The healing power of water combines with Georgia’s welcoming Southern hospitality for an ideal antidote to stress in any form. Exploring lakes in the state’s small towns, where all manner of outdoor adventure awaits—be it fly fishing or epic hikes—makes for a rejuvenating journey among the visual splendor of the landscape.
All over the world, studies have shown that spending time around bodies of water or “blue spaces” boosts immunity and increases white blood cell counts, thanks to the cleaner air and plants that grow nearby. Plus, science shows these locations lower the heart rate and stress hormones. And then there’s the built-in water therapy—weightlessness in water calms the mind by releasing endorphins. But you certainly don’t have to globe-trot to experience the value of an aqueous environment. Here are three lesser-known, lake-laden towns to discover in Georgia, each rife with opportunities to breathe in the fresh air and soak up the benefits of the water-filled outdoors.
Lake Rabun’s crystal waters
A destination well-suited for families, Lake Rabun is a twisty mountain lake with twenty-five miles of shoreline and known for its wooden boats. Contact Bear Gap Outfitters and rent paddleboards, canoes, and kayaks to make each day memorable. Another popular option is to take a guided stargazing cruise: the lake’s wide sky and open expanses make it one of the epic places in Georgia to view constellations.
An experience that will delight travelers of all types, Pontoon boat rentals are available from the Rabun Boat House, locally known as the “Hall’s,” which has been in operation since the 1930s and helps define the area’s historic appeal. Come evening, make a short drive outside of Clarkesville to go to the Tiger Drive-In, where you can not only enjoy a movie, but children can play on the playground and order food from the onsite grill serving corn dogs, nachos, and other kid-approved snacks.
For those who prefer overland adventures, horseback riding through the mountains or at sunset makes for another activity that’s great for nearly any age or skill level and is available through Sunburst Adventures, along with even more heart-revving escapades, including ATV riding excursions. For more water-centric adventures, explore the rim trails around the dramatic, nearly 1,000-foot-deep canyon at Tallulah Gorge State Park.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Bleu Canoe, located in downtown Clarkesville, for Cajun delights such as jambalaya or crawfish étouffée on blackened Mahi. Dine alfresco on the wraparound deck nestled among trees, and after dinner, stroll to the stargazing field (a mowed expanse of grass where guests play badminton and other lawn sport during the day) for even more stress-relieving fresh air and the wondrous skies above. Or try The Copper Pot to savor a scratch-made pizza and sample one of their creative craft cocktails.
Rest up after all your adventures at a gem of a local boutique hotel. Glen-Ella Springs Inn & Restaurant’s 16 rooms, decorated with period antiques and locally crafted furniture, each with its own covered porch and rocking chairs to enjoy the crisp air and serene environs, make for a welcome respite. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and set on 17 lush acres, the Inn itself is a bucolic retreat. And nearby, an easy hike will lead you to the majestic, 100-foot Minnehaha Falls, where the cascading waters provide a peaceful soundtrack and what are thought to be the recharging, uplifting effects of negative ions that proliferate in mountain and other natural environments.
Another historic option is the Lake Rabun Hotel, built in 1922, where you can enjoy relaxing at the onsite spa, grab cocktails and a bite at the full bar and restaurant, and wake up to a complimentary breakfast. For a more rustic option, take your RV or pack a tent and stay at the Lake Rabun Beach Recreation Area, where you can also explore on foot as you head to Angel Falls.
Outdoor experiences in Hiawassee
Hiawassee means meadow in the Cherokee language, and its waterways and overall landscape are what this part of Georgia is known for. One of the main attractions in the area, Lake Chatuge, offers more than 130 miles of shoreline and multiple ways to experience the water. Enjoy fishing for bass—smallmouth, largemouth, and spotted—or cast a line for black crappie or catfish. Test your skills at waterskiing, rent a boat, or have a leisurely weekend of swimming and camping at the lake.
If you crave more water activities, head to High Shoals Falls to let the sights and sounds of five falls mesmerize you. At 300 feet, these falls showcase the beauty and power of falling water. Park in the free area, then stop at the many observation decks along the 1.2-mile High Shoals Trail until you reach the falls. From there, head to Brasstown Bald—Georgia’s highest point at upwards of 4,000 feet—to see spectacular views of the landscape all year round, although the highlight is undoubtedly the fall when trees burst with autumn colors.
To continue communing with nature, go to Hamilton Rhododendron Gardens, where you can surround yourself with 30 acres of natural forest. Brimming with native azaleas, dogwood, ferns, trillium, rare perennials, and wildflowers, the true highlight is the abundance of rhododendrons. View more than 400 varieties with 3,000-plus plants along the accessible hiking trail routes.
For a restful stay in the area, book Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa. Dine at one of multiple restaurants and savor a spa treatment infused with Cherokee-inspired healing elements. The Ridges Resort on Lake Chatuge offers everything from single rooms to private villas, and you can spend the day at the resort’s Splash Island area, or rent a boat, paddleboard, or kayak. Eat at The Oaks Lakeside Kitchen to enjoy a meal with a view or at Sundance Grill & Bar for a quick bite.
A stylish lakeside atmosphere
When you want to combine the finer things in life with the playfulness of being by the water, Lake Oconee near Greensboro fits the bill. The second-largest lake in Georgia, Lake Oconee lies halfway between Augusta and Atlanta, making it a respite outside the cities. Full-service marinas on the lake ensure that you get the most out of the water. Rent a jet ski or boat and go wakeboarding and tubing, or for something more relaxed, explore the many coves on a canoe and go fishing.
To delve deeper into fishing, head to Young Harris Water Sports and schedule a four-hour guided excursion, where you may catch white bullhead or the elusive white bass. If swinging a club is more your style, explore one—or all—of the five championship golf courses at The Ritz Carlton Reynolds (a lakeview property that we also recommend as a place to stay).
When it comes to eating out, you can find everything from fine dining to locally made beer here. Plan an evening at Linger Longer Steakhouse at the Ritz-Carlton, featuring steak and freshly caught seafood. Also on property, Gaby’s by the Lake offers more casual dining. Try the lobster grilled cheese and order a signature cocktail at this poolside eatery.
Schedule time to head to downtown Greensboro, where you can peruse museums and have a bite at The Yesterday Cafe, famous for its buttermilk pies. When you need a refreshing brew, head to Oconee Brewing Company to taste the local beer made on premises. You may even catch one of their live music events on Fridays and Saturdays.
Local food and drink throughout Blue Ridge
Whether you want to make dining your focus or let meals enhance the experience of your days on the lake, Blue Ridge is a lovely choice. Spend your days on Lake Blue Ridge and rent kayaks, fishing boats, and paddleboards through Lake Blue Ridge Outfitters. Another worthy option is a pontoon boat or guided fishing excursion via Lake Blue Ridge Marina. For a more immersive angling experience, head to the Toccoa River, considered the trout-fishing capital, where you can also fly fish. There, you’ll find dozens of outfitters ready to help you get the biggest catch. And experience a bit of overland adventure by going hiking or mountain biking along the Appalachian Trail Approach Trail where you can traverse Amicalola Falls to Springer Mountain.
Spend some time on land at Mercier Orchards for their U-Pick events, where you can take delight in fresh strawberries in early summer. While there, try apple cider donuts at the Market Cafe or a boxed lunch at the Market Store. To sip the orchard’s flavors, grab a hard cider or head to the winery, where you can sample varietals made with apples and strawberries grown at the orchard.
Now for the food. There’s no shortage of dining options, including Hook & Eye, located on Main Street in the heart of Blue Ridge with expansive downtown views from its rooftop. Food Network fans may recognize Sweet Shoppe of the South and their Cupcake Wars-winning S’mores Cupcake. Sample Southern dishes with global influences at Harvest on Main, where they proudly name vendors in menu items like the Wild Caught Gulf Shrimp and Logan Turnpike Grits.
More multicultural eats await at Rum Cake Lady Cuban Cafe, which infuses Cuban-inspired flavors into sandwiches and bundt cakes. Order the oysters or fresh beet salad and dine on the patio at The Black Sheep, located in a house built in 1914. To sip the flavors of the Blue Ridge, head to the dog- and child-friendly Bear Claw Vineyards for regional wines. If you prefer a hoppy drink, Grumpy Old Men Brewing makes everything from stouts and IPAs to seltzers and non-alcoholic “Son of a Birch” root beer.
After sampling the flavors of Blue Ridge and exploring the waterways, it only makes sense to immerse yourself in genuinely natural accommodations. One area highlight is the Blue Ridge TreeHouse at Bear Claw Vineyards. Built on the TreeHouse Guys show, the structure overlooks the vineyard and a creek. Another woodland option is a cabin at Escape to Blue Ridge. You can rent the modest one-bedroom, one-bathroom La Pequena Pecos cabin or take the entire family to the Serenity Cove cabin, which features seven bedrooms and six bathrooms. Or book a campsite at the Morganton Point Campground to sleep under the stars.