their delicious products, and also has some interesting info about the history of the mill.
Out back you’ll find gorgeous views of the Chattahoochee River, and a lovely little overlook of the waterfall created by the Nora Mill log dam.
25. Visit BabyLand General Hospital
Back in the ’80s, Cabbage Patch Kids were one of the hottest toys in America, breaking toy industry sales records for 3 years in a row. At one point, there was a 9-month waiting list for dolls that cost up to $150!
Though the hoopla surrounding the dolls (whose design Xavier Roberts reportedly stole from Kentucky-based soft sculpture folk artist Martha Nelson Thomas) eventually died down, BabyLand General Hospital is still a popular tourist attraction for fans young and old today.
Opened in 2009, the expansive Cleveland GA attraction is billed as the birthplace of Cabbage Patch Kids, laid out like a hospital (with employees dressed like nurses) where visitors can “adopt” a premium doll of their own.
There’s a display near the entrance that details the history of the “Little People” (as they were originally known), then a nursery-like setting filled with tiny “Preemies.” All of the dolls are still hand-stitched by local artists.
The centerpiece of the place is an open room with a massive “Magic Crystal Tree” at the back. This is where the “Mother Cabbage” gives birth to an Original Cabbage Patch Kid.
Yes, it’s all just as bizarre as it sounds, but it’s also one of the most fascinating spectacles in an area that truly thrives on them. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted