5 small towns near Atlanta that offer more than just leaves changing colors

Railways first reached Blue Ridge and the surrounding area in the 1880s from Marietta. Since then, rail has played a significant role in the area.

This is the time of year to get in the car and go in search of leaves changing color. Mother Nature’s palette of orange, red and yellow tells us cooler weather is near.

If you have only an afternoon to take in the fall grandeur, one of these parks or trails in Atlanta will fill the bill.

But if you have a weekend, take a drive to a small town that offers not only beautiful landscapes but also activities indicative of autumn. Last year, CarRentals.com researched the best places in the Pacific Northwest, New England and Appalachia, and ranked them based on the number of fall festivals, nearby national parks, outdoor activities and local breweries, wineries and restaurants. Most, if not all, of this year’s fall festivals have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Five of their small towns in Appalachia are just a few hours from Atlanta.

Blue Ridge

A ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway is a must when visiting this area. During most years, the John C. Campbell Folk School holds its annual fall festival the first weekend in October. “Visit over 200 fine craft exhibitors tucked along the school’s winding wooded paths. Watch more than 30 artisans demonstrate traditional and contemporary crafts. Fill your ears with bluegrass, gospel, folk, and Celtic music on both days,” the event’s website states. Unfortunately, the festival is on hold this year.

Also on hold is the Cherry Log Festival, which usually takes place the first three weekends in October. When it returns, the festival will have delicious homemade breakfast and lunch, arts and crafts, homemade cakes, pies and canned goods, and bluegrass, gospel and country music.

» Blue Ridge among Southern Living's best retirement towns

» Fall is prime time to go to Blue Ridge

Helen

Even though the town has fewer than 500 full-time residents, it’s the third most visited city in Georgia. Many of those visitors come to celebrate Oktoberfest in Helen’s Bavarian charm. The Festhalle’s 50th Oktoberfest blowout will be postponed until 2021, but this year will be filled with open air celebrations of Oktoberfest put together by local businesses.

Helen’s festival is the longest running Oktoberfest in the United States.

If you have the kids with you, head over to Georgia Mountain Coaster. This alpine coaster is kind of like a roller coaster, in that the cart moves along a tubular steel rail system. But with an alpine coaster, the rider controls the speed, which tops out at 25 mph.

And while you're hiking in the forest looking at the changing leaves, make sure you visit Anna Ruby Falls. Anna Ruby Falls is a tumbling pair of waterfalls that spill in tandem from a tall cliff. It's located just north of Helen in the Chattahoochee National Forest. atlantatrails.com

» Alpine coaster opens two hours north of Atlanta

» 40 must-visit waterfalls in North Georgia

Ellijay, Georgia

Ellijay is the heart of Georgia's apple country, "thanks to its loamy, acidic soil and cool nights, which produce flavorful fruit. Fall visits provide opportunities to pick them ripe from the tree or taste their tart goodness laced with cinnamon and brown sugar in a fresh-baked pie," Suzanne Van Atten wrote for the AJC.

So it’s no surprise that apple festivals are on the calendar. The Georgia Apple Festival usually brings two exciting weekends to Ellijay with hundreds of vendors offering food, art, crafts and more. This year’s event has been canceled, however. Hillcrest Orchards says the Apple Pickin' Jubilee is still on each weekend through November 1. In addition to picking your own apples, you can “milk a cow (mask required), watch our swimming pig races, and watch live bands and cloggers on the Hillcrest Stage.”

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

It’s never a problem finding something to do in the Smoky Mountains. From Ripley’s Aquarium to Dollywood, the area has an abundance of entertainment.

Take the the SkyLift up Crockett Mountain and spend time at the SkyCenter with a cafe, gift shop and bar; and the SkyDeck, which has a fire pit and seating for those not looking to explore the bridge. The 680-foot-long SkyBridge is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America and is the perfect spot to see fall foliage.

» Gatlinburg adding SkyTrail at longest pedestrian suspension bridge

» A new kind of roller coaster is open in Pigeon Forge

Walhalla, South Carolina

Walhalla’s name is derived from Norse mythology, meaning “The Garden of the Gods.” Because German immigrants founded Walhalla, the town has its own Oktoberfest and is a great destination if you want a mix of outdoor activities, scenic views and community. There won’t be an Oktoberfest this year, according to the event’s Facebook page.

There is still plenty to do in the small town. Check out St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Oconee Heritage Center and nearby Issaqueena Falls/Stumphouse Tunnel. The downtown area has a variety of shops offering antiques, pottery, jewelry, baskets and clothing.

» Where you can see the leaves change in Georgia without leaving the car

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