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 several major festivals, including the Bear On the Square Mountain Festival in April, Gold Rush Days in October, and an Old Fashioned Christmas Celebration that ranks among the state’s largest.
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, Lake Zwerner, and more!
The Best Things to Do in Dahlonega GA Guide
- Celebrate an Old Fashioned Dahlonega Christmas
- Dine at the Best Dahlonega Restaurants
- Explore Downtown Dahlonega
- Fishing & Hiking at Lake Zwerner/Yahoola Creek Reservoir
- Go Behind Bars at the 1884 Lumpkin County Jail & Museum
- 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
- Take a Downtown Dahlonega Carriage Ride
- Talk to the Animals at Chestatee Wildlife Preserve
- Visit the Dahlonega Gold Museum
1. Celebrate an Old Fashioned Dahlonega Christmas
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. Dine at the Best Dahlonega Restaurants
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.
The historic Smith House (which dates back to 1899) is the oldest and most acclaimed restaurant in town.
They offer family-style dining and heaping portions of down-home Southern classics like fried chicken, baked ham, fried okra, collard greens, and cornbread.
We also love The Crimson Moon, which offers delicious gastropub fare, a full bar, and live music in the second oldest commercial building in downtown Dahlonega.
3. Explore Downtown Dahlonega
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.
4. 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.
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).
5. 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.
6. Horseback Riding at Forrest Hills Resort
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 the area.
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 Rental Cabins in Helen GA
7. 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 is 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.
8. 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 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 even an operational pneumatic drill recovered from the site.
You’ll also get chance to pan for your own piece of gold, which can still be found in the historic mine today.
9. 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.
10. 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).
11. 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.
It 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.
12. 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.
13. 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
14. 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 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!
15. 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. –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted