At about 90 minutes from Atlanta, the tiny Appalachian town of Helen is a perfect weekend destination for families looking for something different.
Of course, different has been Helen's calling card since it fashioned itself as a replica of a Bavarian village more than 40 years ago. But beyond the obvious Oktoberfest celebration every year, the mountain town offers tourist and outdoor activities galore.
Below, you’ll finds some of our favorites haunts in Helen for families.
Anna Ruby Falls. Make your way to Helen on state Route 75, then go another five miles north and east on Route 356. Follow the signs and you arrive at twin waterfalls known as Anna Ruby Falls. There is a .4-mile paved path that takes you from the parking lot to the base of the falls, created by the junction of the Curtis and York Creeks. The truly adventurous can tackle Smith Creek Trail, a 4.6-mile hike from the falls to Unicoi State Park (which has a separate entrance fee, beyond the $3 fee for Anna Ruby Falls).
Search for treasure. Another way to stretch your legs and enjoy the mountain air is to sign up for one of the GPS Scavenger Hunts at Unicoi State Park. For $15, plus the $5 per vehicle entry fee, you can rent a device that will teach you and your family how to correctly navigate GSP coordinates to find your way around the park. A scavenger hunt sheet and map are handed out to help you along the trail. Return from the loop with photos of each GPS site and you win a prize for your adventure.
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Shoot the Hooch – and more. Downstream from the falls lies Unicoi Lake and the waters of the Chattahoochee River. Families looking for a more passive outdoor mountain experience can take the short float from Cool River Tubing. The 60- to 90-minute trip is $8 and includes the tube (with bottoms for children aged 3-12), life jacket and shuttle ride. A longer float is also available, as is the option to buy a trip on a water slide set in the woods. Helen Tubing and Waterpark also offers tubing on the Chattahoochee, as well as four separate slides and its own lazy river inside the water park. Tickets are $20 for all water features and a rock climbing wall.
Take to the air. Cool River Adventures, the tubing company's sister operation, also offers rock climbing as well as more daring adventures. The $15 small adventure course, designed for children weighing at least 40 pounds, has five "challenge" features and a short zip line. For children weighing at least 70 pounds and adults, the $25 big course includes 11 challenges and a short zip line. An extreme adventure, for adults only, has 13 elements and a zip line over the Chattahoochee. Some combos are also available that include tubing.
Make it sweet. The Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen has both a store and separate factory on Main Street for its hand-crafted chocolates and candies, as well as peanut and pecan brittle. The factory offers free tours for those who remember to call ahead (1-800-524-3008) to see the confectionery in action – and receive a small treat at the end.
Sample hearty German fare. Given its Alpine effect, Helen is home to several restaurants that specialize in German food and beer. The more popular include the Old Heidelberg Restaurant and Pub, which has an expansive outdoor beer garden in addition to German cuisine; Mullers Famous Fried Cheese Café, which as its name suggests offers fried cheese specialties beyond traditional fare; and Hofer's of Helen, a café and bakery featuring a stone hearth oven for fresh-baked strudel and more.Take to the (mini) links. Helen has two miniature golf courses designed as mini Alpine scenes, with everything from covered bridges to wildflower gardens.
Alpine Mini Golf Village offers an 18-hole course with an ice cream parlor as a reward at the end. Alpine is also pet-friendly for those who bring along furry family members. Bavarian Mountain Miniature Golf has two 18-hole courses as well as a large arcade, with skeeball, air hockey and more inside. While not pet-friendly, Bavarian Mountain has canine mascots Romeo and Juliet, who have their own YouTube video about their golf training.
One-tank trips is an occasional series from The Atlanta Journal Constitution that highlights places you can visit on – you guessed it – one tank of gas. Contact Stephanie Toone at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or ideas.