Spring season is a great time for a sightseeing trip through the nearby mountains. U.S. 129 goes north from Gainesville toward Blairsville. After steep climbs and curves, you arrive at Neels Gap and the Waleisi-Yi Center, a popular stopping point for many hikers.
Parking is limited, so for a day hike, park a quarter-mile farther north. The hiking trail takes you to an elevation of just above 4,400 feet. Some of this 2.5-mile trail is fairly steep. It’s enjoyable but not an easy Sunday walk.
Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia, is less demanding because you can drive almost all the way to its 4,487-foot summit. The parking fee is well worth it, providing splendid mountain views all around. A short walk gets you to the observation tower at the top. From Helen, take Ga. 75 North and after 11.6 miles, turn left onto Ga. 180. After another 5 miles, the Ga. 180 spur to the right takes you up onto the mountain.
The Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway offers another leisurely tour. At the north end of Helen, turn left onto Ga. 75-A, then right at the intersection with Ga. 348. The highway offers gorgeous views of the North Georgia mountains, with overlooks for photo stops. Where it ends, turning left onto Ga. 180 gets you back to U.S. 129, which can be taken southward back to Gainesville.
If you go north on U.S. 129 instead, past the North Carolina state line you reach U.S. 74. A right turn takes you to Murphy, N.C., then Andrews and the entrance to Nantahala Gorge. The gorge offers numerous opportunities for whitewater rafting.
If you’d rather explore winding back roads and mountain views, you can turn into Andrews and follow the street all the way to the city limit. Where the road forks, keeping right puts you on Junaluska Road (N.C. 1505). It takes you through little-traveled, mountainous terrain and then descends toward Nantahala Lake. Where it ends, turn right onto N.C. 1310 (Wayah Road) and enjoy the drive along the shoreline of the lake.
After a hairpin climb, you reach Wayah Gap, where a gravel road (FS 69) goes 4.5 miles to a parking area. A short third-mile walk takes you to the observation tower with a wide view of the Balsams, the Great Smoky Mountains and the Tusquittee and Slickrock ranges. From nearby Franklin, U.S. 441 takes you south and back toward Gainesville.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.