Go North: See Rock City

Along the back roads of northwest Georgia
A signpost on Lookout Mountain

Photograph by Audra Melton

The northwest Georgia mountains and the towns that dot them are less commercial than their relatives to the north and northeast of Atlanta. From the sunset side of Interstate 75 to the Alabama border—“Historic High Country,” famed for its Cherokee and Civil War history—you won’t spot a municipality themed to an Alpine village or wine trails with slick marketing campaigns. What you will find are nearly limitless views from mountaintops, fenceless fields on backcountry roads, charming historic B&Bs, slow and friendly Southern accents, barbecue joints, working tractors, horses and cows, almost-forgotten cemeteries, crumbling gas stations with “closed” signs, churches (and signs that point you to churches), half-abandoned business districts, and Victorian homes that would cost an impressive penny in Atlanta itself.

The area is not untouched. In fact, it contains sections of the Old Dixie Highway, a 5,000-plus-mile route that connected Michigan to Miami during the days before interstates. Like Route 66, the road carries cult status, and every June the Georgia stretch hosts the Ninety-Mile Yard Sale, where you might score one of the peacock chenille bedspreads made famous by the local seamstresses whose tufting techniques inspired Dalton’s carpet industry.

But northwest Georgia towns never had the moneyed pedigree of northeastern destinations like Tallulah Gorge—which nineteenth-century travelogues billed as the “Niagara of the South”—or even the panache of today’s lakeside communities in Rabun County. This corner of the state is less sophisticated, but also less sullied.

Lookout Mountain (population 1,602)

Admittedly, if you’re hoping to avoid tourist traps, you can do better than Lookout Mountain, home of the legendary Rock City. The Depression-era attraction features politically incorrect sights like Fat Man’s Squeeze and Lover’s Leap, not to mention the black-light dioramas of Fairyland Caverns. Still, the walking tour past 200-million-year-old rock formations has dramatic seven-state vistas, and the souvenirs are pure camp.

Cozy Chanticleer Inn Bed and Breakfast is a convenient drive from Rock City as well as the underground Ruby Falls—another 1930s attraction, just across the line into Tennessee, which features the nation’s largest and deepest waterfalls—and Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, which contains the largest and oldest Civil War park in the country. The inn’s main house was built in 1927, and as more tourists arrived, cottages and a pool were added—all built from rock carved right out of the mountain.

Recommended drive: from the top of the mountain in Tennessee down into Georgia on Lookout Mountain Parkway. Country-road charms vie for your attention with glorious views, and you’ll see hang gliders diving off cliffs into oblivion. When you reach the bottom, dine at upscale Canyon Grill, which draws diners from as far away as Atlanta. Note: It’s BYOB.

Trenton (population 2,301)

To the west of Cloudland Canyon State Park (where you can camp in scenic glory and, if you’re lucky, reserve one of the cottages or brand-new yurts), a winding mountain road leads into Trenton. The town is as American as a John Mellencamp song, idyllic views mixing with hardware stores, churches, Hardee’s, and the requisite Mexican restaurant.

The main draw is north of town, past lumberyards. Pass the turnoff for the KOA campground and follow signs to the Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater. With two movie screens larger than the Fox Theatre’s and more than forty acres of parking and greenspace, this is the largest outdoor movie theater in the U.S. It might also be the cleanest and family-friendliest: Before the movie, guests toss Frisbees and baseballs, the music varies between pop and country, and the concession stand glows quaintly in the dusk.

Rising Fawn (population 3,900)

Cue the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Norman Blake, whose music appears in that film, is said to reside in Rising Fawn, a dot on the map close to the Alabama border. Take Highway 11 through the heart of town (whiffing the sweet-fire smell of nearby Lazy Bones BBQ), past a few churches and cemeteries, a hardware store, and a cabin rental office. The country excursion really begins, however, when you veer onto Mason Road in the center of town. This takes you over a little creek and then loops out into farmland. Mind your speed; the road narrows considerably, and there is a dog that lies in wait at one of the houses to dart at your car. Farther down, after crossing another small bridge and coming around a turn, you might have to slow again when guinea fowl step across the road.

Summerville (population 4,534)

Most people visit Summerville, smack-dab in the heart of Chattooga County, to tour Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden; camp at James H. “Sloppy” Floyd State Park; see one of the nation’s few remaining train turntables; or meet Bobby Lee Cook, the local defense attorney who inspired Andy Griffith’s Matlock. You might catch Cook at Armstrong’s Barbecue. With its red vinyl booths, white marble laminate tables and walls, and plates heaping with sliced pork and slaw, this third-generation business could well be located in Mayberry.

For a more curious experience, I struck out to find Corpsewood Manor. It’s a decaying mansion built by a retired professor named Charles Scudder on top of Taylor Ridge outside of town. Scudder inspired small-town gossip of pornography, drugs, and Satan worship. In 1982, he and his supposed lover Joseph Odom were murdered there, along with their two bullmastiffs. Since then, the castle in the woods has fallen into disrepair—and drawn sightseers with a dark streak. Ask a gas station attendant how to get there. Warning: Don’t take anything from the mansion grounds. It is said that evil befalls all who do.

LaFayette (population 7,121)

LaFayette bills itself as “Queen City of the Highlands” and boasts a rich history—French American, Native American, African American—dating back to the 1830s. Today it is well known to rock climbers, who flock here to scale Rocktown and Lost Wall at nearby Pigeon Mountain. The town has a refined feel, particularly in LaFayette Square, which is home to an upscale fitness club and a restaurant called One-Eleven. Owned by Michael Lovelady, who also runs Chattanooga Street Tavern here, this trendy spot is set in a former hardware store and auto dealership. When you walk in and see the original heart pine floors, an elevator that once lifted Model Ts to the second story, redbrick walls hung with local art, and an espresso and wine bar, you’ll think you’re back in Inman Park.

Rome (population 36,303)

Nestled proudly in the nooks and seven hills created by the convergence of three rivers (the Etowah, Oostanaula, and Coosa), small-town Rome has many sights familiar to its big-city neighbor, including retail chains, Braves hats, and traffic.

Catch a Rome Braves game. Go antiquing and sightseeing on Broad Street, one of the most extensive Victorian-era national historic districts in the state. Check out the town’s version of Big Ben, the 100-foot-tall Tower Clock built in 1871. In the evenings, Brewhouse Music & Grill fills up with families dining and listening to live music. In November, buy tickets for the annual Underground Rome tours to wander beneath those historic buildings.

A short drive from downtown is the Chieftains Museum, located in the former home of Cherokee leader Major Ridge, who is notable for his attempts (and ultimate failure) to negotiate a fair property settlement with the federal government and Andrew Jackson. The Cherokee branded him a traitor, and a mob murdered him in Oklahoma.

For a less politically haunted experience, stroll the stunning campus of Berry College or hike Johns Mountain Trail, which leads to Keown Falls. Then check into the Claremont House on Second Avenue, a rambling bed-and-breakfast built in 1882. Popular with writers, it’s owned and operated by Chris and Holly McHagge, who are experts on area tours and history. They live in the house with their young daughter, two cats, and a Great Dane (the latter keeps out of sight). Your stay there includes a hot breakfast and friendly chats with the McHagges and fellow travelers.

Cave Spring (population 1,200)

In the middle of Cave Spring, sixteen miles southwest of Rome along the Trail of Tears, you will find exactly that: a cave with a spring. Pay $1 to climb around the misty, decently lit hollow. While you’re there, wander the town’s Rolater Park. Among the historic sights, including a 200-year-old log cabin, you’ll come across Rolater Lake, which is actually a giant swimming pool in the shape of Georgia, dug by hand by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s drained and filled weekly with more than a million gallons of cold, fresh water from Cave Spring. But Mack Abbott, owner of nearby Two Pop’s BBQ on Broad Street, warned me, “When you jump in, it’ll take away your manhood.”

The small downtown bustles with commerce and activity, including antique shops, Martha Jane’s Fudge, Linda Marie’s Steakhouse on the Square, a hardware store that sells mule plows, and a bandstand where one might begin a run for office. Check flyers on windows for upcoming festivals: Cave Spring is a place that likes to throw a party.

This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.