Widely known as “Georgia’s Alpine Village,” Helen is a former mining town nestled at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The tiny 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 schnitzel or wurst) and cuckoo clocks to homemade candles, fudge, and Southern-style crafts.
Autumn is the busiest time of the year here, with their immensely popular Oktoberfest celebration lasting from mid-September through October. But there are lots of great activities to explore all year round.
Read on for our guide to the best things to do in Helen GA, including all the best Helen restaurants, hiking trails, waterfalls, and other popular tourist attractions.
Best Things to Do in Helen GA Guide
- Adventures in Unicoi State Park
- Catch Sunrise/Sunset at the Nacoochee Mound
- Celebrate Oktoberfest
- Climb Yonah Mountain
- Drive the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway
- Explore Downtown Helen
- 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 Alpine Mountain Coaster
- Sample Helen Restaurants
- See Anna Ruby Falls
- Tubing in Helen
- Visit Babyland General
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 state park cabin rentals to nearly 100 tent and RV campsites.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Rental Cabins in Helen GA
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 is a roadside parking area that provides a perfect place to watch the picturesque sunrise/sunset on the mound.
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 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 Best North Georgia Christmas Events
Climb Yonah Mountain
Universally ranked among the best hiking trails in North Georgia, the Yonah Mountain trail is epic in every possible sense of the word.
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 the most popular hiking trails in Georgia, 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.
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 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!
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.
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.
They offer an excellent array of classes, workshops, galleries, concerts, theatrical productions, festivals, and other events representing just about every performance and visual art you can imagine.
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 restored cabin built by a local farmer in 1850 for enslaved Africans who worked his plantation.
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 loads of period antiques throughout.
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.
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: How to Get to Dukes Creek Falls in Helen GA
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 from the Richard B Russell Scenic Hwy, which is on a rugged, pothole-laden gravel road and requires a creek crossing.
This can be a little tricky after heavy rains, but we made it in our little 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!
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!
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, delicious takeout sandwiches at the Old Sautee Store, and the extensive craft beer and burger menus of 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!
READ MORE: The Best Restaurants in Blue Ridge GA
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
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 its dangers. People have gotten their feet stuck in rocks in the river and had to be rescued.
We highly recommend wearing water shoes, bringing or buying a push stick, and bringing or buying a leash to attach any young children’s tubes to yours.
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