Chances are the city of Summerville GA probably isn’t on your list of must-see Blue Ridge mountain towns.
Located 24 miles north of Rome, just 10 miles east of the Alabama border, the town has a population of around 4,200 people, which marks a 17% decline over the last 30 years.
It doesn’t have the name recognition of bustling tourist hotspots like Helen or Blue Ridge GA, the bounty of outdoor attractions you’ll find in and around Clayton, or the rich history of a town like Dahlonega. There aren’t even any 4-star hotels in Summerville.
So why should you visit one of the lesser-traveled cities in Northwest Georgia? I’ll give you two good reasons– space and personality.
Being off-the-beaten-path of tourism, the outdoor attractions in the Summerville area draw far fewer crowds than you often see in other parts of the North Georgia mountains.
And in a town most famous for being the home of the eclectic, eccentric Folk Art icon Howard Finster, is it any surprise that you’re likely to meet interesting characters at just about every restaurant and park you visit?
If you’re looking for a chance to get away from the crowds, explore the great outdoors, and experience genuine Southern hospitality without any pretense or artifice, Summerville has a lot to offer.
Read on for our guide to the 10 Best Things to Do in Summerville GA, from exploring the downtown area and its myriad historical sites to state parks, city parks, and Finster’s famous Paradise Garden.
Best Things To Do in Summerville GA Guide
- Explore the Howard Finster Paradise Garden
- Wander Around Downtown Summerville’s Commerce St
- See the Historic Summerville Train Depot & Train Turntable
- Visit the Historic Couey House
- Go For a Walk in J.R. “Dick” Dowdy Park
- Have a Picnic at Willow Springs Park
- Hike the Marble Mine Trail in James H Floyd State Park
- View the Folk Art Collection at Folk America
- Cast a Line at the Rocky Mountain Public Recreation & Fishing Area
- Spend a Day at Cloudland Canyon State Park
Explore the Howard Finster Paradise Garden
One of America’s most famous folk artists, the Rev Howard Finster started preaching at age 16 and eventually began publishing songs and poems as a means to reach his flock. It wasn’t until 1976– when he was 60– that he began painting “sacred art” to illustrate his one-of-a-kind religious visions.
His began building his ever-evolving Paradise Garden on the land behind his Summerville home in the 1960s. He “took the pieces you threw away and put them together by night and day,” using recycled parts from his TV repair, bike repair, and other businesses to create monuments to human invention and a “Memorial to God.”
Bands such as R.E.M. (who shot the video for “Radio Free Europe” at Paradise Garden) and Talking Heads tapped Finster to design their album covers in the early ’80s. But the banjo-playing, yodeling preacher had a larger-than-life personality that quickly made him a celebrity in his own right.
By the time he died in 2001 at the age of 85, Finster had completed more than 35,000 paintings. His singular artistic vision had earned him a place in the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the American Folk Art Museum, and countless other museums and galleries around the world.
The Paradise Garden Foundation continues to preserve and protect Finster’s remarkable masterpiece today. With 22 art structures, buildings, sculptures, and murals, the 2.5-acre Garden is the #1 must-see attraction in Summerville. Check out our min-review of their AirBnB below to find out how you can explore it at night!
Wander Around Downtown Summerville’s Commerce Street
The seat of Chattooga County, Summerville’s history dates back to 1839. The town (which was known as Selma until 1840) originally consisted of 90 acres of land purchased from settler John F. Beavers for $1,800.
There are a number of historic sites in Downtown Summerville, the most prominent of which is the 1909 Neo-Classical Courthouse building. It’s on Commerce St/US 27, which was part of the original Trail of Tears route in Georgia after the signing of the New Echota Treaty in nearby Calhoun.
The neighboring building, which is currently home to Thatcher’s BBQ & Grill, was built in 1896 and originally housed the Arrington Drug Company. Both of these buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (as is the train depot, which we’ll discuss below).
This area is also home to several other beloved Summerville restaurants, including Jefferson’s (upscale bar food with a focus on chicken wings, oysters, and burgers), Los Maguey Mexican Restaurant, the Vineyard Vegetarian Cafe, and the Great Awakening Coffee Company.
Though entertainment options in Summerville are limited, this is also where you’ll find the Tooga Theater, the Appalachian Axe Challenge, and the forthcoming Chattooga County Museum & Historical Society.
See the Historic Summerville Train Depot & Turntable
Just around the corner on E Washington St, you’ll find the Historic Summerville Train Depot & Turntable.
Built by the Central of Georgia Railroad in 1918, the town’s third train station (the first, which burned down, dated back to 1889) was the center of life in the city until the 1950s.
The building was purchased by the Chattooga County Historical Society in 1988, restored with help from the Georgia Dept of Transportation, and is now decorated with early 20th century photos of Summerville.
From April through September, the depot still receives monthly Tennessee Valley Railroad Trains from Chattanooga. October brings “Steam Into Summerville Railroad Days” festivals, which draw locals and tourists alike every weekend through mid-November.
That’s a great time to see Summerville’s railroad turntable (one of the only working turntables in the Southeast) in action, as it helps the trains reverse course before making their way back to Tennessee.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Blue Ridge GA
Visit the Historic Couey House
Located right beside the train turntable, the Couey House is yet another historical attraction in the heart of downtown Summerville GA.
This traditional log home, made from 4′ x 14″ square logs using half-dovetail notches, was built in the early 1840s for the family of settlers Andrew and Fereby Couey.
One of the earliest pioneer homes in Chattooga County, the home was originally located on a 400-acre farm in Dirt Town Valley (about 7 miles away).
The historic cabin was nearly destroyed when US 27 was expanded in 1995. But the Georgia DOT stepped in to relocate the Couey House to its current location at the north end of Dowdy Park.
The home has since been completely restored to its former glory, and stands as a great example of 19th and early 20th century Appalachian architecture.
READ MORE: Reviews of Blue Ridge Mountain Cabin Rentals
Go For a Walk in J.R. “Dick” Dowdy Park
The Couey House and the Summerville Railroad Turntable are just two of the many features that make J.R. “Dick” Dowdy Park one of the best places to visit in Downtown Summerville.
Set alongside Town Creek (which feeds into the Chattooga River), Dowdy offers all the amenities you want from a community park– picnic tables, gazebos, walking track, playground, etc.
But it also has unique elements such as a train trestle over the creek, a statue in honor of victims of child abuse, and an extensive Veteran’s Memorial Park paying tribute to the men and women of America’s armed forces.
The gurgling creek makes this a great place for an afternoon picnic, and there are walking paths connecting Dowdy Park to Willow Springs Park and the historic Downtown Summerville area.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Clayton GA
Have a Picnic at Willow Springs Park
Located at the corner of Commerce and First St, Willow Springs Park is considerably smaller than Dowdy Park, with significantly fewer visitors.
This is the former site John S. Cleghorn’s home, which burned in the 1960s. His wife, Octavia, sought to beautify downtown Summerville by planting willow trees along what was then known as Big Spring.
This naturally occurring water source originates underground and flows to the surface of what was once the Cleghorns’ private park, feeding the small creek that runs through it.
After the house burned, the downtown area was developed and the trees removed, which became a sort spot for longtime locals. But in 1998 the Chattooga County Historical Society and Chattooga Garden Club began working to restore the now-public park to its former glory.
Though the park is small, the willow trees and picnic pavilion offer great shade from the afternoon sun. There are also tucked-away benches for quiet contemplation and open areas for kids to play.
Hike the Marble Mine Trail in James H Floyd State Park
Named a Georgia’s House Representative who served from 1953 to 1974, the 561-acre James H Floyd State Park is located just 3 miles from Downtown Summerville.
Surrounded by the Chatthoochee National Forest, the park offers excellent fishing on 2 small lakes, 4 picnic shelters, 4 cottages, 24 tent & RV campsites, 4 backcountry campsites, and a pioneer campground.
It also boasts 5 miles of hiking trails, the best of which is the Marble Mine Trail. This 1.7-mile, easy to moderate trail rises up into the hills from one of the lakeside trails, passing abandoned mining buildings along the way.
The payoff at the end is a lovely waterfall that trickles over a rocky outcrop and the entrance to an old marble mine. It’s really a stunning setting, with wildflowers all around and a creek running alongside the trail.
Those seeking a longer, more challenging hike can continue uphill, where it connects with the 330-mile Pinhoti Trail, or take the strenuous Jenkins Gap Trail to get killer views from atop Taylor Ridge.
View the Folk Art Collection at the Folk America Gallery
Although Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden is home to the #1 Folk Art collection in North Georgia, it’s not the only one you’ll find in Summerville.
Located on Hwy 27 about two miles north of downtown, the Folk America Gallery is an impressive private collection of 1,500+ works by more than 50 artists (mostly from the South).
Finster, whose visionary work inspired the owners to start collecting “outsider art” in the early ’80s, is well represented here.
But so are lesser-known folk artists such as Georgia Blizzard, Reverend B.F. Perkins, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Mose Tolliver, and Purvis Young.
At the time of our visit, the gallery was available for viewings by appointment only. Call 706-857-8095 or email [email protected] for more information.
Cast a Line at the Rocky Mountain Public Recreation & Fishing Area
It’s pretty remarkable that a town with less than 5,000 inhabitants has not just one, but two state parks nearby.
Located about halfway between Summerville and Rome GA, the Rocky Mountain Public Recreation & Fishing Area offers 559 acres of unspoiled wilderness.
This includes two lakes that are renowned for excellent fishing, Antioch Lake and Heath Lake. The latter is only open to anglers the 1st to 10th of each month, but both lakes offer a good chance to catch largemouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish, redear sunfish, crappie, and walleye.
The Rocky Mountain PFA also offers archery hunting opportunities for deer, turkey and small game, as well as waterfowl hunting with firearms on Antioch Lake and Heath Lake. Check their site for full Hunting Regulations, or call 706-802-5087 for more information.
Other attractions of the park include a public beach, bike trails, boat ramps, tent & RV campsites, primitive camping, picnic shelters (by reservation), and numerous different hiking trails.
Spend a Day at Cloudland Canyon State Park
Although it’s a good 40-minute drive from Summerville, a day trip to this 3,538-acre park is an absolute must if you can’t make time to spend a weekend in one of the Cloudland Canyon State Park cabins or yurts.
The park’s centerpiece is of course the massive canyon itself, which is 1,000 feet deep and surrounded by lush wilderness, stunning mountain scenery, and wildlife such as black bear and white-tailed deer.
Activities in Cloudland Canyon including 30 miles of biking trails (bike rentals are available), 16 miles of horseback riding trails, a fishing pond, and an 18-hole disc golf course.
There are also a whopping 64 miles of gorgeous hiking trails here.
Some of the most popular Cloudland Canyon hikes include the one-mile Overlook trail, the two-mile Waterfalls Trail (which leads to both Cherokee and Hemlock Falls), and the six-mile Sitton’s Gulch Trail, which is scattered with beautiful wildflowers in late March and early April.
SUMMERVILLE GA RENTAL CABINS
James H Floyd State Park Cabins
One of our favorite GA State Park cabin rentals, the cottages at James H Floyd State Park offer ample room and excellent overviews of the Upper Lake.
There are four 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom log cabins available, each of which features amenities such as a full kitchen, fireplace, AC/heat, TV, front and back covered porches with rocking chairs, and more.
There’s also an outdoor area with a picnic table, fire pit, and BBQ grill.
Note that one of the cottages is ADA accessible, while all are pet-friendly. Visit the GA State Parks reservations page for more info.
Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden Duplex
The best part of our visit to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden was staying in the pet-friendly duplex owned by the Paradise Garden Foundation, which can be rented via AirBnB.
We stayed in Suite #1, which features a full-size kitchen, living room, a king-sized bedroom, and a small bathroom with a shower (but no tub).
It’s decorated with loads of charming folk art, both by Finster and other outsider artists, and includes a quiet porch (shared with Suite #2) that offers stunning views of the Garden across the street.
But the highlight of our stay was getting 24-hour access to Paradise Garden, which is illuminated after dark.
Exploring Finster’s otherworldly visions at night, as his passionate voice eerily echoed from a TV in the hall of his covered “Rolling Chair Ramp,” is arguably my favorite memory of our time in Summerville. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett