On the surface, Georgia appears as a patchwork of determined modernization and sleepy-eyed tradition. The ancient peach orchards contend with great, growing swathes of industry and outlet stores. Territories once stranded in social stagnation share common fences with liberal-minded colonies bearing symphony tickets and soy lattes. Georgia's dramatic history and its promising future make a very contrasty quilt, and its downy lining of southern charm make it a particularly inviting place to explore.
In Northern Georgia, not two hours above bustling Atlanta, the land begins to gently tumble and swell. The legendary Blue Ridge Mountains begin here -- part of the Appalachian Range that extends all the way to Maine. It seems to be a secret that the Georgian landscape includes such voluptuous assets, and as a result, these mountains and the roads winding amongst them are left pretty much unencumbered by the crowds that plague the neighboring Great Smokies and famous Blue Ridge Parkway.
We discovered a network of premium riding roads in the Chattahoochee National Forest of Northern Georgia after perusing William Long's book, Extreme Twisties, Southeastern U.S.A. ($14.95, though it may no longer be available; try calling 770/535-2537). This reference guide highlights the best riding roads in the region and rates them by road surface conditions, amounts and types of corners, speed limits, possible hazards and so on. We picked five roads that looked tantalizing in the book and strung them together to create an awesome daylong ride.
We began in Helen, Georgia, or "Alpine Helen" if you really want to bite the bait. This turn-of-the-century lumber town was mostly abandoned in the 1960s until some savvy businessmen morphed it into a Bavarian village. The game is a good one, and the German beer and gingerbread trim draw more than 300,000 visitors to the town for the Oktoberfest season alone.
Just two miles south of Helen is Sautee, where we stopped to fondle geological curiosities at one of the many roadside rock shops. There, at the merging of State Routes 17 and 75, you can park and ponder the Nacoochee Mound, a mysterious aboriginal burial site. In 1915, excavation by the Smithsonian Institute revealed 75 skeletons situated in various postures. The Cherokee later used this spot as a meeting place to perform ceremonial rites. Oddly, there's a Colonial-style gazebo set atop the mysterious mound -- a telling example of how aggressively we planted our roots in this country.
There are three wonderfully curvy and picturesque roads leading north out of Helen: State Routes 356, 17/75 and 348, a.k.a. the Richard B. Russell Parkway. We recommend the latter as a departure route from Helen. It's like diving off the deep end into a scenic swimming pool. This road offers some gentle sweeping corners but most of it is challenging, with 25-mph S-curves and plenty of exciting elevation changes. Weeping rock walls on some sections of the road can cause risky moisture runoff.
The Parkway is a 24-mile run that ends at Wolf Pen Gap Road (SR 180). Some say this is the most curvaceous road in Georgia, and in his book, Long describes it as an "extreme ride with surprises at every turn." (We were surprised by canines on the road -- apparently some wolves got out of the pen.) Turning north on this serpentine highway will bring you to Brasstown Bald Mountain. At 4784 feet, it's the highest point in Georgia. Born some 300 million years ago, the profoundly eroded Blue Ridge Mountains were once as tall and jagged as the younger Rocky Mountains. It seems age shortens mountains just as it does people.
You can ride an additional twisty bit to the top of Brasstown Bald, where you'll pay a small fee to park if you want to hoof it up to the mountain's observatory for unobstructed viewing of the graceful, forested landscape sprawling below. Brasstown Bald gets its name because nothing grows on its knoll-like top except thick grasses. There's no explanation why some mountaintops in the region are naked of foliage, but it's fairly common.
Taking the winding SR 180 south leads you down to Suches, home of Two Wheels Only (T.W.O.), a campground and lodge exclusively designed and maintained for motorcycle enthusiasts. Thousands of riders make the pilgrimage to T.W.O. every year to enjoy the camaraderie and its unique isolation. There's a restaurant and swimming pool, as well as a pavilion that can be reserved for groups. Guests can camp or stay at the B&B-style lodge for reasonable rates. T.W.O. is open from mid-April to mid-November. Detailed information and a schedule of events can be obtained by visiting www.twowheelsonly.com or calling (706) 747-5151.
From rural and rustic Suches our route carried us north on SR 60, another dizzily twisty road, and eventually into Blue Ridge on SR 76. The 76 east toward Clayton via Blairsville is a long, easy ride with smooth, wide, gently arching road surfaces, allowing a break from calculating camber and complex corners. Kudzu, a creeping vine once brought to the South from Japan to control roadside erosion, grows rampant along the road, shrouding whole forests and turning power poles into spooky specters. You'll find all the conventional amenities in the sizable towns along this expanse and many charming craft clutches, book stores and coffee houses in between.
Once past Hiawassee near the North Carolina border, we cut south on state route 197, which bends around the shores of jewellike Lake Burton, playground for Atlanta's well-to-do. Elaborate boathouses hint at the magnificence of the estates tucked in the rolling hills that rise from the water's edge. Batesville is a charming place to stop, and the General Store serves fantastic pecan pancakes. Behind the old store is the Winston Church Hill House, a "Bed and Biscuit" established in 1867.
From Batesville it's a short jog back to Helen on SR 356, or you can continue down the scenic 197 into charismatic Clarkesville, the oldest resort-town in Northern Georgia.
The fact is, you can't make a wrong turn when you're riding in the Chattahoochee area. It's a vast network of deserving motorcycle roads that range from charming to challenging. Road surfaces are generally excellent, although soft, sloping shoulders common to this region don't allow much room for error.
It's quiet there in Northern Georgia, almost quiet enough to hear frenzied industry lapping at the Appalachian forests. Thankfully, the Chattahoochee Park boundaries create tangible distance. Along with the scars of the Civil War and the ghosts of the Cherokee Nation, this motorcycle playground will remain a refuge for years to come.
If you'd like to share your favorite ride that is 100 to 500 miles long and includes at least one interesting stop, send details of the route and your contact information to Motorcycle Cruiser, 6420 Wilshire Blvd. Floor 17, Los Angeles, CA 90048-5515; or e-mail Jamie.Elvidge@primedia.com.