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Dahlonega, Georgia: Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Hills!

Blackstock Vineyards, Dahlonega, Georgia
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Blackstock Vineyards, Dahlonega, Georgia

We didn’t strike it rich, but we found a gem of a place to visit. Just an hour north of Atlanta, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is Dahlonega, Georgia, site of the first Gold Rush in the USA. You can still pan for gold, but it’s more likely that the treasures you find today will be in the unique shops along the historic Square, the fine wines produced in the fertile hillsides, and the memories of Appalachian culture and Southern hospitality of this scenic region.

The Square

The square’s shaded brick sidewalks are lined with colorful gardens and benches where local people gather to enjoy a treat or just pass the time of day. City folks drive here for some homemade fudge, ice cream at an old-fashioned soda fountain, a spa treatment, or to shop for some high-quality hand-crafted jewelry, authentic Appalachian art, or something from the general store.

The centerpiece and oldest building in the 19th century square is the stately Georgian former Lumpkin County Courthouse—the oldest standing courthouse in Georgia. It is now a museum where you can learn the story of nation’s first major gold rush. Some of the its bricks were made of clay from a nearby creek and glitter with tiny flecks of gold. Moonshine, patent medicines, and morality cases were once heard upstairs while the downstairs bustled with a farmer’s market, hucksters, and black-faced minstrels.

The Gold Rush created a boomtown, and the subsequent bust—including the Civil War and Great Depression– left little money to renovate old buildings or build new. Luckily for us, these authentic remnants of 19th century Dahlonega’s colorful history remain today.

Historic markers tell the stories of these historic buildings, and you can stop at the square’s Visitor Center for a copy of the self-guided walking tour “Once Around the Square”.

You can sample local wine at Angelia Wilson’s Dahlonega Tasting Room. Then stroll over to Brad Walker Pottery. You may find him baking his wares on the back of his pickup truck

Browse the treasures at Studio Jewelers, and ask Thomas Scanlin about the love story that inspired the dazzling custom-designed Sunset Necklace. He might also show you the golden chatelaine, which he describes as “the Blackberry of the day”.

Browse the art galleries and antique shops. Need a no-nonsense trim? Head for Woody’s, where cadets from North Georgia College get their regulation style. Be pampered at Littlefield Cottage Healing Arts Center and Day Spa with soothing spa treatments and holistic and alternative medical services in an elegant century-old cottage.

Hungry? Traditional Southern fare is served family-style at the Smith House, an inn with a once- secret mine shaft. The Back Porch Oyster Bar is a local treasure tucked away on the second floor on the Square. Its reputation keeps it filled to capacity nearly every night.

Entertainment

Festivals –music, military, holiday, literary, gold, food and wine– abound. Dahlonega has evolved into a center for the performing and visual arts.

See a play or musical at the Holly Theater or catch some impromptu mountain music.
April through October there are free concerts downtown. Start the weekend with Dahlonega’s First Friday Concert Series. Bring a picnic to Hancock Park, just off the Square, and join the fun and dancing.

Saturdays 2-6 pm, April-October, there’s Appalachian Jammin’ in the Square, with North Georgia’s mountain music pickers and singers.

On Sunday afternoons, there’s a pickin’ and grinnin’ music jam with guitars, banjos, fiddles, and harmony at the Crimson Moon Café. This dinner theater in the second oldest commercial building in Dahlonega—the 1858 Parker-Nix Storehouse—also features live acoustic music by top touring performers and a New Orleans style porch overlooking the Square.

Take a driving tour along the gently rolling hills on the back roads of scenic North Lumpkin County. Breathe in the fresh mountain air and pose for a picture by one of the scenic overlooks, mountain vistas, crystal clear creeks or towering waterfalls.

Hike a scenic trail. A six gap 100 mile loop is especially popular with cyclists. Boating, fishing, rafting, kayaking, canoeing, golf and horseback riding—it’s all here for you to enjoy.

For those with insatiable wanderlust, this Gateway to the Appalachians is near the Southern terminus of “America’s Footpath”. The Appalachian Trail is just eight miles north of the popular Amicalola Falls, which at 729’ is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi.

Dahlonega Gold

The US Government established a branch mint for gold coinage in Dahlonega in 1838 that produced about a million coins worth over $6 million in face value. Each half eagle, quarter eagle, dollar, and $3 gold piece has a “D” mint mark. The mint closed in 1861 when the Civil War broke out and never reopened. The coins are highly prized by collectors today.

Price Memorial Building, Dahlonega
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Price Memorial Building, Dahlonega

Like Georgia’s Capitol dome, the steeple of North Georgia University’s Price Memorial Hall—site of the former US Mint—gleams with Dahlonega gold.

According to the Visitors’ Bureau, about 37 tons of gold was mined between 1828 and 1908, and stamp mills often ran day and night. There’s still gold in them thar hills, but it’s harder and not cost-effective to extract in a safe and environmentally responsible way.

You can explore the massive tunnel network and actual tracks and equipment are just as they appeared at the turn of the century at Consolidated Gold Mine’s Underground Mine Tour.

Pan for gold and grub for gemstones at Consolidated or at Crisson Gold Mine, where you can see the only working stamp mill in Georgia. A pound of the gold on the Georgia Capitol came from the Crisson Mine.

From stills to destination vineyards

Dahlonega is in the heart of Georgia wine country. Georgia ranked sixth among the grape growing states in 1900, and when Prohibition came along, moonshine became a booming business in Lumpkin County. The first stock car racers were moonshine runners who honed their driving skills racing ahead of the Feds on winding mountain roads.

Today the fertile hillsides of North Georgia’s wine country are part of what some call the Sonoma of the South. Warm days, cool nights, and the sandy red clay similar to that of Italy’s Terra Rosa make it ideal for grapes and wine production.

Enjoy sweeping backdrops and mountain breezes on a tasting tour of five unique award-winning estate wineries. Check their websites for dates and times of tours and entertainment.

Blackstock Vineyards according to managing owner David Harris, is the largest, most productive vineyard in North Georgia. Harris, a Georgia native, has a degree in enology and viticulture, has created an ideal environment for the serious wine enthusiast who wants to learn more.

Frogtown Winery’s owner Craig Kritzer takes great pride in his gentle underground tri-level, horizontal, gravity-flow winemaking process, housed in an impressive cypress timber frame wine-tasting and event structure. The best value, according to Kritzer, is Gold-medal winner Touché.

The newest addition is Montaluce, with a 25,000 square foot winery reminiscent of a grand centuries-old Italian villa. Vineyards run through a neighborhood typifying a Tuscan landscape. The popular destination restaurant, La Vigne, has a rustic Italian inspired menu with Southern American flair.  Try the wood oven fired flatbread for lunch with prosciutto made on site. Ah, “La vita bella”!

Three Sisters Vineyard and Winery
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Three Sisters Vineyard and Winery

Three Sisters Vineyards & Winery is an unpretentious family-run place aptly called the “Epitome of Norman Rockwell”. Owner Doug Paul is quick to note that “It ain’t Italy. It ain’t France. It’s GEORGIA”, adding that he and wife Sharon are “kind of the redneck winery… trying to make wine a part of everybody’s life.”

Three Sisters Vineyard and Winery
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Three Sisters Vineyard and Winery

Try the popular Fat Boy Red, made from a native grape grown by the Cherokee, and served with a Hershey’s kiss. Three Sisters is the site and sponsor of the annual Georgia Wine Country Festival in June.

Wolf Mountain Vineyards, Dahlonega
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Wolf Mountain Vineyards, Dahlonega

Wolf Mountain Vineyards is renowned for upscale hospitality and special vintner dinners. Owner Karl Boegner traveled to California and France to learn his craft, and produces French oak aged varietals that are more European than Californian. His emphasis is on blending these grape varietals for complex and unique wines with names like  Plenitude, Chanteloup, Howling Wolf Red, and Instinct.

Lodging

There are bed and breakfasts, mountain cabins, lodges, and country inns. Stay a while.  You’ll discover what Southern hospitality is all about. These are but three of the many fine options.

Sharon and Don Bacek left careers in real estate and law for life in Dahlonega running an elegantly furnished European-style B&B. Lily Creek Lodge is a quiet mountain retreat offering a gourmet breakfast in the French dining room, the deck, the gazebo, or the treehouse, where the only sounds are chirping birds and falling leaves.

Beginning with little more than determination, a family that defines the entrepreneurial spirit built 6 secluded cabins by hand, listened to what their guests have to say, and continue to expand, upgrade, and renovate. Forrest Hills Resort has grown to over 100 rooms, a restaurant, day spa, meeting facilities and group lodges, a luxury hotel, fitness center, walking trails, wedding gardens with gazebo and a chapel.

Each of the thirty-two rustic to luxury cabins has fireplace and hot tub, some have canopied beds and covered porches. In appreciation for military service, they generously offer a special for up to 5 nights –any available accommodations—for those being deployed or returning home.

Forrest Hills Mountain Resort, Dahlonega
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Forrest Hills Mountain Resort, Dahlonega

It’s a taste of the Old West at their Gold City Corral Stables. Go for a guided trail ride, take a romantic carriage ride, or hop aboard a horse-drawn dinner wagon for a barbeque and entertainment.

Awaken to the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans from a sister property in Costa Rica at the newly-renovated Dahlonega Spa (formerly Pura Vida). This warm and welcoming sanctuary and holistic resort and yoga retreat offers healing treatments and healthful, vegetarian-emphasized cuisine. Overlooking the mountains and Chattahoochee National Forest, it is designed for serenity and stress release. With no phones or televisions in the guest rooms, you’ll become more aware of the brightness of the stars and the beauty of the gardens. Farmhouse rooms and bear den cabins.

So go pickin’ and grinnin’, panning and grubbing, or dream of the next big strike. Savor local favorites and fine food and wine, find adventure in the great outdoors, or simply relax with the sights and sounds of unspoiled nature. You’ll find your kind of treasure in the hills of Dahlonega.

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