Live and Play in Ellijay, Georgia

<strong>The Appalachian Trail winds right past Ellijay.</strong><br>AP Photo/National Park Service
For years, Appalachian Trail guidebooks routed hikers through the town of Dahlonega, Georgia, as the AT's southern gateway. Ellijay (pop. 1,519), its tiny neighbor to the northwest, was literally left off the map--even though it's a closer, quicker springboard to the AT and all the Chattahoochee backcountry beyond. Turns out being bypassed was a blessing: While Dahlonega now teems with tourist-catering kitsch, E-jay has stayed true to its hometown roots.

Just over an hour's drive from Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee, the community is hedged by more than two million acres of protected poplar, oak and hemlock, and anchors dozens of hikable, bikable options. The hands-down favorite for solitude seekers is the 288-mile Benton MacKaye Trail, a wilder version of the AT. Perhaps the most clandestine adventure trek in the South, it loops out of Ellijay into some of the remotest parts of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. "It's like a sanctuary in the truest sense," says George Owen, a former pastor and BMT co-founder. "It's been my life. It soothes the soul, and as Muir wrote, 'Cares drop off like autumn leaves.'"

Ellijay's slow pace is soothing in itself. Brick-lined downtown sidewalks lead past antique stores, outfitters and an old-fashioned ice-cream shop. Traffic jams are confined to two weekends in October, when the town's annual Apple Festival draws 40,000 visitors. There are no franchise restaurants. A wine bar pours North Georgia's finest; the Hitching Post sells its 33-degree beer in to-go milk jugs with pizza pies.

And down here in Dixie, where BBQ is king, two local standbys vie for the crown. Some swear by the garlic salad and ribs at the Pink Pig's "garden of eatin'." Others opt for the smoke-infused fare at Colonel Poole's Taj Ma-Hog, a roadside cabin decked out with 3,000-plus plywood porkers--and its own museum. Because nothing fuels a thru-hike like the Colonel's Pig Hall of Fame.


Weekend Scouting Trip

PLAYGROUNDS: Plenty of backbone and energy bars are needed to pedal the Stanley Gap, a 4.8-mile root-and-rock battle just north of town ($55 for a one-day rental; cartecaybikes.com). Hikers get a quick backcountry fix on the Bear Creek Trail, where a 6.4-mile loop leads to virgin forest and the 100-foot-tall, five-bear-hugs-round Gennett Poplar (hikenorthgeorgia.com for resources). Water lovers catch rainbows in Ellijay Stream and snorkel among 45 species of fish in the Conasauga River. Paddlers access the Class I to III rapids off Lower Cartecay Road in town or drive an hour south for hard-core whitewater on the Ocoee River, site of the 1996 Olympics ($30 for a one-day kayak rental; ellijayoutfitters.com).

WHERE TO STAY: Penny-wise trekkers head for the friendly Mulberry Gap Bunkhouse Inn ($30; mulberrygap.com). Falling Waters Mountain Lodge is a cozy base on 360 acres of Chattahoochee wilderness ($150; fallingwatersmtlodge.com).

Want to live here? The median home price is $259,000. Jobs in leisure tourism are big; so is commuting to Atlanta.


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