[Updated May 17, 2022]
Back in 1828 (21 years before the famed California gold rush), thousands of prospectors descended upon the town of Dahlonega, Georgia in search of their fortune.
Located in the heart of North Georgia’s Cherokee Indian territory, Dahlonega grew like wildfire in the wake of this frenzied mining activity.
A U.S. Branch Mint opened in Dahlonega in 1838, coining more than $6 million in gold before ultimately closing after the boom went bust in 1861.
Panning for gold is still a popular pastime for families today. But the Blue Ridge mountain town has become just as well-known for its excellent shopping, restaurants, and Appalachian-style arts and crafts.
The city also plays host to major festivals, including the Bear On the Square Mountain Festival in April and Gold Rush Days in October.
Dahlonega’s Old Fashioned Christmas celebration ranks among the state’s most popular, and makes for a great day trip from Atlanta.
Read on for our guide to the best things to do in Dahlonega GA, including attractions such as the Dahlonega Gold Museum, Consolidated Gold Mine, the historic Holly Theater, and more!
READ MORE: The 20 Best Places to Live in the Georgia Mountains
The Best Things to Do in Dahlonega GA Guide
- Celebrate an Old Fashioned Dahlonega Christmas
- Day-Hike the Appalachian Trail
- Dine at the Best Dahlonega Restaurants
- Experience the Gold Rush Days Fall Festival
- Explore Downtown Dahlonega
- Fishing & Hiking at Lake Zwerner/Yahoola Creek Reservoir
- Go Behind Bars at the 1884 Lumpkin County Jail & Museum
- Hike to Cane Creek Falls
- Horseback Riding at Forrest Hills Resort
- Live Music at the Bear On The Square Mountain Festival
- Pan for Gold at the Consolidated Gold Mine
- Picnic at Water’s Creek/Dick’s Creek Falls
- Play at Hancock Park
- See a Show (or Movie) at the Historic Holly Theater
- See the Chestatee River Diving Bell
- Stay (& Dine) at the Historic Smith House
- Take a Downtown Dahlonega Carriage Ride
- Talk to the Animals at Chestatee Wildlife Preserve
- Visit the Dahlonega Gold Museum
- Wine Tastings at Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery
READ MORE: The 20 Best Places to Celebrate Christmas in Georgia
1. Celebrate an Old Fashioned Dahlonega Christmas
When it comes to the best Christmas towns in Georgia to visit, Dahlonega’s Old Fashioned Christmas celebration ranks right alongside Christmas in Helen among our personal favorites.
The holiday festivities begin the day after Thanksgiving, with the annual lighting of the tree next to the Downtown Dahlonega Visitor Center.
The restaurants, shops, and streets of the town’s historic Public Square (which is centered around a courthouse that dates back to 1836) are completely covered in colorful Christmas lights and holiday decorations.
Santa is available to pose for free photos with kids and families every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and there are horse-drawn carriage rides available ($10 for adults, $5 for kids) on select dates.
Other opportunities to celebrate Christmas in Dahlonega include the Festival of Trees in Hancock Park, the Dahlonega Christmas Market on Thanksgiving weekend, and the Dahlonega Christmas Parade in mid-December.
READ MORE: The Best North Georgia Christmas Events
2. Day-Hike the Appalachian Trail to Preacher’s Rock
Hiking 2,190+ miles in the Appalachian Mountains from North Georgia to Maine is an unrealistic goal for all but the most hardy and free-spirited of trekkers.
But it’s easy to get a taste of the world-renowned Appalachian Trail by visiting the Woody Gap Trailhead, which is located about 14 miles north of downtown Dahlonega near Suches.
The Woody Gap Overlook offers stunning views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, plus a relatively easy 1.9-mile trail to the breathtaking scenery you’ll find at Preachers Rock.
This popular spot is located near the summit of Big Cedar Mountain, and on clear days you may even be able to see the gorgeous Dockery Lake down in the valley below.
After the hike, you can have a picturesque picnic at one of Woody Gap’s 6 picnic areas, and there’s also a vault toilet available for visitor use.
READ MORE: The Best Day-Hikes on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia
3. Dine at the Best Dahlonega Restaurants
Much like North Georgia mountain towns such as Blue Ridge, Clayton, and Ellijay, the Dahlonega restaurant scene has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last decade.
And while our favorite restaurant in Dahlonega, Montaluce Winery & Restaurant, is located on the outskirts of town, most of the best places to eat in Dahlonega are right on the Public Square.
We had an excellent dinner at The Bourbon Street Grille, which offers 2 levels and outdoor patio dining and a menu that includes New Orleans classics such as Gumbo, Po Boys, and Shrimp & Crawfish Etoufée.
We also loved The Crimson Moon, which offers delicious gastropub fare, a full bar, and live music in the second oldest commercial building in downtown Dahlonega.
Other great Dahlonega restaurants include The Picnic Cafe & Dessertery, Capers on the Square, and Farm House Produce & the BBQ Kitchen (try the barbecue baked beans).
READ MORE: The 10 Best Restaurants in Helen GA for Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
4. Experience the Gold Rush Days Fall Festival
Now in its 67th year, the Gold Rush Days Festival returns on October 15 &16, 2022 to celebrate the discovery of gold in the area back in 1828. Major finds in Lumpkin County actually led to America’s first gold rush.
Named one of the Southeast Tourism Society’s “Top 20 Events in the Southeast,” the festival attracts around 200,000 visitors to Dahlonega’s Town Square every year, just as the fall colors start to change.
Festival highlights include family-friendly games, face painting, live music, and a gold panning contest.
There’s even a downtown Dahlonega parade with numerous marching bands, plus the coronation of the Gold Rush Days King and Queen.
There will also be more than 200 arts and crafts exhibitors scattered throughout the area, as well as a broad variety of food vendors and special at local restaurants.
READ MORE: The 20 Best Fall Fairs and Festivals in Georgia
5. Explore Downtown Dahlonega
As the site of the Georgia Gold Rush in the 1820s, Dahlonega is one of the oldest small towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia.
The Dahlonega Public Square centers around the 1836 Lumpkin County Courthouse, which is now home to the Dahlonega Gold Museum.
There, Dahlonega Mint assayer Dr. M.F. Stephenson famously tried to persuade miners not to leave for the California Gold Rush in 1848, insisting there was millions to be made from the nearby hills.
Today, the square is the heart of downtown Dahlonega. It’s home to many of the best restaurants, shops (including the Dahlonega General Store and Cranberry Corners), wine tasting rooms, and historical sites.
It’s an easily walkable area, with most of the noteworthy Dahlonega attractions located within a few blocks of each other.
Parking is free, but note that it can get very crowded on peak weekends.
READ MORE: 15 Fun Activities Where You Can Experience Fall in Georgia
6. Fishing & Hiking at Lake Zwerner/Yahoola Creek Reservoir
If the hustle and bustle of downtown Dahlonega leaves you craving some natural beauty, head to this lovely little mountain lake located just 1.4 miles northeast of town.
Lake Zwerner was created in 1992 as part of the Yahoola Creek Reservoir project.
Today, this 141-acre reservoir provides most of the City of Dahlonega’s water supply, not to mention opportunities for outdoor recreation.
The 3.2-mile Lake Zwerner hiking trail is a beauty, looping around the reservoir and traversing a variety of terrain, with scenic overlooks of the lake and North Georgia mountains along the way.
Although gas-powered boats aren’t allowed, the placid waters are perfect for kayaking, as well as fishing for bass and bream (one local told us he virtually never went home empty-handed).
Dahlonega officials are hoping to get funds to expand the park in the future, including improving the hiking trails and possibly adding campgrounds.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Lakes in the North Georgia Mountains
7. Go Behind Bars at the 1884 Lumpkin County Jail & Museum
Although the Dahlonega Gold Museum is easily the #1 historic site in Dahlonega, the 1884 Lumpkin County Jail & Museum is also a great attraction for anyone interested in learning more about Georgia’s state history.
Now owned by the Lumpkin County Historical Society, the jail was built in 1884 to house both the criminals who broke the law and the sheriffs who upheld it.
Its most famous prisoner was Bill Miner (a.k.a. California Billy, because he spent nearly half his life in San Quentin), who robbed a train near Lula GA in 1911.
Once a new detention center was built in 1964, the downstairs area (where the sheriff and their family lived) was converted into offices.
The main level was turned into a small museum featuring artifacts and photographs depicting life in Dahlonega in the 1800s and 1900s, including relics related to gold mining, farming, quilting, and making moonshine.
But the highlight is the upper level jail, whose cells remain unchanged.
You can go behind the heavy iron doors, see graffiti made on the walls by inmates, and learn about the failed attempt to escape by setting a fire on the floor. It’s a great little taste of Dahlonega’s storied past.
READ MORE: Exploring the Dark History of New Echota Historic Site in Calhoun GA
8. Hike to Cane Creek Falls
Ok, so “hike” may be a bit of an overstatement here, given the fact that this gorgeous waterfall on the grounds of the Camp Glisson Christian retreat is about a half-mile round trip.
But the short distance and 78 feet of elevation make this one of our favorite easy hiking trails to waterfalls in Georgia.
The bad news is that the waterfall is located on private property. But the good news is that it’s open to the public during daylight hours, except when camp is in session.
So it’s a good idea to call the camp before you go, just to confirm it’s OK to visit that day.
There’s a parking area right near the bottom of the falls, and it only takes about 15 minutes to complete the trail.
You can get amazingly close to the falls without getting wet, so this is a popular spot for waterfall chasers and nature photographers alike.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Waterfalls Near Blue Ridge GA
9. Horseback Riding at Forrest Hills Resort
Located on 140 acres of wilderness near the Appalachian Trail between Dahlonega and Amicalola Falls State Park, Forrest Hills Resort is the largest resort in Lumpkin County.
Forrest Hills Resort is one of our favorite places to stay in Dahlonega for couples (see: rental cabins with fireplaces and indoor hot tubs) and families (see: group lodging options available), with a pool, spa, volleyball court, restaurants, hiking trails, and more on the property.
The resort is also home to Dahlonega Carriage & Horse Rides, which offers some of the best horseback riding tours in Georgia.
Departing from their “Gold City Corral,” their tours range from one to two hours for beginners (minimum age 8) to a 4-hour ride for experienced riders (which also includes lunch).
The cost is $50 per hour, and it’s a wonderful way to explore the wilderness that surrounds the property.
READ MORE:The 15 Best Cabin Rentals in Dahlonega GA
10. Live Music at the Bear On The Square Mountain Festival
Although it was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID concerns, the annual Bear On The Square Mountain Festival returned in 2022 and remains one of our favorite North Georgia events.
Named after the time a young black bear cub climbed a sycamore tree on the town square, the 26-year-old festival is a joyous celebration of the music, dance, and storytelling of traditional Appalachian culture.
It’s a toe-tapping rite of spring in North Georgia, where pickers filter in from the hollows to jam on bluegrass and old-time standards in the place where country legend Fiddlin’ John Carson once tuned up.
Of course there’s also plenty of delicious food available to attendees, as well as a variety of Appalachian arts and crafts available for purchase.
Thankfully, the Bear On The Square Mountain Festival is set to return after a two-year hiatus in 2022, with the target dates scheduled for the weekend of April 22-24.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Places for River Tubing in North Georgia
11. Pan for Gold at the Consolidated Gold Mine
One of the most popular Dahlonega attractions for families, the Consolidated Gold Mine is home to the town’s only underground gold mine tour.
Its history dates back to the 1880s, long after Georgia’s “easy gold” was taken from nearby sites like Dukes Creek.
Testing revealed that gold came from thick veins of quartz, and a mountain in Dahlonega was home to a giant vein that measured 22 feet thick (2 to 3 inches was the average).
A group of investors bought 7,000 acres of land around the site and formed the Dahlonega Consolidated Gold Mining Co. in 1895.
This vein was mined deep down into the ground, creating a shaft known as “the Glory Hole.” By 1906 all the gold had been extracted, the company had folded, and the mine lay dormant for 75 years.
Then new owners turned it into a tourist attraction, giving visitors a chance to explore the mine’s upper level.
It’s a fun and informational tour that includes a view of the Glory Hole, original gold cart rails, and an operational pneumatic drill recovered from the site. You’ll also get chance to pan for your own piece of gold.
READ MORE: Exploring Emerald Village: North Carolina Gem Mines in Little Switzerland
12. Picnic at Water’s Creek/Dick’s Creek Falls
Located in Cleveland GA, just 15 miles from downtown Dahlonega, Water’s Creek Falls is widely considered one of the most beautiful waterfalls near Helen.
It’s commonly referred to as Dick’s Creek Falls, because it is located on Dick’s Creek Rd, right where Water’s Creek and Dick’s Creek converge.
But the US Forest Service, Google Maps, and AllTrails (the go-to app for avid hikers) all refer to it as Water’s Creek Falls… possibly to avoid confusion with the more well-known Dick’s Creek Falls in Clayton GA.
Regardless of what you call it, we consider this one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Georgia, not to mention the easiest to get to. It’s less than 100 yards from the parking lot, with two different cascades to visit.
This is a very popular swimming hole, and it can get quite crowded on weekends in summer.
We recommend going early on weekends, or anytime on weekdays, and taking a picnic for a lovely day on the water.
READ MORE: The 20 Best North Georgia Waterfalls (& How to Get to Them)
13. Play at Hancock Park
Located at the corner of North Park and Warwick Street, Hancock Park is a lovely patch of green space just a block away from Dahlonega’s Historic Square.
There’s an adorable playground here that’s popular with locals and visitors alike, featuring iconic imagery ranging from freshwater trout and black bears to a miniature Dahlonega Gold Mine.
There are also various music-making elements that kids of all ages (including my college-aged daughter) can enjoy, including two glockenspiels.
The park’s pavilion is home to an array of annual Dahlonega events, including the First Friday Night Concert Series and Dahlonega Farmers Market (held from May through October), and the Dahlonega Christmas Market and Festival of Trees in December.
Hancock Park is also home to the Maibaum Tree, which offers an artistic introduction to the town’s rich history, as well as the Chestatee Diving Bell (which we’ll discuss below).
READ MORE: The 15 Best North Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites
14. See a Show at the Historic Holly Theater
Originally opened as a movie theater in 1948, Dahlonega’s Holly Theater had fallen into a sorry state by the end of the ’80s after years of neglect.
Fortunately, concerned Lumpkin County residents worked to save the historic building in the 1990s.
The historic site became a focal point for the arts in Dahlonega, and by 2002 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In recent years, major renovation projects have included replacing the roof and canvas awnings, restoring the building’s marble façade, upgrading the lighting and sound systems, restoring the classic marquee, and more.
Today the non-profit venue is home to a community theatre company that offers acting and dance classes and produces an impressive array of dramatic plays, comedies, musicals, and children’s shows every year.
The venue also offers live music, with 2022 concerts scheduled to include tributes to Elvis and Karen Carpenter in January, Lynyrd Skynyrd in March, and Neil Diamond and the Rolling Stones in May.
Check out their Holly Concert Series page for a detailed schedule.
READ MORE: The Top 10 Treehouse Rentals in the Georgia Mountains
15. See the Chestatee River Diving Bell
Another relic of Dahlonega history, the Chestatee River Diving Bell dates back to 1875, when Georgia entrepreneur Philologus Hawkins (P.H.) Loud came to town trying to find new ways to mine for gold.
The diving bell– an open bottom barrel or iron box that traps air inside when lowered into the water, allowing people inside to breathe normally– had been used for centuries.
But Loud and his NY-based partners hoped to be the first to use it to mine the Chestatee riverbed for gold.
A boat was constructed to carry the diving bell (which was shipped by rail from Pennsylvania) up and down the river.
Unfortunately heavy rains that winter made the current too dangerous, and in 1876 both the boat and diving bell were nearly destroyed after breaking free from their moorings and hurling down the flooded river.
Loud’s investors grew impatient, and in October the boat and diving bell sank under mysterious circumstances.
Recovered more than 100 years later (in 1981), the diving bell has been completely restored.
Dahlonega visitors can see, and learn more about, the unique artifact at a Hancock Park pavilion surrounded by interpretive signs.
READ MORE: The Best 15 Hiking Trails in the Chattahoochee National Forest
16. Stay (& Dine) at the Historic Smith House
Located just east of the Dahlonega town square, The Smith House dates back to 1884, when Captain Frank Hall purchased an acre of land to build a home.
Construction was completed in 1899, but unfortunately Captain Hall died of typhoid shortly thereafter.
Henry and Bessie Smith (who bought it in 1922) turned the place into a boarding house. It originally had just 7 guest rooms, and Bessie’s beloved home-cooked meals were served up on long communal tables.
You’ll see similar tables at the Smith House Restaurant today, where all meals are served up family style.
Longtime locals rave about the tender Fried Chicken and Pot Roast, flavorful Fried Okra, and Cornbread that brought back memories of my Appalachian Grandmother’s cooking.
It’s easily one of the best places to eat in downtown Dahlonega, not to mention a hearty slice of Georgia history.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Historic Sites in Georgia
17. Take a Downtown Dahlonega Carriage Ride
On the first trip Mary and I ever took together (to Barnsley Gardens Resort for Valentine’s Day 2009), I surprised her with a horse-drawn carriage to take us to dinner at the resort’s restaurant.
Taking a horse-drawn carriage tour of historic Lexington VA a few months ago reminded us just how romantic the experience can be.
So we were delighted to discover that there are downtown Dahlonega carriage rides available every weekend from Thanksgiving through December, and occasionally even during the week.
Dahlonega Carriage & Horse Rides also offers carriage rides around the Forrest Hills Resort property, as well as “Just Married” carriage rides for weddings on the property.
Whichever tour you choose, it’s a great way to see this unabashedly old fashioned town.
READ MORE: 101+ Fun Things to Do in North Georgia
18. Talk to the Animals at Chestatee Wildlife Preserve & Zoo
One of my daughter’s favorite Dahlonega attractions since she was a little girl, the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve & Zoo drew international attention back in 2010 with the birth of a baby “zedonk.”
Founder/Manager C.W. Wathen was surprised to realize that a zebra and donkey (who had been in the same enclosure for many years) had given birth to a hybrid they named Pippi, due to the unusual stripes on her legs.
Today, the licensed wildlife preserve is home to more than 100 animals spread across 20+ acres of rolling hills.
They include everything from native species such as black bears, turkeys, and tortoises to beautiful birds and exotic species such as Bactrian camels, white Siberian tigers, and ring-tailed lemurs.
It’s a great place for kids, who get a chance to learn about wildlife conservation in a hands-on environment. They may even have a chance to hold a boa constrictor or feed a zebra through the fence.
Chestatee also offers private encounters, wherein small groups of two or more people can help Wathen feed the animals in the morning.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience with tons of great selfie opportunities!
READ MORE: Goats On The Roof: Family Friendly Fun Near Clayton GA
19. Visit the Dahlonega Gold Museum
Set in the historic Lumpkin County Courthouse (which dates back to 1836), the Dahlonega Gold Museum pays tribute to the town’s legacy in the Georgia Gold Rush.
It was on the courthouse steps that Dahlonega Mint assayer Dr. M.F. Stephenson tried to convince miners not to leave for the California Gold Rush.
His rousing speech is often misquoted as, “There’s gold in them thar hills!”
Today, museum visitors can see a complete set of original gold coins, a gold nugget weighing 5+ ounces, a large hydraulic cannon and nozzle used to blast soil from mountains, and other mining artifacts.
You can also explore the historic courthouse, including beautiful wooden chapel seats from 1889, the jury deliberation room, and the judge’s chambers.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the informative film on Dahlonega’s history, which draws a clear connection between the gold rush, the expulsion of the Cherokee people from their land, and the Georgia Land Lottery.
READ MORE: How Gold Mining in Georgia Led to Land Lotteries & the Trail of Tears
20. Wine Tastings at Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery
Widely considered one of the best wineries in Dahlonega, Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery was established by the Boegner family back in 1999.
Located at an elevation of 1,800 feet and influenced by classic European vineyards, the picturesque Dahlonega winery is often compared to wineries in the Napa Valley.
The property is home to more than 10,000 hand-planted vines, which are used to create award-winning wines such as their Blanc de Blancs Brut, Claret, and Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
Walk-in Wolf Mountain wine tastings are available on a first come, first served basis. But if you have more than 8 people in your party, advance reservations are required.
One visit to their four-sided stone and cedar bar, open-air veranda, and waterfall terrace, and you’ll understand why we rated them among the best wineries in the North Georgia mountains! –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted