By Renée S. Gordon
“Talkin’ ’bout Georgia, I’m in Georgia,
A song of you comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines”
–as sung by Ray Charles
When DeSoto led the first Conquistadors into northeast Georgia in the 1500s they were greeted by members of the Cherokee Nation who inhabited more than 200 villages over seven states. Many lived in what is today the Blue Ridge Mountain region.
The Blue Ridge Mountain range, the highest in the state, reaches at one point an elevation of 4,700-ft. The mountains are the southern edge of the Appalachians and extend 100-miles into Georgia and form parts of 11 counties. They are so called because of the blue haze that cloaks them. The Cherokee called the region “the Enchanted Land” and considered the mountains to be the spiritual “poles” that held up the sky.
The earliest fully documented English explorer is Colonel George Chicken in the early 1700s. He followed Indian trading paths and through his journals we learn a great deal about the Cherokee presence and the topography. In the Proclamation of 1763 King George III deemed the region part of the British colonial land. William Bartram followed these paths in 1775 and, impressed with the numerous Cherokee settlements, he referred to the range as the Cherokee Mountains. www.blueridgemountains.com
Beginning in he 1790s settlers traveled west over the Blue Ridge and the federal government encroached on native land. Andrew Jackson put forth a plan to relocate the Indians west of the Mississippi River and, after waging a legal battle that reached the Supreme Court, the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830 and the forced removal of 16,000 Cherokee began in 1838. On May 10th of that year General Winfield Scott addressed the Cherokee, “The full moon of May is already on the wane; and before another shall have passed away, every Cherokee man, woman and child in those states must be in motion to join their brethren in the far West.” Thousands died on the “Nunahi-Duna-Dlo-Hili-I,” “the trail where they cried,” before reaching their destination.
The site of two forts, Gilmer (1838) and Hetzel (1836), built to house the Cherokee prior to their removal are located in the area and hikers can still see bent trees, used as directional markers, and buried artifacts are still uncovered, all signs that the Indians believed they would return. It should be noted that the Cherokee were slaveowners and their slaves accompanied them on the journey.
Much of the area real estate was given away in a series of lotteries and eventually the majority of the landowners would be Scottish and Irish immigrants who would shape the area with their music, language, crafts and traditions. Southern Appalachia remains a bastion of unique culture.
A legend of the Ani Tsa’gu hi Cherokee clan tells of a native youth who would often disappear into the woods. When members of the tribe asked where he kept going he told them that he went into the forest to live with the bears to learn of their ways and that they were happy, free and immortal. When the clan learned of this they decided to abandon the known world and join the bears in the mountains leaving behind only the words that they would live forever and forever be free. A trip into the Blue Ridge Mountain Region still evokes feelings of serenity, renewal, overwhelming beauty and freedom.
Fannin County is known as the “Gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains” and it is a wonderful place to begin your journey. There are a host of recreational opportunities and more than 100,000-acres is under the aegis of the US Forest Service. The county was created in 1854 and its most well known city, Blue Ridge, was founded in 1886 on the railroad route. 1-800-899-MTNS (6867).
The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway offers a 3.5-hour train ride along the Toccoa ending in Maysville. Along the route you pass breathtaking scenery and the site of a historic 90-ft. wide Native American fish track. The cars date from 1929 and depart from a 100-year old historic station. Reservations can be made online and the train is handicapped accessible. www.brscenic.com
Downtown Blue Ridge is filled with one-of-a-kind restaurants and eclectic stores. This is truly a shoppers’ paradise. Visitors have their choice of Appalachian crafts, contemporary and folk art, designer furniture and clothing stores. The town is also home to one of the best bookshops in the region and the owners are happy to share glimpses of their treasures and even sell you a rare book or two. Blue Ridge has been recognized as the “Antique Capital of Georgia.”
Twelve scenic trails originate in the area, one of which is the Appalachian Trail. The walking trail runs more than 2,100-miles from Fannin County to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Georgia’s portion of the trail is enclosed in Chattahoochee National Forest. The southernmost terminus, Springer Mountain, is marked with a bronze plaque that reads,” for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.”
The 3,290-acre Lake Blue Ridge has nearly 100 forest campsites, boat ramps, picnic areas and numerous outdoor activities.
The adjacent Gilmer County is considered the “Apple Capital of Georgia” and along “Apple Alley” there are six orchards that are open for sales and tours. The first commercial orchard opened in the 1900s and the tradition has continued since then. Each orchard has a specialty so travelers can easily spend a day visiting each one.
“Southern Living Magazine” has designated the Mercier Orchards as their favorite roadside apple market based on the sale of their legendary cider and justifiably famous fried pies. The 125-acre orchards have been family-owned for 65 years. They process about 1,000 bushels of apples and make 10,000 fried pies daily. The first cidery in the region was here and today they make the juice for all the apple houses in North Georgia as well as retail stores such as Whole Foods.
Tours are offered and can include combinations of a visit to the orchards, fruit picking and other activities. The view from the Old Apple House is of three states, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. www.mercier-orchards.com
The 75-acre R & A Orchards began in 1946. Their roadside market dates from 1972. R & A offers a year round experience and for those who forget something while there you can always purchase products online. www.randaorchards.com
The county seat of Gilmer was once the site of a Cherokee village referred to as Elats-yi, “a green place on the earth.” Modern Ellijay is situated where two rivers, the Cartecay and Ellijay, form a third, the Coosawattee. The town is documented as early as 1755 and William Bartram wrote of his visit to the village of “Allagae.” Today this quaint town boasts a host of antique stores, boutiques and unique restaurants.
At 729-ft. the highest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi, Amicalola Falls, is located in the heart of the region. Amicalola Falls is formed on Amicalola Mountain and is located near the Appalachian Trail trailhead. The falls were on Cherokee land until 1838 and they were known as “Um-ma-eolola,” sliding water. In 1940 Amicalola Falls became part of the Georgia State Park system after the land was sold to the state. www.amicalolafalls.com
In 1991 the Amicalola Lodge was constructed. This 56-room facility provides the perfect place from which to set out on excursions or to just sit and soak up the setting. Rooms have peerless views of the mountains and the glass-walled restaurant serves up great food and has a panoramic view. www.galodges.com/lodges/amicalola
A rare treat, the type that Georgia loves to provide, is the “Glamping” Experience. I promise that “glamorous camping” will shortly become the rage and you’ll have to compete with the rich, the famous and the paparazzi in order to book accommodations at the Martyn House Bed & Breakfast, ground zero for this deluxe form of camping.
Military leaders, kings and chieftains have used ornate tents for nearly 2,000-years and these decorative accommodations were created from costly materials and were always elaborately adorned. The Martyn House offers guests a number of colorful tents placed throughout the 18-acre property. These opulent accommodations are filled with antiques, designer linens and specialty bath products. The tents are not just lovely to look at but they reflect the owner’s ecological. This is something you should experience as soon as possible. Reservations can be made online. www.themartynhouse.com
A tour through North Georgia makes an ideal cost effective destination. Visitors can craft a unique family vacation or create a romantic getaway that will linger in the memory. Everything you need to plan your itinerary can be found at www.exploregeorgia.org. Remember, Georgia, Blue Ridge Mountains, ecstasy!
I wish you smooth and blissful travels!