Editor's note: This is part of a series on small towns within driving distance of Chattanooga that are big on charm and amenities while still offering space to spread out.
Filled with friendly locals and overloaded with charm, small towns make the perfect getaway for those looking for a change of pace, a place to ditch city life for just a bit. And during the pandemic, they've become popular with travelers looking for a way to escape.
According to Airbnb's 2021 U.S. Travel Report, 51% of respondents said they are "more interested in being isolated beyond major tourist areas than they are in being surrounded by people and energy (24%)." Sixty-two percent said they wanted to vacation within driving distance of home.
Vrbo, another short-term rental site for homeowners around the globe, also notes that its customers are preferring to escape to destinations closer to home, seeking nature-oriented experiences when they do.
Drive time from Chattanooga: 2 hours, 15 minutes
You won't have any problem finding time on your hands in Hiawassee — population 815, according to 2019 figures — nor will you struggle with finding inspiration to explore the great outdoors just beyond. With water at its front door and mountains at its back, it is a town of jaw-dropping beauty. And with those two features, it's also one where adventure abounds. Hiking, skiing, biking. It's an outdoor-lover's paradise.
What to Do
Visitor Information Center, 2941 Hwy. 180 Spur
Overshadowing the scenic downtown is Bell Mountain and high above in the distance is Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia at almost 4,800 feet. Driving to the top of Bell Mountain on a one-lane road is hair-raising, at best. But the dynamic views of Lake Chatuge and the town of Hiawassee are worth the trip up. The hike up Brasstown Bald is a fairly easy half-mile walk from the parking lot, through a forest filled with blooming native plants in spring and summer. At the halfway point, stop and look up at the summit; it's spectacular. When you reach the top — which you can also do via a shuttle included with the $5 entry fee — you'll witness 360-degree views of Mother Nature at her finest, and on a clear day, you can see four states from the observation deck.
Lake Chatuge Recreation Area (boat launch), 440 Sunnyside Road
Lake Chatuge Beach (playground, pavilion, snack bar), 908 US-76W
With more than 130 miles of shoreline, this sprawling man-made lake is made for wetting a line, skiing, boating, camping; whatever activity in and around the water whets your whistle. There are four species of bass, bream and catfish to catch, and there are marinas on the lake that offer rentals for boats, jet skis, deck boats — most any kind of watercraft, really. Check out boundarywatersresort.com or yhwatersports.com. If you're in need of a fishing guide, look no further than bigolfish.com.
Hamilton Gardens at Lake Chatuge
96 Pavilion Road
Wander the paths at this sprawling botanical garden and you'll encounter more than 3,000 plants, including dogwood, native azaleas, wildflowers, trillium and rhododendron. In fact, the more than 400 varieties of rhododendron make it the largest collection in the state.
Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds
1311 Music Hall Road
Located along the lake, the grounds have camping facilities and multiple venues — and a full calendar of events. Coming up is a concert by Dwight Yoakam (July 31), the Georgia Mountain Fair (Aug. 13-21), LandFest American music festival (Sept. 16-18) and Georgia Mountain Fall Festival (Oct. 8-16). Visit the website for additional events and details.
*** If you only do one thing
The North Georgia mountains have some stunning waterfalls, and Hiawassee/Towns County is home to several. On the trail to High Shoals Falls, you'll pass Blue Holes Falls which, though smaller, is equally as beautiful with its deep turquoise pool beneath. The trail on to High Shoals Falls can get tricky, but it's doable. And the creek is a great place to cool off on a warm afternoon. The Northeast Georgia Mountains Travel Association offers information on these and more of the area's waterfalls.
Where to Dine
715 N. Main St.
Open breakfast through late night, this quaint eatery offers homemade biscuits, specialty pastas, burgers, salads, barbecue, steaks, and typical bar fare for the late-night bar crowd. Eat in or outside on the cozy covered patio.
142 N. Main St.
The name might sound a little wacky, but take a look at the specials board as you enter and you'll find tradition — a BLT or a hot ham-and-cheese croissant — mixed with some creative culinary endeavors, such as sausage-balsamic-blueberry flatbread or creamy Brussels sprouts soup. Tilted is a fun environment with interesting food, a worthwhile stop while in Hiawassee.
Hiawassee Seafood Bar & Grill
147 S. Main St.
An unexpected catch in this small inland town, this casual spot is a town favorite. Head here for fried seafood platters, gator bites, fish and chips, and several Cajun dishes such as stuffed catfish Pontchartrain and a tremendous muffuletta. Clever cocktails, too.
616 S. Main St.
Every town's got to have a town brewpub. And this one has a nice selection of craft beers and local wines, plus burgers, salads, tamales, nachos — the full monty of things that go with a cold brew.
Where to Stay
The Ridges Resort
3499 US-76, Young Harris, Ga.
Located in neighboring Young Harris, this pet-friendly resort offers newly renovated accommodations right on Lake Chatuge, along with activities like horseback riding, boating, fishing, swimming, a tiki-themed party boat and Splash Island inflatable obstacle course. There is also a marina with boat rentals, a fire pit, walking paths and sporting courts.
Lake Chatuge Lodge
Located on its namesake lake, the focus here is on the view. Each of the more than 100 cozy guest rooms has a balcony or private patio. The stone fireplace in the lobby is a popular place to relax, and the lodge has on-site laundry, a fitness center and the highly rated Hawg Wild BBQ and Catfish House restaurant.
Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa
6321 US-76, Young Harris, Ga.
A premier resort in the North Georgia mountains, here you'll find a championship golf course, a full-service spa for relaxing, riding stables and trails for hiking. Many guest rooms have balconies with mountain and valley views, and there are four-bedroom cottages for families.