Dahlonega grew out of an event that changed not only Georgia but American history. In 1828, Benjamin Parks was hunting here on Indian land and, instead of game, he found a gold nugget. That the land belonged to the Cherokee didn’t stand in the way of greed. This gold strike, which produced about $33 million of the purest gold mined in the United States, was the major cause of the Trail of Tears, resulting in the death of over 4,000 Cherokees. Dahlonega grew around the gold mines. Much of its history awaits visitors today.
I used to live nearby, so I visited often on my own, but went twice on a comped press trip. All opinions are my own.
1. Public Square
Like many small Southern towns, the square is the heart of Dahlonega. The brick sidewalks and tree-shaded shops and stores are a treasure from times past. No matter what you are searching for, you’ll strike gold of all different varieties here. There are unique restaurants like Bourbon Street Grill serving Cajun food, Capers on the Square with Greek and Mediterranean dining, and for dessert, try the fudge at The Fudge Factory.
The visitor center is on the square and my choice for the first place to visit to learn about Dahlonega’s history. It has maps and brochures.
If you only stop at one store on the square, make it Dahlonega General Store. It’s a time travel trip back to the old country store. You’ll find roasted peanuts, jars of jams and jellies, real sorghum syrup, good choices of souvenirs, and nickel cups of coffee.
2. Dahlonega Gold Museum
The Dahlonega Gold Museum sits in the middle of the square in the old Lumpkin County courthouse. It was built in 1836, making it the fourth-oldest courthouse still in existence. I enjoyed the video telling Dahlonega’s story. Exhibits include not only the gold mining, but they explore the Georgia Land Lottery, where the land formerly belonging to the Cherokees was given to settlers after the Indian Removal Act. That part always makes me sad.
3. Consolidated Gold Mine
Consolidated Gold Mine offers another view of mining. This one is deep underground. The shaft where my group entered was once buried under a small mountain. Beginning in 1845 through 1880, that mountain was blasted away to expose the gold ore. A guide explained that it was not done with explosives but with huge water hoses using a process called hydraulic mining.
After all the loose material was washed away, then miners did the traditional hard rock mining. Mining companies blasted tunnels into the rock with dynamite, allowing the miners access to the quartz that contained the ore. They discovered the largest gold-containing quartz vein in the world here in 1901. Our guide pointed out a line of quartz he told us was over 22 feet thick.
The most amazing feature is the Glory Hole. Deep into the mine, we could look up at the Glory Hole where all the major veins converged. As miners dug the gold away, the result was an immense skylight opening from the depths of the mine tunnel to a view of the clear blue sky. We were on the rock floor of the first level, some 300 feet beneath the surface. The company sealed the mine by dynamiting the entrance when the price of gold dropped in 1906, leaving the mine tools and equipment abandoned. The original machinery is still in the mine and most of it still works. The tour guides are former miners, so they give a very accurate tour.
Above ground, there is a gold panning area where you can experience the feeling of panning your own gold.
4. Crisson Gold Mine
Crisson Gold Mine is not a tunnel but an open-pit gold mining operation. It established the original Crisson Mine in 1847 and mining lasted into the early 1980s. The company still does some mining, but it is for the gold you might find when panning at its mine. The biggest attraction here is the 130-year-old stamp mill. It is a machine that crushes rocks to get the ore and is the only one in Georgia. It runs several times a day.
5. The Holly Theater
Randall Holly Brannon originally built The Holly Theater in 1947. It closed in the 70s as movie-going declined. Today, it’s a community theater with live shows and movies. Rumors say it is haunted.
6. Smith House
The Smith House offers a lot of reasons to visit. My first visit was for the home-style food served family-style. While there, I learned about the legend that says Smith House sits on a gold mine. They can back it up. Down in the basement, there is the tunnel leading to a gold mine hidden long ago.
The story began in 1884, when Captain Frank Hall, a Consolidated Mine employee and entrepreneur, built Smith House. He had opened several businesses, including a general store in town. When he dug the cellar, Hall found a vein where he suspected gold could be mined, but town officials didn’t want a mine in the middle of town so they wouldn’t grant him permission to excavate it. He boarded up the tunnel and died shortly after.
Henry and Bessie Smith purchased the home in 1922 and opened a boarding house known for great home-cooked food. Next owners, the Frys, continued the tradition and hired Fred and Thelma Welch, who, along with their son, Freddie, later bought Smith House. The Welches updated and moved the dining room to the basement. In 2006, Freddy Welch was renovating the dining area. One worker accidentally drilled a hole in a patch of cement covering the floor and discovered a shaft. The shaft descended 20 feet and ended where two horizontal mine shafts veered off. You can look down into the shaft of the old mine. In addition, the Welches had accumulated a variety of old artifacts, including a custom-made cash register that was state-of-the-art back when Captain Hall ran his general store. It even has a key for “Gold bought” — for those buyers who paid in gold ore.
They offer lodging and food. I never stayed in any of their rooms, but can vouch for the food. I ate way too much. It’s made from scratch and uses many old family recipes.
7. Amicalola Falls State Park
Amicalola is the Cherokee word for “tumbling waters,” an appropriate word for the 729-foot falls that are the highest in Georgia. Before the white man took these lands away, Cherokee braves would journey up the mountain to the falls, which they considered sacred.
Amicalola Falls State Park has all the usual Georgia state park amenities, a great place to camp or a rustic cabin to enjoy as you explore the area, and lots of scenery. This park has something else, a luxurious lodge and restaurants. The lodge and cabins are not the usual rustic accommodations. Some of the lodge suites have kitchenettes and patios with fantastic mountain views. Cabins usually have heating and air conditioning, fireplaces, decks, and satellite TV. If you’re traveling with your furbaby, two of the cabins are pet-friendly. It’s a minor hardship that Wi-Fi is only available in the lobby at the lodge.
The lodge’s Maple Restaurant offers buffets daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I love the meatloaf and mashed potatoes with a fresh salad and my choices of veggies and dressing.
The park has 10 hiking trails, bow and arrow classes, trout fishing, a wild zipline, and a chance to meet the park’s wildlife ambassadors with a ranger. From the lodge, it’s just a short walk to either the upper or lower observation decks of the falls. At the bottom of the falls, the Reflection Pool feeds into Little Amicalola Creek.
Pro Tip: Beware of bears in the park. Never leave food in the open, or you may have unwelcome company.
8. Chestatee Wildlife Preserve & Zoo
Chestatee Wildlife Preserve & Zoo could be considered just one more small zoo, except for one thing: It is home to some zedonks, a cross between a zebra and a donkey. This came about in July 2010 when the owner, C. W. Wathen, assisted one of his donkeys, Sarah, to deliver a newborn. It turned out the father was Zeke the Zebra. Zeke had a bad hip and was not considered a breeder. This was the first crossbreeding. Pippi, named for the children’s book character, Pippi Longstocking, has her donkey mother’s bone structure and some of her zebra father’s stripes. The following year, Pippi got a sister called Pippa. The preserve offers feeding experiences for many of the animals.
Dahlonega is one of the most beautiful areas to visit. It is just on the edge of the beautiful Appalachian Mountains. If you have driven through Atlanta, the nearest large city, you will doubly appreciate the uncrowded roads and the fresh mountain air.
Pro Tip: Visit the nearby ghost town of Auraria and see Woody’s grocery.
There are other Georgia “riches” to unearth in these articles: