RABUN COUNTY, Ga. — Winter is here and the temperatures have cooled. For many, that means hibernation; no more outdoor activities, vacations or family fun.
But this time of year ranks as one of the best times to enjoy one of the state’s best kept secrets, Rabun County, and all that the North Georgia mountains have to offer.
“The winter months are a beautiful time of year to come up here,” Bill Bennett from Outdoor 76 told wsbtv.com’s Nelson Hicks. “Getting outdoors, the winter views are just awesome. It’s probably my most favorite time to hike through the mountains because the views, you can just see so much more through the woods, all the foliage has died down as you get into the higher elevations and do some of the hikes here, where you’re climbing some of the mountains. The views through the woods and of the mountains are just fantastic. It’s just a really beautiful time of the year to get out and explore the mountains of north Georgia.”
Between outdoor activities, great views, unique shopping, an array of accommodations, wineries, distilleries, breweries and minimal crowds, it’s a great getaway.
Let’s start with some of the outdoor opportunities for adventure. Seventy-five percent of the land in Rabun County is either in the National Forest, a state park or is held by Georgia Power. Combine that with eight mountain peaks over 4,000 feet; and 34 waterfalls; and hiking, mountain biking and trail running, opportunities abound.
“The great part about winter in the mountains are just the views,” Cory McCall from Outdoor 76 said. ”A lot of people think about the best time to be able to come up and participate in outdoor activities being the summer time, and really my favorite is in the winter because you get to see a lot more. So there’s a lot more rewards in the hikes and the trail runs.”
From an afternoon trip up and down Tallulah Gorge to a weekend, week, or longer outing navigating the Appalachian Trail or the Bartram Trail, plenty of hiking, biking and running trails offer visitors a chance to interact with nature. An added bonus this time of year is snow; the higher elevations are often covered in it during the winter.
But before heading out, head to downtown Clayton and spend a little time with Bennett and McCall at Outdoor 76. Not only do they have the gear to get you ready for any outdoor activities, they’re a wealth of knowledge about the outdoor adventures that await in the area. Hit them up for some help before heading out. Their top tip: be prepared for the elements by wearing lots of layers.
Looking for more outdoor fun? Skiing at Maggie Valley is just an hour up the road. Snow tubing and ice skating is even closer. Head to Scaly Mountain Outdoor Center just across the state line to enjoy it.
There’s horseback riding, too. The Dillard House Stables offers guided tours atop horseback; everything from a 30-minute beginner tour to scenic farm rides, river rides and private outings.
“A lot of people come for the weekend,” Pam Thompson who runs Dillard House Stables, said. “They hike for a day, ride horses for a day, they might do a white-water rafting trip.”
For those whose sense of adventure is piqued not by mountain peaks, but by scoring a good deal on a great find, there’s plenty of shopping, too. Local boutiques and antique markets offer treasures you won’t find anywhere else.
“You just never know what you might find,” Elizabeth Hooper from Yesterday’s Treasures said.
Feeling accomplished after a day on the trails or scoring a good deal? It’s time to celebrate. Georgia’s best kept secret is no secret at all to whiskey lovers. From R.M. Rose and Co. Distillery’s award-winning whiskeys to the top-ranked distillery in Georgia as selected by the readers of James Magazine (that’s Moonrise Distillery) if you’re a whiskey lover, Rabun County is the place to visit.
“People that come here spend a couple of hours with us, whether it’s tours, tastings, cocktails, whatever, they’re curious about how it used to be made and that’s really what we’re all about,” said Doug Nassaur from Moonrise Distillery. “So everything is made by hand. We use local ingredients wherever it’s possible.”
More than 8,000 people a month visit Moonrise Distillery for a tasting, tour or both. The company features a two-time gold medal-winning vodka and gin, ready-to-drink craft cocktails, bourbons and a rye whiskey that was named “Best Rye Whiskey in Georgia” at the 2019 Georgia Trustees Wine and Spirits Competition.
“We wanted to create an experience up here in the North Georgia mountains that you used to be able to get on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” Nassaur said. “Analogous to a teaching hospital, we’re a teaching distillery. So we want people to come up here and get that full experience.”
Want to check it out? Tastings and tours start most days at 1 p.m. Book it online on Moonrise Distillery’s website.
Liquor not your thing? How about a cold brew? Visitors will find Currahee Brewing Company just off Main Street in downtown Clayton.
“Our craft beers are kind of a wide range,” Scott Mazarky from Currahee Brewing said. “We have some ambers, we have dark beers, we have a coffee-milk stout that has won awards. It’s really good if you’re in to that kind of cold brew coffee, dark beer kind of thing. We have a lot of good IPAs, if you’re into that. We really kind of have a beer for every palate.”
The owners transformed an old auto shop into a brewery and tasting bar. It’s open seven days a week, features live music on Friday and Saturday nights, and offers everything from Lucky Scars Hazy IPA to a creation called Doctor Evil.
Maybe a good glass of wine is more your speed. The area is home to a number of wineries and tasting rooms. Enjoy a glass while shopping in downtown Clayton at the Clayton Cafe and Market, or for the adventurous, venture up a 3,000 foot mountain to Terra Incognita Vineyard.
“What we have here is a remote location and we see that as a benefit,” Torsten Ernest from Terra Incognita Vineyard said. “If you’re looking for a place that is off the beaten path, that is really something that is unique and a little rough around the edges, but very genuine, and has some really unique attributes, this is the place for you.”
From stunning sunsets to nights by the fire to wine, the vineyard sits on 124 acres surrounded by miles of national forest. It offers a setting you won’t find anywhere else.
“We wanted to blend not just wine drinking and your typical vineyard experience, we wanted to blend that with outdoor exercise and outdoor activity; and so we’ve been developing trails and plan to open more trails, hopefully work with the Forest Service.”
Time to call it a night? It might be best after enjoying all that wine. The area offers plenty of options, from a fireplace suite at the Dillard House, where you can wake up and enjoy a one-of-a-kind southern breakfast, to the historic Rabun Manor where guests can enjoy fantastic views to the Beechwood Inn, selected by Southern Living Magazine as “One of the South’s Most Charming Inns.” The Beechwood Inn celebrates its 100-year anniversary as a business in 2022, and provides guests with a semi-rustic stay at a historic bed-and-breakfast.
“(We) have ‘Wine-30′ at 5:30 and if they want to come to that, we usually have a fresh appetizer and they have a chance to meet other people,” Gayle Darugh from the Beechwood Inn said. “We’ve seen so many friendships formed here. And they like that. It’s much more intimate than a hotel.”
The Inn was named to the Select Registry, a registry that includes a collection of independent boutique inns that deliver a level of personalized service nearly unheard of in the industry. The appetizers alone should have landed them a spot on the list, but it’s their attention to detail and service that did the trick.
Looking for a little different experience? Grab some friends, light up the campfire and cook up some s’mores, and experience a night under the stars on a visit to the area. Just don’t forget your long johns.
Mountain views, outdoor activities, shopping, fine wine and drinks; there’s plenty to do in Rabun County and the North Georgia mountains. Or you can just sit back, relax and enjoy the day. It’s up to you.
This story is sponsored by Explore Rabun.