The Chattahoochee River wanders for more than 400 miles through many places in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, with Helen, GA, being the most unique.
Home to nearly 500 people, this Northeast Georgia town in the Blue Ridge Mountains has reinvented itself several times, becoming a fairy tale attraction for more than a million visitors a year today.
Helen, GA, before 1969
Cherokee people were the first inhabitants of the Helen, Nacoochee and Sautee Valleys. European settlers began arriving in 1813 after the Cherokee gave permission for the construction of the Unicoi Turnpike, which was a wagon road through their nation from the Savannah River headwaters to Northeast Tennessee.
The real rush of people, however, began in 1828 when gold was discovered on Dukes Creek in Nacoochee Valley, just two miles south of where Helen is situated today.
Later that same year, lucky miners also discovered gold to the west of Dukes Creek, including Dahlonega. The U.S. government supported the mining and the remaining Cherokee were relocated to the Midwest in a forced march now known as the “Trail of tears.”
California’s big goldrush in 1849 lured many of the miners west to richer ground. By 1857, miners around Helen were using hydraulic mining to try to extract the remaining ore. While the industry struggled on for another few decades, by the end of the century Helen’s mining era had ended.
A second big rush occurred in Helen in 1912, when the Byrd-Matthews Lumber Company built a great sawmill to the south of what is now the city’s downtown.
Once again, the valley hummed with economic activity, drawing in settlers to work in the mill. The town got its name during this period, from Helen McComb, who was the daughter of one of the mill’s managers, and niece of one of the area’s real estate developers.
This phase of Helen’s history was short-lived, with the sawmill closing in 1931. Some settlers stayed, but the town itself struggled until achieving some success as a manufacturing town during the 1950s. By the late 60s, however, Helen had become just another place people drove through to get to somewhere else.
In 1968 town businessmen decided it was time to reinvent Helen yet again. They had one natural resource left to draw on – the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Alpine Helen, GA, the Fairy Tale Comes To Life
Many picturesque communities are nestled in the valleys of Northeast Georgia, so the businessmen of Helen had to do something distinctive if they wanted to stand out.
Artist, John Kollock, who had been stationed in Bavaria, Germany, offered an idea – imagine the town had been plucked up out of Georgia and dropped down in Bavaria. The landscape was similar, just the architecture needed some work.
Drawing from memory and research, Kollock put his ideas down on paper for the local business owners and carpenters to create. They refaced buildings with bright colored murals, painted on gingerbread house-like trims, added Alpine looking old world towers, and created cobblestone alleyways.
By 1972 the makeover was complete. Business names changed to fit the theme: Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen; Black Forest Vacation Rentals; Elfmade Wooden Toys; Blackforest Bear Park & Reptile Village. The fairy tale town of Helen was open for exploring, not in Bavaria, but in Georgia.
When I arrived in Helen it was easy for me to imagine I truly was back in Bavaria, one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in Europe.
Visiting Helen, GA
Helen, GA, appears seemingly out of nowhere on the drive up Highway 75 through Georgia. Parking my car for the day was easy – the clip-clop of the horse drawn carriages lured me to take my first tour of town the old-fashioned way, instead of on foot, my usual preference.
With over 100 retail and import shops along the route, the overview made planning my afternoon a lot easier.
Like the small towns I’d visited in Bavaria, the local shops offered a variety of crafts and souvenirs. I’m always drawn to item replicas from the middle ages, such as armor and swords, so I was pleased to find two “knights” guarding the Christmas and More store that I had to check out to find something special for my grandson.
My other shopping weakness is quilting, so I was thrilled to find hand-crafted quilts by local artisans at Southern Comfort Quilts.
Beyond architecture and shopping, though, there’s a lot to draw people to visit Alpine Helen year round. The best known event is Georgia’s longest running Oktoberfest, which starts in mid-September and runs into November every year.
From Thanksgiving through to Christmas, there’s all the fun and excitement of the German Christmas season with Alpenfest. Other events include a hot air balloon race, Volksmarch, Winefest, the Avalanche Summer Kick-Off Festival, the Fat Tire Festival for mountain bikers, the Bavarian Nights of Summer, and many others.
The Chattahoochee River
The upper portion of the Chattahoochee River runs right through the whole city of Helen, so I was able to eat my lunch perched right over the water in the Café International!
Relaxing at the window, I sipped lemonade and watched fishermen tie flies and cast their reels until my meal arrived. I was impressed with the Scandinavian shrimp and crab salad, enjoying the unique taste of the Scandinavian marinade and baby North sea shrimp.
While I visited Helen just before tubing season, which starts in late May and runs every day until the first weekend in September, I could easily imagine myself part of the crowd floating down the river.
With two companies offering a range of trip lengths starting as low as $3 rental, tubing is the number one sporting attraction on this part of the Chattahoochee. Both companies have offices at the north and south ends of town, along with a shuttle service, so they’re easy to find on the Chattahoochee.
Local fisherpersons told me the best thing about the Chattahoochee in Helen was working their way downstream catching mountain fresh rainbow trout to fry up for supper. The typical size, I was told, was around a foot, although they could get up to 18 or 20 inches.
Equipped with hip waders and fishing gear, everyone agreed there wasn’t any better way to spend a hot summer day than standing in cool water in the shade of the green overhead canopy!
Paddlers also enjoy this part of the Chattahoochee. You’ll find the put-in by turning right off of GA 75 onto GA 75 (Alt.) before Helen, taking the immediate right onto Chattahoochee River Road on the other side of the river.
Follow Chattahoochee River Road to the Forest Service campground at Low Gap Creek. From Helen, the take-out is north of town on GA 75 before the highway veers away from the river at Spoilcane Creek.
Water levels can be low on this part of the Chattahoochee, however, so paddlers need to check conditions before starting out.
More to See and Do
It was hard for me to pick a favorite activity from the many things I did on my week-long visit to Helen and Northeast Georgia.
The nearby Smithgall Woods Conservation Area was peaceful – a great place for tranquil walks on their five miles of trails. While I didn’t try out the fishing, it has North Georgia’s premier trout stream, Dukes Creek, for catch-and-release fishing.
I love pottery and the Folk Pottery Museum provided a unique perspective on one of the south’s most important grass roots arts forms. It celebrates its fifth anniversary in September of 2011.
As I expected, the museum was an important center for Sautee Nacoochee, an historic arts community only a hop and a step or two from Helen.
With many places to wander through, I particularly enjoyed Nacoochee Village, especially the Nacoochee Antique Mall with its three floors of antiques and collectibles spanning the past fifty or more years.
When at last I had to leave, I decided that although it’s difficult for small communities to remake themselves, in Alpine Helen the fairy tale had come true.