I LACED UP MY BOOTS as my husband tightened the straps on the kids’ hiking packs. They weren’t strictly necessary for our journey ahead, but my boys were all-in for our adventure and willing to sport the accessories to prove it. Like our own personal Sherpas, the kids carried snacks and water bottles as we set off to explore the Angel Creek Trail, which runs through the Chattahoochee National Forest in Rabun County. Later in our day, we would find trinkets in a stroll through local shops. We would fill our bellies with farm-fresh food, and embrace a little R&R over a glass of local wine. But first, we wanted to wake up our muscles and fill our lungs with fresh mountain air. In a way, we were paying our dues before indulging in the leisurely activities to come, but truthfully, the hike was a reward in itself; our souls quieted under the cover of mountain laurel and rhododendron. Our spirits rejoiced as we stopped to marvel at waterfalls along the way.
Touted as the place “Where Spring Spends Summer,” Rabun County’s elevation and rainfall combine to create year-round mild temperatures, and there is no shortage of outdoor space to explore.
With three lakes—Burton, Rabun and Seed—and 60 percent of the county designated as a national forest, Rabun is a nature lover’s playground, but there’s something for everyone in its 11 charming communities. From Dillard and Clayton to Lakemont and Tiger, you could spend a week exploring this 377-square-mile county. But if you come for the day, here are just a few spots to add to your itinerary.
WHERE TO WANDER
Rabun County is home to more than 30 waterfalls, most of which are accessible via mild to moderate trails, but with topography that varies from mountain peaks to deep river gorges, there are trails for all levels here. A good place to start is Black Rock Mountain State Park in Mountain City. The highest state park in Georgia, Black Rock Mountain boasts a roadside overlook offering a breathtaking 80-mile vista, plus 11 miles of hiking trails and a small lake that’s easily accessible for anglers.
For those who crave culture, the Foxfire Museum is a living history lesson brought to life by students at the nearby Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. The 106-acre center offers a glimpse into Appalachian heritage with self-guided tours featuring 10 authentic pioneer log cabins as well as artifacts, handcrafted housewares, folk art and more that date back 180 years.
After a busy day, treat your tired legs to some entertainment at the Tiger Drive-In Theater. One of the few remaining drive-ins in the country, the Tiger features first-run movies and modern amenities in a vintage setting, plus a schedule of live music on weekends and camping spots if you want to extend your stay.
WHERE TO SHOP
When you’re ready to trade the backcountry for more civilized exploration, the county seat of Clayton is a good place to start. The charming main street district is replete with spots for your shopping pleasure. Prepare for your next adventure at Outdoor 76, a small but specialized outfitter offering great gear and advice from knowledgeable staff, plus a bar with beer on tap in the back.
Ladies will love Cage-free boutique, where you’ll find simple yet stylish clothing, jewelry and accessories. And Wander North Georgia, featured in our spring issue, is your one-stop shop to everything from apparel and apothecary to beer and books.
Head south on Hwy. 441 from Clayton to pay a visit to Blue Ridge Honey Co. in Lakemont, where you can select from seven different kinds of natural, raw honey collected from bee yards in Georgia and North Carolina– or even purchase bees to start your own home hive.
And if you’re traveling with kids, a stop at Goats on the Roof in Tiger is a must. The shop peddles souvenirs such as t-shirts and jam, but the main attraction is the namesake goats, who do, in fact, prance playfully on the roof to the delight of the little customers who come to see and feed them.
WHERE TO EAT
All that exploring is bound to work up an appetite. Back in Downtown Clayton, Fortify Kitchen + Bar is our favorite place to refuel. A community hub, Fortify emphasizes local in everything from the ingredients on the plate to the art on the walls. Menu highlights include meatloaf with bourbon BBQ sauce and bacon-onion marmalade, plus artful cocktails using house-made shrubs, homemade ice creams, and plenty of gluten-free options. Down the street, treat yourself at The Farmhouse Donuts, where unique topping combinations include the Hay Stack (chocolate, toasted coconut and caramel drizzle).
Many local restaurants emphasize takeout, and there are plenty of places in Rabun to enjoy a meal outside. But perhaps the best place for an alfresco bite is Julep Farms. The 22-acre property in Dillard is a picturesque spot for a picnic. Grab a cup of freshly brewed coffee or a gourmet treat at The Social House, the farm’s onsite cafe, and take it outside to stroll the grounds of this modern farm resort. Be sure to pay a visit to the gardens and chicken coop, where dozens of hens live in luxury in their quaint, cottage-like quarters. Or make it a full meal with sophisticated Southern fare and a classic cocktail from the patio bar. If you’re here at dusk, you can also feast your eyes on an ensemble of fireflies dancing over the creek bed between the farm’s cottages, which are available for rent.
Thirsty? Rabun is home to several vineyards and distilleries, and adult day-trippers will enjoy a tour and tasting at Moonrise Distillery, where the tantalizing tales of whiskey history and production are as intoxicating as the carefully crafted bourbons, vodkas and gins. If wine is more your style, spend an afternoon at Tiger Mountain Vineyard, which is currently offering wine by the bottle plus cheese and crackers to enjoy with live entertainment outside its Red Barn Café.
WHERE TO STAY
If you simply can’t squeeze the fun into a single day, Rabun County offers a wide range of accommodations, from camping at Black Rock Mountain to cottage rentals at the Dillard House.
But our favorite place to stay is tucked into the temperate rain forest of Lakemont at the Lake Rabun Hotel. Originally built in 1922, a recent renovation preserved the building’s historic charm while adding modern amenities. Rooms are both rustic and charming, perfect for a romantic getaway, and the onsite Lake Rabun Restaurant will make you feel like you’re dining on farm-to-table fare in a magical forest. The inn itself is kid-free, but families in need of a little more space can opt for the Innkeepers Cottage or nearby Fish Camp Cottages, which were designed to be a gathering place for families to commune after their area adventures.