Sky Valley located 3,300 feet above sea level in the mountains of north Georgia, a stones throw from the North Carolina state line, is the highest incorporated city in Georgia. Once Georgia’s only ski resort before the slopes were permanently closed in 2004, life in Sky Valley now centers around the country club facility and its par-72 championship golf course. With around 350 permanent residence, the small community is best known for its many vacation homes and rentals. It is a desirable location from which to explore the sites and nearby attractions of the Northeast Georgia Mountain Region.
The week after Christmas we accompanied our youngest daughter Kacie, her husband Derrick, and Derrick’s parents Rick and Pepper to Sky Valley. We rented a lovely southern style log home near the top of a mountain for six nights. The spacious 3/3 three-level home was perfect for us. It had a massive stone fireplace with a supplied stack of firewood that we used to keep a cozy fire burning. It had a spacious eat-in kitchen with a long farm table where we prepared and shared meals. But the best feature was the large balcony deck where we sat looking across the valley at the scenic mountain vistas and picturesque sunsets.
During the first days of our stay, the weather was unseasonably warm with clear blue skies. We took advantage of the fortuitous weather and went to Tallulah Gorge State Park. The two mile long and nearly 1,000 feet deep gorge is one of the most spectacular canyons in the eastern United States. I have been there many times through the years and its beautiful views never cease to amaze me. A modern interpretive center has a gift shop, nature and history exhibits, and a theater where you can watch a film about the gorge. There is also a ranger stationed at the center where you can get permits and information for a variety of activities in the gorge such as kayaking, rock climbing, and access to the hiking trails along the gorge floor. A map of the park with all the trails is available from the ranger.
We walked along the rim trails stopping at the overlooks where we could peer down into the gorge to see the river and waterfalls below. Then despite a large sign warning of the strenuous trail ahead, we descended nearly 400 stairs to a suspension bridge. The suspension bridge, crossing 80 feet above the swift cascading water, gave another perspective to the river and waterfalls. The climb back to the rim was breathtaking in more than one sense of the word.
When we left the state park, we went to the Blue Ridge Honey Company. Grammi loves her honey. No…I am not referring to me, although I think she still likes me… but to the sweet amber nectar. She eats honey everyday. The Blue Ridge Honey Company has local honey as well as honey from other locations from around the country. We sampled all the different flavored honeys, noting the subtle difference in color and flavor. They had an orange blossom honey from Florida which is the flavor we most often buy, but we were looking for something different this time. They were all delicious. The one thing I thought they should add was a southern grandmother wearing an apron and selling hot homemade biscuits to go with their honey. People would line up out the door for that. But as it was, the place was busy and we had to wait in line to purchased a jar of local mountain flower honey and a blueberry honey from Michigan.
Next, our daughter and son in-law wanted to show us around Hillside Orchard Farms. A couple of years ago they went there during the fall season. They said it was a happening place and they loved it. It has become a must-see destination in the area with a variety of activities and entertainment like their seasonal u-pick blackberries and apples, getting lost in the corn maze, gem mining, feeding the farm animals, watching skits put on by local residents, dancing to live music, browsing the large retail farm store, eating ice cream and fresh baked goods, and much more. However, we discovered at this time of the year, there was not much going on. There were no crowds and the entertainment my daughter and son in-law hoped to show us was gone. It was the end of their season and they were preparing to close down until next summer. Still we strolled through the barnyard and said hello to Festus the donkey. We fed the goats and admired the big roosters. We checked out the farm store, buying jars of apple butter and fruit preserves. We certainly have to come back here during the season.
Our daughter suggested we go to Stonewall Creek Vineyards, another place they liked when in the area a couple years ago. On a hillside near the town of Tiger, Georgia is a charming vineyard with a tasting room and terrace to sit and enjoy a glass of wine and share a cheese platter. We chose a picnic table down the hillside as we had brought our own lunch with us. The ladies enjoyed a cup of warm mulled wine flavored with cinnamon, clove, and other spices. The guys had a sampler flight featuring four wines. We enjoyed our lunch spot while gazing across the rows and rows of grapevines. It was beautiful.
The next morning, after eating breakfast around the farm table, we went to Highlands, North Carolina. It was a beautiful drive over the mountains from Sky Valley. Along the way, we passed the busy Highlands Outpost offering snow tubing, ice skating and an opportunity to race down the mountainside on a mountain coaster. All great activities but not our cup of tea so we did not stop. A little further up the road we stopped at Blue Valley Overlook to take some pictures and admire the panoramic mountain views. We took a side trip to see Dry Falls and Bridal Veil Falls before driving into Highlands. The parking lot at Dry Falls was packed with cars lined up waiting to get in. We did not stop. We will come back later. Bridal Veil Falls was pretty as ever.
Highlands is a quaint community located within the Nantahala National Forest and is a popular destination for tourist. Main Street is the center of activity with its many shops and restaurants. It was very busy and the sidewalks were abuzz. Not deterred, we joined the fray.
Bargain hunting in a place like Highlands is a challenge that my wife accepts without hesitation. With Kacie and Pepper accompanying her, it was game on! I laughed when I saw Grammi pick up something off the shelf to check the price only to quickly put it down and slap the back of her own hand. Shop after shop, they moved through the crowd for two…maybe three hours. I tried to keep up with them but eventually tired and found a spot to sit outside while they pressed on. Finally they realized they hadn’t stopped for lunch. They had worked up quite an appetite.
Instead of succumbing to the sights and aromas spilling into the street from the restaurants and food venders, we drove away from town. We had another destination in mind for lunch — The Dillard House Restaurant. It is a well-known award-winning restaurant that began as a boarding house more than 100 years ago. It boast patronage from many famous people including Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, and Henry Ford. It is a family style restaurant serving all you can eat southern style comfort food. Everything on the menu for that day is brought to the table in serving dishes to be passed around “family style”.
The first time Grammi and I went to the Dillard House Restaurant was more than thirty years ago. The memory of that meal — that experience — stays with me. It was crowded. Parking was difficult. The wait was long. The dinning room was big and noisy, but it had a rustic vibe with stained wood ceilings and large windows highlighting the hillside view. The food was nothing less than fantastic. Crispy fried chicken, meatloaf with brown gravy, country ham with red-eye gravy, served with mash potatoes, green beans, corn on the cob, cooked cabbage, black-eyed peas, squash casserole, cornbread, hot biscuits, and for dessert — peach cobbler and apple pie. It was southern comfort food at its finest. I have raved about it ever since and given enthusiastic reviews to family and friends.
We have been back a few times — maybe three or four. Each time has been a little less impressive and fell short of my expectation. I wonder why. Is my memory of the first time over exaggerated, it was a long time ago, or has the place gone downhill? I don’t know. I cannot put my finger on it. It just has not lived up to my first impression. On this recent visit, the restaurant was not crowded. Parking was not difficult. The wait was not long. I can’t say the food was bad — we did stuff our bellies. It was just ordinary. With that said, I still recommend going to the Dillard House if you have never been. But once is probably enough.
Rise and shine for another day and we were off to Franklin, North Carolina. We are going to a large antique mall that Grammi and I have stopped at in the past. This time however, it was not to be. The building was gone and a new shopping plaza was in its place. How disappointing! We loved that place and have memories spending hours perusing its many nooks and crannies looking for interesting and unusual things.
I remember getting stuck one evening on the Fourth of July when we emerged at closing time from the mall to find the parking lot filled with tailgaters in lawn chairs waiting to see the firework show in the park across the road. There was no getting out of our parking space, so we pulled out our own chairs and joined the party. We had such a good time and was treated to a great firework display. It was after midnight before we made it back to our campsite though.
Thanks to Google, we found an antique shop in the downtown district of Franklin and since we were there we had to check out all the other shops on Main Street too.
Finally, us guys said “enough shopping” and lead the ladies by hand to the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company for lunch and a beer…or two. It did cost us though, we had to buy the ladies a Lazy Hiker souvenir t-shirt. The craft beers were very good and I learned their beers are bottled and sold at stores and restaurants all around Western North Carolina and North Georgia.
After lunch we went to Old Cardinal Gem Mine where we bought a bucket of dirt for $60.00. I know what you are thinking, but this was no ordinary dirt. This dirt, dug from a mine on the property, could contain precious gemstones like sapphires, rubies, moonstone, amethyst, or garnets. You probably don’t know this, but the area around Franklin is well-known as the “Gem Mining Capital of the World”. All we have to do is sift through the dirt to see what we find. Maybe we will strike it rich.
We took a scoop of dirt and put it in a screen. Then washed the dirt away in a flume. What was left at the bottom of the screen were some stones and pebbles. Gemstones are not easily spotted. They don’t sparkle and stand out like you might think, so they are easily mistaken as ordinary rocks. But the employees are trained to spot the gems and help to identify what we found. They say it is the luck of the shovel on what you might find. I think we did alright for our effort. We walked away with a small handful of gemstones. We didn’t get rich, but it was a fun activity. One tip though — prepare to get muddy and dress accordingly if you decide to try your luck.
Over the next couple of days the weather changed. Clouds moved in with intermittent rain and it became cold and breezy. To make matters worse for me, a sinus cold I have been dealing with for days turned into chest congestion and I started coughing — a lot. I felt bad, but mostly I was mad. What a bad time to get sick.
I stayed at the cabin as the rest of the group went for another attempt to see Dry Falls. I have seen it before. It is beautiful for the fact that a walkway goes behind the falls. There are a lot of unusual photo opportunities there.
Our daughter Shanna and her friend Bobby arrived to visit. They rented a cabin down the hill from us. Understandingly they did not want to be around me while I was sick. They did drop off a home COVID test — I was negative. They stayed and sat around the outside fire pit that evening with everyone while I stayed inside and the next morning they all went for breakfast at the Dillard House while I stayed in bed. UGH!
On our last day, I did not feel up to joining Derrick and his dad for a round of golf at the Sky Valley Champion Golf Course. There was still some on again and off again rain. Instead I chauffeured the ladies to see Mud Creek Falls and then to downtown Clayton for a final round of shopping. Shanna and Bobby went exploring on there own and we would not see them again until after we got home.
After six days in Sky Valley, Georgia, I prepared myself for a long miserable drive home on New Years Day. Interstate 75 south to Florida can be hectic on a holiday weekend. We got an early start. Fortunately, I was feeling a little better. I went to bed early and did not stay up for New Years celebration. The Saturday morning traffic through Atlanta was not awful. The drive went well and we arrived home before sunset.
This was a great adventure and we all had a fabulous time, despite me being sick. No one else got sick from me. My doctor said it was a noncontagious bacterial infection caused from the sinus cold and prescribed a round a steroids and some antibiotics. I was back to my old self in just a few days.
Until next time — Happy days, safe travels and may God bless you and yours.