Alpine Helen/White County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau photos
Beckoning tourists and outdoor enthusiasts, Helen is the place that launched a thousand trips.
Back in the early 1800s, gold was discovered in the hills of North Georgia, attracting miners and fortune-seekers to the area that was once the ancient homeland of the Cherokee. As the dust settled and miners tapped out most of what could be found, the logging industry moved in, felling trees in yet another land rush. But the logging industry faded in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s as the boll weevil was also devastating farms.
By the middle of the 20th century, the North Georgia town of Helen—named after the teenage daughter of a local railroad and sawmill owner—needed a new image. So, in 1968, town elders tapped North Georgia artist John Kollack to offer up some ideas. Kollack had been stationed in the Bavarian Alps following World War II, and he suggested the idea of turning Helen into an alpine village. Buildings were redesigned with the architecture and color of those you might find in Southern Germany. Walls and building faces were decorated with murals. The cozy mountain village soon became a hit with tourists.
Today, Helen has become the third most popular Georgia destination after Atlanta and Savannah, with hundreds of thousands of visitors coming to experience a slice of Old World charm along the Chatahoochee River.
The town keeps a busy social calendar throughout the year, though fall tends to bring the heaviest influx of guests as leaves change color. Helen’s version of Oktoberfest runs from September through November. There’s also the Helen to Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Race (June 4-6), the “Up, Up and Away” gallery exhibit (which runs June 4-Aug. 4 at the Helen Arts & Heritage Council), and the Alpenfest light show at Christmastime.
Quaint shops with German-inspired names line the main roads and side streets of Helen, which tourists can meander by foot or tour by horse-drawn carriage rides. Cafes and restaurants in downtown cater to German as well as American cuisine and have decks overlooking the river, which is used for tubing, kayaking, canoeing and fishing.
Sample fudge at the Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen, see how they make Bavarian pretzels at Hofer’s of Helen Bakery and Cafe, take a miniature tour of Germany along the toy train tracks in Charlemagne’s Kingdom, or savor seafood and schnitzel at the Hofbrauhaus Restaurant.
A few miles from town, you can hike into Unicoi State Park, tour the scenic byways of the Sautee and Nacoochee Valleys, or savor double waterfalls at Anna Ruby Falls in the Chatahoochee National Park.
To get your bearings straight, start out at the Helen Welcome Center on 726 Brucken Strasse in the middle of town, where you can find all the maps and helpful directions to navigate your way through the maze of hotels, motels, specialty shops, entertainment businesses and eateries. The town is pedestrian friendly, and most visitors tend to walk rather than drive around, so come early in the day to find a premium parking space off the beaten path.
With its alpine designs and festive spirit, Helen can seem like an imaginary place like Rivendell, a place that time forgot, but it is not immune to dangers from the outside world. In 2005, remnants of Hurricane Katrina tossed a tornado through town, doing major damage to local buildings. And though tourism has given Helen a healthy economy, hordes of traffic have also led to environmental problems with run-off spilling from asphalt into the river, so town officials try to strike that delicate balance between development and protecting the area’s natural beauty.
Reforestation projects undertaken by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps and state and national efforts to preserve wilderness lands in North Georgia allow visitors and local residents a chance to enjoy the landscape and see how it can heal over time from the scars of mining and deforestation.
A sleepy burg no more, Helen welcomes a new generation of gold rushers to a haven of escape, where Europe meets Appalachia and where time slows along the rushing waters of the Chatahoochee.