BLAIRSVILLE, Ga. — Spring had come to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The rhododendron and mountain laurel were popping out in unreal shades of pink, and the massive hardwoods of birch and maple only recently bare-leafed in winter had begun their seasonal metamorphoses with emerald-green new growth. Somewhere in those forest-covered North Georgia mountains, slumbering bears were just waking from their hibernation.
With drowsy bears foremost in mind, one of the first questions that my husband and I asked when we checked into Misty Mountain Inn and Cottages near the Blue Ridge town of Blairsville was if any of the ursine beasts lurked around.
Bill Walsh, who owns the inn and cottages with his wife, Sarah, said that a few bears are sometimes seen around the property but they were small, with the further explanation, “They’re nothing like the larger bears in the higher elevations. You have nothing to worry about.”
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I recalled his conversation as hubby and I hiked through the woods of Misty Mountain. A branch snapped behind us, the crack loud and distinct, and immediately I thought a ravenous bear, just waking from its winter nap, was trying to slink up on us. I turned slowly, trying to judge the distance to the car and wondering if I would even care about the size of a bear running toward me, knife and fork in paws, and intent on having hubby or me, whoever is the slowest runner, as its next meal. But only the wind sighed through the woods, with no bear in sight, and we continued on through a forest so darkly shadowed and beautiful that it defied generalizations.
North Georgia is where flatlanders, and I am among that number, flock for fresh mountain air, cooler temperatures, and views to forever, all melded together with a heaping help of Appalachian lifestyle. It is where Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s tallest mountain, rises to 4,748 feet, a mere child compared to some Appalachian peaks.
On that spring day I drove nearly to the summit of Brasstown Bald, and when I stepped to the scenic overlook to take in the beauty that is the Blue Ridge Mountains, great whispers of the wind flowed through the trees like a melody, a song of sky and mountain and forest. I thought, yes, now I know where the sweet strains of mountain music originated.
Undoubtedly the soul of Georgia lies in its small towns, hubs of hospitality, locally owned shops and restaurants and where everyone still says, “Hi, there,” with a big smile and sometimes, yes, whether you’re known or unknown, a quite Southern-like, um, bear hug. Blairsville, in Union County in the heart of the Blue Ridge, is like that.
Getting to know Blairsville
Union County was carved from the Cherokee territory during the Georgia Land Lottery of 1832, with Blairsville, its county seat, incorporated in 1835. Union County is often referred to as the “top of Georgia” because of Brasstown Bald’s soaring heights.
The heartbeat of any small town is its downtown, and Blairsville is no exception. The iconic Union County Courthouse is its jewel in the crown, anchoring the Square in Downtown Blairsville with its deep red brick and towering spire. Additionally, it houses an impressive museum of county and Native American history.
Also dotted all around the square are the most darling, whimsical and fun shops and restaurants that pay homage to the North Georgia and Appalachian lifestyle. I popped into Logan Turnpike Mill to browse for stoneground grits, flour and cornmeal before moseying over to Mountain Life Mercantile to search their colorful shop for locally made soap, honey and lots more. Other shops, with imaginative names including The Farmer’s Daughter, Beautiful Things and Sunflowers on the Square, are worth a meander.
When you think of Blairsville eats, think fresh mountain trout and vegetables and fruits grown in North Georgia’s rich, fertile soil. When you first get into town, visit Sunrise Grocery, a cool little country store, for a sample of Georgia caviar, otherwise known as boiled peanuts. From those salty, addictive boiled peanuts to homemade jams, jellies, candles, pickles and more, Sunrise Grocery has been supplying the needs of North Georgia since the 1920s.
If it’s not Sunday and you still want Sunday dinner, that big Southern spread complete with meats and veggies and cornbread and biscuits, plop yourself down at Sawmill Place Kitchen and Market and sit a spell. The concept is farm to table — and that means fresh — and it’s all nostalgic goodness with overflowing bowls of squash casserole, collard greens, fried chicken and, well, you get the idea. There’s a menu, too, for a range of entrees, and breakfast, and just about everything is locally sourced.
One of my favorite stops to plunder outside of town is Mercier Orchards, Georgia’s largest orchard, for dozens of varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries, plums, blackberries and peaches. You can also pick your own fruit, depending on the season and availability. We strolled through the orchards, enjoying those scents and dazzling views of the mountains and sampling the sparkling fruit wine. The gift shop and restaurant are crammed with all sorts of gourmet foods.
Blairsville Restaurants Grits and Greens is just what the name implies, offering more Southern goodies like big bowls of hot grits, smothered biscuits, trout dishes, or a meat-and-two, which is a choice of meat, two vegetables including greens in season, and the staple of biscuits and cornbread. The ribs at its companion eatery, Smokeout BBQ, were voted No. 1 in Blairsville.
The mountain scenery may be the catalyst that brings people here, but it is the range of outdoor adventures that keeps them here for a spell. With abundant natural resources, among them waterfalls, lakes and endless miles of hiking trails, Blairsville and Union County have become the go-to destination for exploring the outdoors.
Among the gemstones nearby are not only Brasstown Bald, but the 18-acre Lake Winfield Scott, Wolf Laurel Top where you can walk the Appalachian Trail, the gloriously verdant Chattahoochee National Forest, the stunningly pretty cascades of Anna Ruby Falls and Helton Creek Falls, and Vogel State Park, one of Georgia’s oldest state parks showcased by the 22-acre Lake Trahlyta. Also visit Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center, once the homestead of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated novelist and poet, that depicts Appalachian farm life as it was in the early 1900s.
Underneath the shady oaks of Meeks Park, with its centerpieces of Butternut Creek and the Nottely River, you can hike, play in the splash pad, have a picnic or swim in its pool. Touted as one of the most beautiful parks in the North Georgia mountains because of its natural setting, it is also the site of several festivals, including the Blairsville Scottish Festival and Highland Games, Butternut Creek Festival and the Blairsville Sorghum Festival.
My husband and I really enjoyed our cabin, sans bears, all tucked away in the tree line at Misty Mountain Inn and Cottages, but also at the property is a light-filled, elegantly designed inn. Other choices include Nottely & Nice, a cabin-style home that sits on the banks of the Nottely River and features a fully stocked kitchen and electric fireplaces. Creekside Cottages is another option, with four cabins each with a private bedroom and loft.
If it’s a full resort that suits your fancy, Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa has what you’re looking for with a spa, golf course, stables and lots of opportunities for hiking and fishing. In the shadows of Brasstown Bald, it is an idyllic mountain getaway. Vogel State Park, at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest, has cottages, campsites and primitive backpacking sites, all wrapped up in a dramatic natural setting. Odom Springs Vineyards, a family-owned estate winery set among the rolling hills near Blairsville, also has a five-bedroom lodge.
For more information, visit Blairsville Union County Chamber of Commerce at www.visitblairsvillega.com or call 706-745-5789. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, a two- to -three-hour drive depending on traffic, is the closest major airport and is served by all major carriers.