With its clear mountain lakes and fern-draped hiking trails, North Georgia promises a pine-scented escape into nature. But the region’s hills and highways also hold a wealth of cultural points of interest, many of which fall firmly under the radar:
Booth Western Art Museum
Newcomers seldom know what to expect at this sprawling anomaly—John Wayne posters, weathered saddles? Instead, along with the usual characters in Stetsons and feathered bonnets, they find a nationally renowned, Smithsonian-affiliated collection of world-class art that explores the rich, sun-dappled diversity of the American West, past and present. Currently in its revolving exhibits is a focus on women’s experiences of the region. And one docent is a by-God cowboy.
Reece Farm and Heritage Center
Byron Herbert Reece was the unofficial poet laureate of North Georgia, and he achieved a brief flash of national literary exaltation before his death by suicide in 1958. He published four volumes of poetry and two novels that exquisitely explore themes of nature, God, and race. Just a mile from scenic Vogel State Park, his homeplace has been restored and features historical exhibits of his agrarian lifestyle. Of his legacy, he wrote: From chips and shards, in idle times, / I made these stories, shaped these rhymes; / May they engage some friendly tongue / When I am past the reach of song.
The name means “Eagle Owl Castle” in German. Scour the horizon and you’ll likely not find another one of these: a Renaissance-style castle consecrated to epistemology, or the study of knowledge. After fourteen years of construction, it is now open for tours of its twelve towers, one turret, and an eight-story lookout tower. Thirty detailed murals explore the world’s religions and thought systems. The founder was a ship builder who invites the world to come and contemplate deep thoughts—and to book a party. The dance floor is reinforced with rubber for springy stepping.
The Gourd Place
They’re more than just a comfy home for purple martins. You can learn everything you ever wanted to know about the versatile calabash family here. Priscilla Wilson started making crafts from gourds in 1976, and a magnificent obsession was born, which she calls “the gourd life.” The permanent collection in this earthy museum showcases more than two hundred pieces of gourd art from twenty-three countries, including reproductions of early American items and works by contemporary artists. Wilson also uses gourds as molds for her pottery, so pick up a naturalistic cereal bowl while you’re here.
BabyLand General Hospital
When Mother Cabbage dilates eight leaves apart, the blessed event is nigh: The world welcomes another Cabbage Patch Kid. Indulge in some 1980s nostalgia at this surreal fantasyland, where you can witness a doll being born—confusing successive generations about where babies come from. (You might not be able to eat coleslaw afterward.) Whimsically weird enough to be fun for all ages.
Consolidated Gold Mine
You can practically hear the pick-pick-pick of dreaming prospectors in this working underground mine. It was in Dahlonega, which is Cherokee for “yellow rocks,” where a booster first put out the word: “Thar’s gold in them thar hills!” Here, you travel two hundred feet underground and learn about the mechanics of extracting treasure from quartz and, after the tour, get instruction in gold panning. And then you attempt to strike it rich. Pro tip: It looks a little like egg yolk in the pan. You will know it when you see it, just like the prospectors who came before you.
Sautee Nacoochee Cultural Center
The pastoral hamlet of Sautee is known as one of the top arts communities in Georgia, if not the country. Its nexus is the cultural center, which began modestly as a schoolhouse lovingly restored by residents. Today it’s a regionally recognized, seven-acre campus with a steady drumbeat of historical, cultural, and environmental programming. It comprises an art gallery, the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, and an African-American heritage site with a restored cabin that once housed enslaved workers.