Day Trippin’: Mountains, lake, garden in Hiawassee

The rocks on top of Bell Mountain preserve 50 years of graffiti. (Margie Williamson/Now Habersham)

Hiawassee is on the shores of Lake Chatuge, a Tennessee Valley Authority lake, and is surrounded by mountains. The views are spectacular in all directions. My husband Bob and I visited in early September. The mountains were stunning. The leaves are already beginning to change, so now is the time to start planning your own day in Hiawassee.

There’s already a hint of fall in the foliage. (Margie Williamson/Now Habersham)

Our trip to Hiawassee didn’t go according to plan. We planned to leave at 8:00 am, but we had heavy fog at our house. We delayed an hour leaving, allowing time for the fog to clear further north. Sadly, it hadn’t when we arrived.

Then, my GPS sent us somewhere we had no intention or desire to go. We started over with a better address and drove up what was once a rutted, single-lane country road that went straight up. My little car struggled with the climb, and passing another vehicle on the narrow, now paved road was white-knuckle inducing.

The road is steep, narrow, and winding, with danger signs all the way to the top. (Margie Williamson/Now Habersham)

Finally, when we arrived at our first destination, the entire top of the mountain was covered in fog and low clouds.

Visibility was nearly non-existent when we arrived at the top of the mountain. (Margie Williamson/Now Habersham)

Nothing went according to plan, and we still had a great day. You just never know, do you?

Our plan was to go to Bell Mountain, Hamilton Botanical Garden, and then lunch, hoping to do some bird watching as we went. Here’s what we really did.

BELL MOUNTAIN

I found out about Bell Mountain on a state publication of places to visit in Northeast Georgia. Bell Mountain is located just east of Hiawassee and is known for its 360-degree views from the top. Its history is a little more involved.

We waited over an hour for the fit to clear enough to see Lake Chatuge below. (Margie Williamson/Now Habersham)

Like most places in north Georgia, the summit of Bell Mountain originally belonged to the Cherokee. When the Indian Removal Act of the 1800s forced the Cherokee to leave, the mountain’s ownership went to William Taylor through a land lottery draw. Ownership changed hands multiple times before it was purchased in 1960 by a mining group in Murphy, North Carolina. Under the name the Hiawassee Stone Company, the top of the mountain was blasted and mined for Quartzite. However, the cost of the mining and the transporting of the Quartize was so great, the company did not survive. The mountain was eventually given to Towns County in 2015 to be a county park.

However, long before the mountain summit was given to Towns County, young people and college students discovered the area. Local Kristen Waddell has been up the mountain many times. She describes the old road as being so full of deep ruts that people going up the mountain could only go partway and then had to hike up to the top. The road was finally paved by the county when someone fell off the rocks at the top and an ambulance couldn’t get to the injured person.

The road to the top of Bell Mountain is narrow, steep, and winding. (Photo Bob Williamson)

The road now is still too narrow for two cars to pass each other, so a few pull-offs are provided to help cars get around each other. The speed limit is 5 mph and there are warning signs all the way to the top about the danger of the road.

In my research, I read about “historical graffiti” at the top. For over 50 years, college students from Young Harris College and local teenagers have been painting graffiti on the rocks at the summit. Until recently, painting on the rocks was still allowed by the county. That, however, is no longer allowed. Waddell knows of one young teenager who was caught painting graffiti and was charged with a felony. There are signs and cameras at the top to enforce the new rules.

When we got to the top, it felt otherworldly, high in the clouds with visibility of only a few feet. We climbed to the top of the observation platform (115 steps) and waited.

It was well over an hour before we could begin to see anything. The clouds were slow to go, but when they finally opened up, the panoramic vistas were amazing. The view was definitely worth waiting on. Sadly, no photo I took of the scenery came out spectacularly because the day remained somewhat overcast.

Bell Mountain is a site that hang-gliders frequent. There’s no set schedule for the hang-gliders because that depends on wind currents, but you may get lucky and see them. We did not, but we’ll go back. I’ve read that the wind currents there will keep them in air for an hour or more. Interestingly, the wait staff at the Hawg Wild barbecue restaurant where we ate told us that the hang-gliders usually come toward their restaurant as they descend, so you may be able to see them from there as well.


I had also read about eagles on top of the mountain and we hoped to see those. We didn’t. However, we saw a bunch of Chimney Swifts and watched a Black Vulture soar over the area. We also saw our first Cedar Waxwing. It’s a beautiful bird and we were able to see a pair of them. For us, that was a total win.

As we waited for the view to clear, we watched a Black Vulture gliding majestically above us. (Margie Williamson/Now Habersham)

There is no charge for visiting Bell Mountain County Park and Historical Site. Parking is provided at the top. There are no restrooms or water available, so, plan accordingly. For directions, use the address 220 Shake Rag Road in Hiawassee for GPS. Do not use the 900 Bell Mountain address. This area is handicapped accessible with a lower observation platform just off the parking lot.

According to Kristen Waddell, the best time to go is at sunset because the view is spectacular. Personally, I wouldn’t want to drive down the mountain after dark.

Lunch

We stayed at the top of Bell Mountain for so long that we had to go straight to lunch. Our desire was to find a restaurant that had outdoor seating. We were surprised to find that many of the fast-food restaurants in Hiawassee are drive-through only still. We finally chose Hawg Wild on the west side of Hiawassee. It had outdoor, covered seating with ceiling fans, and overlooked Lake Chatuge.

Lunch with a view (Margie Williamson/Now Habersham)

The pulled chicken was delicious, the view was incredible, and the wait staff was wonderful and friendly. That’s where I met Kristen Waddell. She pointed out an island directly across from the restaurant on which Burch Cemetery is located.

The idea of a cemetery on an island intrigued me so I did some research. At one time, the island was part of Jarrett Burch’s farm and became the site of his family’s burial spot. By 1941, there were 300 graves located there. However, the plan for creating Lake Chatuge changed all that. The majority of the graves were relocated to a new location. When families denied permission to remove the graves of about 24 ancestors, they were left where they were. The height of the area kept the graves above water and on an island after the lake was filled.

Hamilton Botanical Garden

After lunch, we moved on to Hamilton Garden, which is located inside the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds. The garden is famous for its extensive collection of native azaleas and rhododendrons, as well as hybrid varieties that were propagated by Hazel and Fred Hamilton.

At one time, the Hamiltons kept up two private gardens, one in Atlanta and one in Towns County. Later in life, Hamilton found land on the shore of Lake Chatuge that was donated to Towns County by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Hamiltons brought all of their plants to the Towns county location in 1981, initially bringing over a thousand plants into the new garden. Today that number is over 1,500, and other plants have been added to the garden. In 2003, the garden received the designation of botanical garden through the State of Georgia. Today, there are also eight original metal sculptures located throughout the garden.

The garden has a peace and serenity that is special. While we were in the garden, only a few others were there at the same time. The views of Lake Chatuge from the Courey Shoreline Trail are beautiful and benches are strategically placed to provide opportunities to sit and watch the water. There is a total of two miles of trails in the garden, and you have the choice to do one or two or all of them.

We did notice that many of the rhododendrons had new blooms. I contacted the garden to see if those would bloom in the fall but have not received a response. My gut feeling is that there will be a second blooming from those hybrid plants that should be beautiful to see.

The cost to visit the garden is $2.00 a person or $5.00 for a family. The money is collected through donation boxes at the entrance and is on the Honor System. Brochures with a map of the garden trails are there as well.

The garden is not wheelchair or stroller accessible. The trails are covered with mulch, and the hill is steep. There are plenty of benches along the paths for resting but be prepared with good walking shoes and water. Restrooms and a water fountain are located behind the Celebration Pavilion next to the parking area.

To get there, turn off Hwy 76 into the fairgrounds and then take the first right after going through the arches. The 33-acre garden is located off the top level of the parking lot. The address is 1311 Music Hall Drive in Hiawasee.

If you have time left over, the town of Hiawassee has interesting boutiques, shops, and antique stores. There’s plenty to do there to fill out your day.

We ended up spending some time on a bench that overlooked the mountains, enjoying the breeze, the scenery, and the promise of fall in the air.

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