Food Feature: Falling for Tallulah Gorge

Hiking and white water at North Georgia's Niagara

With sprawl devouring much of Atlanta's suburbs and beyond, it's hard to believe a sight as beautiful as the Tallulah Gorge exists only 90 miles away. Yet the "Niagara of the South" lies just up Highway 441. Early tourists used to travel there by horse and buggy, but my partner and I were lucky enough to have a car. It's an easy drive: Take I-85 north to U.S. 441, go about 33 miles and look for the sign.

Passing much of the traditional rural scenery North Georgia is known for (flea market shacks, bait shacks, barbecue shacks with caricatures of pigs happy for you to eat them, and so on), we crossed the Tallulah River and took a right into the official state park lot. It's $4 to enter, except on Wednesdays, when it's free. The visitor's center, commemoratively known as the Jane Hurt Yarn Interpretive Center, is one of the most extensive information centers I have ever experienced, and is alone worth the four bucks. Tallulah Falls has a rich history, and the center is quick to convey that history through interesting, interactive displays.

From Cherokee writings on the beauty of the gorge to exhibits of taxidermied gorge dwellers to large-scale photos of Karl Wallenda's 1970 tightrope walk across the gorge, the interpretive center is a must before hitting the trails. There's an introductory film every half-hour — and while we're on the subject of movies, I must mention that some of Deliverance was filmed here.

Our first stop on the North Rim trail was at North Wallenda Tower, a short hike from the visitor's center. Lying on its side, the tower resembled a beached whale without the beach. It's hard to say whether the 35,000 fans toppled it in a fit of soccer-mob-style mayhem following Wallenda's successful crossing, or if it was just a victim of time.

Oceana Falls could be seen about 700 feet below, but more impressive was the awesome view of the gorge. I found it difficult to believe it was only three miles long. At that moment, a mile seemed like 10 to me, and I seemed like the smallest person on Earth.

We had a clear, sunny day. From Oceana Falls, it's about three miles to the end of the "main" trail and back, but not at all exhausting — even for non-hikers like us. But having to walk across the bridge along Highway 441, with all its cars and road noise, to reach the South Rim trail is distracting.

Still, the South Rim is where the action and the real challenges are. The strenuous parts of the hike down to the gorge floor require a permit. A permit can usually be picked up at the interpretive center free of charge; it's basically just a liability form.

Hurricane Falls trail and Sliding Rock trail are both only a quarter of a mile each, but are very steep and can be dangerous in places. On these trails, one will likely catch a glimpse of the endangered Persistent Trillium wildflower. Tallulah Gorge is the only place in the world where it grows. Actually, it's probably not a very good idea to let the eyes wander from the trail underfoot. One slip and, whoops, see you at the hospital.

Anyway, bear in mind that the best time for viewing the small white-petaled wildflower is in March and April. April also signals the beginning of Tallulah Dam's recreational whitewater releases, during which kayakers are allowed to run the river. The park is at its most vivacious during the annual Whitewater Festival, held in celebration of the first release of the year (April 6 this year), when the water literally gushes over the rocks. Oceana Falls are a favorite to run, but so are Bridal Falls, which is the farthest hike from the visitor center down the Sliding Rock trail. The lake at Bridal Falls is the only place where swimming is allowed.

On this occasion, Bridal Falls was quiet, the only sound being that of trickling water. Overhead, a black vulture hovered, effortlessly riding a channel of wind within the gorge. It seemed to follow us back up, almost guiding as it was gliding. As we approached the visitor's center, it soared away back toward the canyon, never moving its wings. Not such a bad life really.


For more info, visit ngeorgia.com/parks/tallulah. html or call the park office at 706-754-7970.??

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