Blue Ridge, Dahlonega, Ellijay, and Helen have all earned accolades among the most beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain towns in GA.
But after our recent trip to the city of Clayton, Georgia– my first since the mid 1990s– we believe this gem of Northeast Georgia also deserves a place near the top of that list.
The extensive list of terrific things to do in Clayton, GA was much more than we could tackle during our week-long visit to this burgeoning Rabun County hotspot.
For starters, there are 3 state parks near Clayton– Black Rock Mountain, Moccasin Creek, and Tallulah Gorge are all within 15 miles. There are also 3 lakes, including Black Rock Lake, Lake Burton, and Lake Rabun.
Add to that dozens of stunning waterfalls, hundreds of hiking trails, many of the tallest mountains in the state, and countless streams brimming with trout, and this part of Northeast GA clearly emerges as a nature-lover’s paradise.
But downtown Clayton also offers an array of trendy shops, wonderful farm to table restaurants, and picture postcard-worthy views of the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround the charming town. There are also plenty of hotels and cabin rentals nearby.
So here’s a guide to our favorite Clayton activities and attractions, from hiking trails and waterfalls to majestic mountains and family-friendly roadside attractions.
Best Clayton, GA Hotels & Cabin Rentals
Mountain Aire Cottages & Inn – Excellent location and quiet.
White Birch Inn – Get the celebrity treatment with world-class service.
Kingwood Country Club & Resort – Peaceful with beautiful scenery.
Pet-Friendly Cozy Cabin with Views By Black Rock – Entire vacation home • 2 bedrooms • 1 living room • 3 bathrooms • 1464 ft²
Heaven’s Rest Vacation Home – Entire vacation home • 4 bedrooms • 3 bathrooms • 2896 ft² • 6 beds (1 full, 1 king, 1 sofa bed, 3 queens)
Best Things to Do in Clayton GA Guide
- Angel Falls & Panther Falls
- Bartram Trail
- Black Rock Mountain State Park
- Downtown Clayton
- Farm to Table Restaurants in Clayton
- Foxfire Museum
- Goats on the Roof
- Hemlock Falls
- Lake Burton
- Minnehaha Falls
- Moccasin Creek State Park
- Rabun Bald
- Tallulah Gorge State Park
- Warwoman Dell Recreation Area
- Whitewater Rafting the Chattooga River
Angel Falls & Panther Falls (Lake Rabun)
When it came to planning things to do near Clayton, hiking trails with waterfalls were right at the top of our list.
The town is surrounded by gorgeous North Georgia waterfalls, and this pair in the Lake Rabun Beach Recreation Area were two of our favorites.
It’s a fairly moderate, dog-friendly, 1.75-mile round-trip hike through a beautiful creek valley. And when we visited around 10AM on a weekday in early October, we were among just a small handful of people there.
Following Joe Creek .6-miles through a forest filled with rhododendron and old growth hardwoods, you’ll reach the impressive Panther Falls first. But while Angel Falls requires a more arduous climb through a series of switchbacks, we found it well worth the effort.
Bartram Trail to Becky Branch Falls
Another of the many waterfalls near Clayton GA, Becky Branch Falls is accessible via a .3-mile hike along the Bartram Trail.
The trail is named for 18th-century naturalist William Bartram, one of the first Europeans to explore what is now the Rabun County area.
The 115.4 mile trail (which stretches into North Carolina) can be accessed via the Warwoman Dell Recreation Area parking lot. But it’s not well-marked, so just look for the first trail on the right as you enter the parking area.
The trail is steeper and more difficult than other North Georgia waterfall hikes we’ve done, but fortunately the trek to Becky Branch Falls is very short. We found it so rewarding, we plan to go back and do it again when the Fall colors come in.
Hardy hikers may want to continue on to Martin Creek Falls, which adds another 3.5 miles to the trek. But, with our elderly dog in tow, we were unwilling to deal with the steeper inclines and downed trees on that rugged portion of the trail.
READ MORE: How to Get to Anna Ruby Falls Near Helen GA
Black Rock Mountain State Park
Black Rock isn’t the tallest mountain in Rabun County, GA (that’s Rabun Bald, at 4,696 ft). But at 3,640 feet, it is the highest of all the state parks in Georgia.
It offers exceptional scenic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround it, as well as the town of Clayton below.
Positioned on the Eastern Continental Divide, the park offers an incredible array of activities and attractions. The Black Rock and Blue Ridge Overlooks are great places to catch the sunrise, while the Nantahala and Tennessee Rock Overlooks offer amazing sunset views.
There are 11 miles of hiking trails, ranging from the easy Black Rock Lake and Norma Campbell Cove Trails to the more difficult– but splendid– James E. Edmond (backcountry) and Tennessee Rock Trails.
There’s also loads of options for fishing, swimming and paddling 17-acre Black Rock Lake, 60 campsites, 10 cottages, a playground, and more.
Surrounded by mountains, Clayton, Georgia ranks right alongside Blue Ridge among our favorite North GA towns. And downtown Clayton is its bustling heart.
The town was founded in 1821 and named for prominent local Judge Augustin S. Clayton, who went on to serve as a US Representative from Georgia from 1831–1835. It’s located right where two major Cherokee Trails (now U.S. 23/441 and U.S. 76) historically intersected.
Though downtown Clayton may be bursting with small town charm, it offers a surprising array of upscale shops. From Cage-Free Boutique and Dogwoods Home to the Main Street Gallery and Wander North Georgia, you’ll find a wealth of shopping options within a few blocks.
This is also where you’ll find the best restaurants (more on that below), and some of the best Clayton, GA hotels are less than a mile away. We recommend Mountain Aire Cottages & Inn, the White Birch Inn, and the Kingwood Country Club & Resort.
READ MORE: The Best Things to Do in Blue Ridge, GA
Farm to Table Food
When the official state tourism website refers to the city of Clayton, GA as the “Farm to Table Capital of Georgia,” foodies like us are bound to arrive with heightened expectations.
Fortunately, the Clayton restaurants we sampled (all of which offered takeout for those, like us, who are serious about social distancing) did not disappoint.
Our favorite was Fortify Kitchen & Bar, which offers an innovative twist on New American cuisine. Like their Fortify Pi pizza joint next door, it was also surprisingly affordable– around $60 for two entrees with sides and a shared dessert.
Other noteworthy restaurants in Clayton included Universal Joint, which offers the best burgers in town, and perennial local favorite breakfast/lunch spot The Clayton Cafe.
Foxfire Museum & Heritage Center
If you have any interest whatsoever in how Appalachian history has shaped the culture of the North Georgia mountains, a visit to the Foxfire Museum & Heritage Center is simply a must.
Located near the entrance to Black Rock Mountain State Park, the Appalachian Heritage attraction dates back to 1966. That’s when students at Northeast Georgia’s Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School created a magazine about the traditions of southern Appalachia.
Named after a local glow-in-the-dark fungus, the magazine evolved into a popular series of Foxfire books. The living history museum, built in 1974, currently features 20 different historic buildings and countless artifacts from the region’s pioneer era (1820s to 1940s).
From classic Blue Ridge cabins and a blacksmith shop to a brand new tribute to the Cherokee Indians that once called this part of Northeast GA home, Foxfire is an essential attraction for anyone interested in the history of Appalachian culture and mountain living.
Goats On the Roof
From the artful Schoolbus Graveyard in Alto to the unusual Expedition Bigfoot Museum in Cherry Log, we love exploring the array of roadside attractions in Georgia.
Although this one is more quirky than truly bizarre, Goats On the Roof in Tiger (3.1 miles from Clayton) is great family fun, and conveniently located on US-23 S/US-441 South.
True to its name, the attraction literally features live goats on the roof. But an inventive array or ramps and tunnels also allows them to descend into a feeding/petting pen on the ground or the roof above the ice cream shop and gem-panning section.
There’s lots of great selfie spots, swings, a playground, and a souvenir shop where you can buy goat food to feed by hand. Just watch out for the unbearably adorable Nubian Dwarf Goats, or you may be tempted to get one for yourself!
Topping our list of favorite waterfalls in Northeast Georgia, Hemlock Falls offers gorgeous cascades, lush forests, and around 200 feet of elevation gain over the course of a stunningly scenic 1-mile hike.
Located just across the street from Moccasin Creek State Park in Clarksville, it’s a very popular place to hike. So you’ll definitely want to arrive before 10AM if you want to avoid the crowds on weekends.
But the 1.9-mile, dog-friendly Hemlock Falls Trail proved to be one of the most beautiful North Georgia waterfall hiking trails we’ve ever trekked.
Though it’s only 15 feet high, the waterfall’s whitewater is stunning as it cascades over the rocky ledge into a placid pool below. Framed by rhododendron and big boulders, Hemlock Falls is an incredible place for a morning hike and/or a picnic lunch.
We started the Blue Ridge Mountains Travel Guide partly because, as we travel through the higher elevations of North Georgia, North Carolina, and beyond, we’re looking for our future dream home.
As nature lovers, the three essential elements that draw us to the Blue Ridge region are picturesque mountains, lakes/waterfalls, and lush forest wilderness.
Lake Burton, which is located just 10 miles from Downtown Clayton, offers all three in EPIC fashion. Celebrating its centennial in 2020, the 2,775-acre mountain lake is renowned for the remarkable clarity of its water and the biodiversity surroundings.
Boating and fishing are especially popular here. The Burton Trout Hatchery raises trout with which they stock the lake and local streams. Bass (spotted, largemouth, and white), bluegill, white catfish, walleye, and yellow perch are often caught on the lake as well.
Another gorgeous waterfall that feeds into Lake Rabun, Minnehaha Falls is an easy waterfall hike that makes virtually every list of the best North GA waterfalls.
One of Minnehaha’s strongest selling points is its distance: At just .4 miles round-trip, it’s arguably the easiest waterfall hike in Rabun County.
But the waterfall’s accessibility is far surpassed by its extraordinary aesthetic beauty.
Standing 60 feet tall, the falls widen as they cascade down the tiered stone terraces in 3- to 5-foot drops. The steep cove is surrounded by rhododendron, with massive rocks strewn around the pool at its base.
There is a steep, often muddy trail that goes to the top of the falls, but it’s not recommended. And the view from the bottom is truly unsurpassed in Northeast Georgia!
Moccasin Creek State Park
Located around 14 miles west of Clayton on the shores of Lake Burton, 32-acre Moccasin Creek State Park is the smallest state park in Georgia.
The park started out in 1963 as a basic campground, after Fulton Lovell (who was the the Director of the Georgia Game & Fish Commission at the time) purchased a picturesque 32-acre parcel of land in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
The campground was originally run by the Lake Burton Fish Hatchery, but quickly became so popular that it was turned into a state park just 3 years later. It’s easy to see why: With its flat ground, excellent fishing, and stunning scenery, the park is a relatively uncrowded gem.
In addition to the usual watersports (boating, kayaking, SUPing), there are also 53 campsites for tents and RVs, a picnic shelter (named in Lovell’s honor), a hiking trail to a wildlife observation tower, and the Hemlock Falls Trail just down the street.
Located nearly 30 minutes from Clayton, close to the NC border, Rabun Bald deserves to be on this list because it offers jaw-dropping views atop one of the tallest mountains in Georgia.
At 4,695 feet, Rabun Bald is second only to Brasstown Bald in terms of height, and the 3-mile hike to the summit offers spectacular scenery that’s worth every ounce of energy you’ll expend to reach it.
The dog-friendly hike climbs through a dense forest of old growth hardwoods, ferns, rhododendron, and wildflowers, eventually connecting with the Bartram Trail. A series of switchbacks make the climb a bit easier, but you’ll definitely feel it in the legs.
But the strain will fase away once you reach the Rabun Bald summit. There, the observation platform offers 360º views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with Black Rock on one side and NC’s Standing Indian Mountain on the other.
Tallulah Gorge State Park
Widely considered among the most spectacular canyons in the eastern United States, Tallulah Gorge was carved 1000-foot deep by the mighty Tallulah River.
The centerpiece of the 2,689-acre park is Tallulah Falls, a series of six waterfalls that drop more than 500 feet over the course of one mile. Though the flow is limited much of the year, water releases in April and November offer excellent kayaking and rafting opportunities.
The park includes 20 miles of hiking trails, including the 3-mile North and South Rim Trails, which offer numerous excellent overviews of Tallulah Gorge. There’s also a series of stairs down to a suspension bridge 80 feet high, which gets you closer to the stunning scenery.
Unfortunately the Gorge Floor Trail to the bottom (which requires a permit) has been closed for a while due to COVID concerns, but we’ll update this entry accordingly once it reopens.
Warwoman Dell Recreation Area
Managed by the US Forest Service, the Warwoman Dell Recreation Area is located in a wooded valley near the heart of downtown Clayton.
Although there are disputes regarding the specific person for whom “Warwoman” was named, folklore suggests it was a Cherokee woman named Nancy Ward who advocated for indigenous rights and sat on the Council that determined the fate of captives.
Numerous hiking trails wind through this part of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, including the Bartram Trail and a short trail to an unnamed Warwoman Dell waterfall.
But our favorite was the nature trail, which follows the path of the ill-fated Blue Ridge Railroad. The North Carolina line would have gone through Rabun County, but the projct was abandoned with the outbreak of the Civil War.
Whitewater Rafting the Chattooga River
Whitewater Rafting the Chattooga River with Southeastern Expeditions was actually my first experience in Clayton, Georgia, back in the mid-1990s.
The Chattooga– one of America’s National Wild & Scenic Rivers– became famous in the early 1970s thanks to the Burt Reynolds/Jon Voight film Deliverance. Southeastern Expeditions opened its doors in 1972, after buying rafting gear used in the film from Warner Bros.
Today the Clayton-based company offers 3 Chattooga white water rafting tours. Beginners should start with the 6-hour Section III trip, which includes Class II-IV rapids. More experienced paddlers will love the thrilling 7-hour Section IV trip, with Class III-V rapids.
To extend your adventure, they also offer an overnight Chattooga Rafting/Camping Experience. This includes a day of Class II-IV rafting, dinner of steak or fresh-caught trout, and camping under the stars in South Carolina’s beautiful Sumter National Forest. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted