It’s cute and scenic and oh-so-German: the North Georgia village of Alpine Helen draws scores of tourists that flock to the small town in search of great German fare, unique shopping, North Georgia wineries and handcrafted arts. And each autumn, the town comes alive with visitors seeking a pint of golden German brew, dancing, and live entertainment during the city’s exuberant Oktoberfest celebrations. But while the city is definitely worth a visit for the ample alpine architecture and typical tourist draws, the town’s adventurous side makes it doubly worth a stay.
Some of our all-time favorite hiking, paddling, and adventure destinations surround this town bedecked in Bavarian architecture. Just north of town, the epic-length Appalachian Trail visits the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River at Chattahoochee Gap before diving through Unicoi Gap and climbing the view-packed summits of Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain. Unicoi State Park and Smithgall Woods State Park offer some fantastic hiking, biking, and paddling adventures, and visit vestiges of the town’s gold rush in the late 1800s. Nearby trails wind and weave through scenic swaths of forest in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest, visiting views from rocky mountain summits and chasing picturesque, tumbling waterfalls near Helen. And to the south, Nacoochee Adventures in Sautee-Nacoochee offers a generous dose of adrenaline, with a wide range of outdoor fun including zip line canopy tours, a giant swing, and an incredible half-mile zip line with stunning views of nearby Yonah Mountain.
Our favorite outdoor adventures near Helen, GA
Plan a long weekend getaway or an adventure weekend in the mountains with our top things to do and outdoor adventures near Helen. And recharge each night with some of our favorite in-town eats, and stay at a great campsite, backpacking site, cozy cabin (or even a treehouse!) under North Georgia’s wide, clear nighttime skies and abundant stars.
Top hikes near Helen
Grab your hiking boots and hit the trail! This alpine town makes an excellent base camp for a weekend of adventure in the North Georgia mountains, with easy access to the Appalachian Trail and many of Georgia’s best waterfall hikes. Follow our favorite trails to some seriously stunning summit views, historic sites and tumbling waterfalls, or check out the full list of our favorite hikes near Helen for even more trail adventures.
Yonah Mountain Trail
4.4 MILESHike to the summit of this rocky, domed mountaintop just south of town. The rocky route to the Yonah Mountain summit is moderately challenging, climbing through a forest filled with colorful wildflowers. There’s a wide-open, sun-drenched, grassy field at the mountain’s top, perfect for an overnight backpacking adventure. And the views from the summit are outstanding, though the drop-offs are sheer.
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Anna Ruby Falls Trail
Anna Ruby Falls
.9 MILEHike to these stunning twin cascading falls just north of town, following a paved trail through a mossy, sun-dappled forest and spotting small, tumbling waterfalls on Smith Creek. Wooden platforms at the hike’s end offer an up-close view of these beautiful double waterfalls. Or, for a lesser-traveled route to the falls, hike the Smith Creek Trail, following a historic gold mining ditch and exploring a leafy forest on the way to Anna Ruby Falls.
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Smithgall Woods Hiking Trails
Smithgall Woods State Park
3.5 – 8.7 MILESExplore the scenic banks of Dukes Creek, tumbling waterfalls, and the site of a historic gold mine at Smithgall Woods, a conservation park just west of Helen. While the park is renowned for fishing, with premier trout streams that course through a scenic forest, Smithgall Woods is a fantastic hiking destination, too, with over 23 miles of trails.
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Paddleboarding, kayaking, and tubing
After a great summertime hike, there’s no better way to cool off than some time on the water. Nestled in the mountains at Unicoi State Park, the glassy waters of Unicoi Lake are a great place to float, splash, and explore. Unicoi Beach offers stand up paddleboards, kayaks, canoes and pedal boats for rent, and the lake’s 53 scenic acres make for a great place to paddle.
Meandering through town, the Chattahoochee River flows shallow and mellow, tumbling gently over its rocky, pebble-lined bed. Tubing the ‘Hooch is one of our favorite things to do in Helen on a warm summertime day. Even when Georgia’s summertime heat sets in, the Chattahoochee always seems chilly, clear, and quite refreshing.
More outdoor adventures and things to do in Helen
Head for an adventure in the tree canopy, and enjoy some adrenaline at Nacoochee Adventures in Sautee-Nacoochee, home to the area’s well-known, gazebo-topped Native American mound. Nacoochee Adventures offers a ton of awesome ways to play in the outdoors, including guided zip line canopy tours with visits to an old gold mine and a bear cave. Our favorite adventure at the park is the “Big Zip Intimidator,” an adrenaline-filled zip line that travels nearly a half mile after catching beautiful mountain views from its starting platform in the trees. The park also offers an incredible experience on its giant swing, with a 50-foot free fall drop and a release cord that you (bravely) pull yourself, and an adventure park complete with three levels and a 27-element ropes course.
Or head to the zip lines at Unicoi Adventure Lodge, catching some air on the park’s course with eleven lines and seven towering suspension bridges. The park also offers a number of other adventure options, too, including a fly fishing class taught by seasoned guides, a GPS scavenger hunt with prizes for young adventurers, a target archery class, and scenic rides on mountain biking trails.
Helen cabins, treehouses, and unique places to stay
The town’s location and great amenities make it a perfect home base for an overnight, long weekend, or weeklong adventure in the North Georgia mountains.
There’s certainly no shortage of great cabins for rent near Helen, but some of our favorites are the barrel cabins at Unicoi State Park. Set in a leafy forest on the shore of Unicoi Lake, these dome-shaped cabins feature a retro-cool vibe. They were recently completely renovated, featuring vintage-inspired furnishings, wood-burning fireplaces, ultra-comfy beds and linens, and full kitchens. The barrel cabins’ location is pretty perfect, too, located right off the park’s Lake Trail, with easy access to the Smith Creek Trail to Anna Ruby Falls, and a short drive from the alpine village.
For an ultra-unique adventure, head south to Sautee-Nacoochee for a stay in the treehouse cabins at Nacoochee Adventures. There’s nothing quite like a stay twenty feet off the ground, surrounded by nature and nestled in the trees. These surprisingly spacious treehouses offer multiple beds and sleep up to four, and extras like raised decks, recycled materials, and stained glass windows make these cabins all the more unique.
And west of town, Smithgall Woods State Park offers beautifully furnished cabins on the banks of Dukes Creek, and an exclusive access trail to the nearby tumbling cascades at Dukes Creek Falls.
Camping and backpacking
There’s nothing quite like a night under the stars, and the area offers abundant options for camping and backpacking in Georgia’s ultra-scenic Chattahoochee National Forest. If you’re up for roughing it, check out our favorite (and free) car camping sites just north of Unicoi Gap, speckled along the gravel Forest Road 44. With only a stone fire ring, what these campsites lack in comfort and amenities, they fully make up for in privacy: they’re secluded and quiet, tucked into a stream-filled forest near the Chattahoochee River.
Or if amenities are important, there are quite a few great camping options, too. Andrews Cove Campground lies just north of town and south of Unicoi Gap, and the Andrews Cove Trail leads from the campground to Indian Grave Gap for access to the Appalachian Trail and the nearby view-packed summits of Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain. Or overnight in comfort at more than 100 campsites surrounding the lake’s shore at Unicoi State Park.
Wondering what to pack for a great night under the stars? Our camping gear list features our favorite tents, sleeping bags, furniture, cookware, and campsite essentials.
And if you’re up for a backpacking adventure, the Appalachian Trail dips through Unicoi Gap just north of the alpine village, and offers over 2000 miles of prime backpacking from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine. Backpack from Unicoi Gap to Tray Mountain, catching stunning views from two mountain summits and dipping through dense tunnels of flowering rhododendron at Indian Grave Gap. Or hike the Appalachian Trail to Chattahoochee Gap to visit a small, mossy, trickling spring, the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River, just south of Brasstown Bald.
Restaurants, dining, and snacks
Our adventures always work up our appetites, and fortunately, this town offers a ton of great dining options from casual to upscale. Options abound for authentic German fare, and our favorite place to nosh on some delicious German dishes is on the riverside patio at Troll Tavern, with wide-open views of the Chattahoochee River. (Troll Tavern’s wild-caught blackened rainbow trout is one of our favorite non-German options in town, too.)
Hofer’s of Helen is an outstanding bakery with a variety of fresh-baked breads, decadent desserts and a large sandwich menu. The bakery’s enormous, ultra-fluffy and especially delicious cream puffs are our favorite, washed down with an ice-cold German brew in the bakery’s Biergarten.
When we’re not craving German, the town offers a good number of great non-Bavarian dining options, too. Bigg Daddy’s Restaurant and Tavern presents a delectably diverse menu of options, a wide variety of brews, and a generously sized outdoor patio. Our favorites include the delicious drunken mussels, a tasty appetizer of steamed mussels in a spicy garlicky beer broth, the New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp, and the cajun-dusted seared tuna. Bigg Daddy’s offers a wide variety of tasty burgers, too, and they’re all available with a portobello mushroom subbed for the beef patty, which more than satisfied our vegetarian and pescatarian taste buds.
And when we’re headed for the outdoors, we always hit the trail (and water) with some snacks for the adventure. Betty’s Country Store is located in town, and offers everything from groceries to snacks, beer and wine, and old-fashioned sodas. Betty’s full-service deli custom-makes a wide variety of sandwiches at the counter while you wait, perfect for a mid-hike picnic. And Fred’s Famous Peanuts, a roadside country store on Clayton Road, offers a wide variety of snacks and goodies, from local fresh-picked apples and produce to jerky, jams, jellies, and fantastic sandwich fixings.
Always leave no trace, pack out everything you pack in, and if you see trash, pick it up and pack it out.
Stay on the marked trail, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, and don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way. Please always practice good trail etiquette. And before you go, always check the trailhead kiosk, official maps, and the park or ranger office for notices of changed routes, trail closures, safety information, and restrictions.