The owners of Glen-Ella Springs Inn advise first-time visitors to arrive before dark, the better to navigate those last tricky turns off Highway 441. And the better, perhaps, to stave off any ghostly thoughts city dwellers might entertain while driving down the remote, forest-fringed gravel road that leads to the historic property. Despite our best intentions, the landscape was all shadows by the time my husband and I arrived, and we were grateful for the sound of glasses clinking on the dining terrace.
Located near Clarkesville on the outskirts of the Chattahoochee National Forest, Glen-Ella is the ideal retreat for that traveler who seeks quiet sky and land and woods but not bugs and freeze-dried food and beds that zip up. Built in 1875, the cozy, three-story inn has long been a family operation—first under Glen and Ella Davidson, when it was a summertime refuge for the wealthy, and much later under Bobby and Barrie Aycock, a Decatur couple who bought and restored the property in 1986 and earned its current spot on the Select Registry of Distinguished Inns. (The building did a stint as an orphanage in between.) In 2008, the Aycocks sold Glen-Ella to first-time innkeepers Ed and Luci Kivett, who gently updated the decor and continue to nurture an atmosphere of simplicity and sophistication.
Guest rooms, which range from smallish queens to spacious king suites, are old-fashioned and elegant, with heart-pine walls, antique furnishings, white matelasse bed coverlets, cheerful chintz, and surprisingly large bathrooms. Each of the sixteen rooms opens onto a shared porch lined with rocking chairs, and that’s where we got our first daylight view of the place. We ventured outside and beheld a mist-covered meadow, a flower garden abuzz with butterflies and hummingbirds, and, on the terrace steps, a plump gray cat stretched out in the sun. Our fish-out-of-water nerves from the night before dissolved.
It’s easy to spend a weekend at Glen-Ella and never leave the grounds. The rocking chairs have an almost magnetic pull. You can walk the newly forged trails along Panther Creek or, on a hot day, take a dip in the well-water pool. The complimentary hot breakfast is available for just one hour (8:30 to 9:30), but you’re free to linger on the terrace and savor made-from-scratch biscuits and cinnamon buns. The restaurant opens to the public at dinner. A loyal clientele drives for miles to sample fresh, regional dishes such as trout sprinkled with Georgia pecans or shrimp and andouille sausage served atop fried grits. As a designated “farm tasting room” of Helen’s Habersham Winery, Glen-Ella sells only a few Georgia wines. But the Kivetts have applied for a wine and beer license—permissible as of June in the formerly dry county—and plan to diversify their offerings.
When you do leave the grounds, you’ll likely be on a quest for waterfalls, wineries, or both. The most famous collection of falls is in Tallulah Gorge, a must-visit state park just ten minutes away. The gentle north rim trail affords spectacular views of the 1,000-foot gorge, which Karl Wallenda traversed via tightrope in 1970. Adventurers will want to tackle the two-hour round-trip hike to the bottom—a privilege reserved for early risers who snatch up the daily allotted 100 permits. After descending some 600 stairs and crossing a knee-buckling suspension bridge, permit holders are left to blaze their own trail on boulders along the Tallulah River. Unfortunately, Georgia Power now slows water flow for most of the year, but the two-mile-long canyon is dramatic itself, particularly when ablaze with fall color. Count on finishing the hike wet and hungry. Fortunately, nearby Oinkers BBQ serves heaping plates of pork plus sweet tea by the pitcher.
Another must-see waterfall is Minnehaha, located precisely 3.3 miles up Bear Gap Road from the inn. After a string of hairpin turns, look for an unmarked wooden staircase in the woods to your left. Park your car and follow the trail about a half mile until the cascading beauty greets you with a rush of cool air. It’s an easy stop on your way to ogle the opulent homes and boathouses on Lake Rabun, or to eat dinner at the small but classy Lake Rabun Hotel, where the deck overlooks the water.
The region’s burgeoning wine industry has become a popular draw in recent years, and Glen-Ella is in a prime position to access Tiger Mountain and Persimmon Creek vineyards to the northeast, two of the state’s most award-winning producers, and the valley of Sautee Nacoochee to the west, home to tasting rooms for Yonah Mountain and the brand-new Sautee Nacoochee vineyards. With the Sautee Nacoochee community’s historic general store, elegant folk pottery museum, and artsy boutiques, the area makes for a pleasant day trip. Bookend your afternoon with a glass of Cabernet on the tasting room porch, or take a bottle back to Glen-Ella and enjoy it by the fire pit in the meadow, contemplating the black-as-night forest’s edge and a sky lit up with stars.
LODGING AND DINING
Glen-Ella Springs Inn & Meeting Place
1789 Bear Gap Road
Room rates from $150 nightly
Lake Rabun Hotel & Restaurant
35 Andrew Lane
2353 Highway 441 South, Clayton
Tallulah Gorge State Park
Visit website to download a brochure and map to ten area wineries