Tiger Mountain Vineyards, Tiger, Ga. (Richard Hamm/Staff)

Thinking green: The great outdoors waiting in Athens’ backyard

by / Comments Off / 29 View / May 29, 2013

One of Athens’ most enticing qualities is its close proximity to the great outdoors, a geographic advantage that makes life in Athens greener and fresher than our more urban neighbor to the west.
Tiger Mountain Vineyards, Tiger, Ga.   (Richard Hamm/Staff)

Ride just five minutes from most any neighborhood in Athens and pasture lands and parks soon greet you. Here, cyclists reach quiet country roads before they’ve broken a sweat as a forested oasis unfolds just outside the loop on Sandy Creek’s trails.

For the more adventurous, just north of town, mountains rise and entice visitors to wild rivers and active vines.

In about as much time as it takes to reach Atlanta, a lush landscape is available in North Georgia, a destination perfect for day hikes, a day drink and even an overnight excursion. A perfect day out in the area – in this case, an hour and a half up Hwy. 441 to Clayton – might include a short hike safe for the entire family and a stop for lunch and wine at Tiger Mountain vineyards. Extended trips might include an overnight stay in an historic, and still operational, grist mill converted into a small, quaint bed and breakfast.

North Georgia offers numerous hiking and camping opportunities, including the famous Panther Creek, an experience not to be missed, but

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one that will take an entire day. A shorter jaunt into the woods can be found at Dick’s Creek Falls, which is reached by following a barely-marked Forest Service trail at the end of a gravel road. From Clayton, follow Warwoman Road for about 5 miles past steep eroded cliffs where rusted GMCs loom like rural sentinels. Zoom by signs for roads named after the Bleckley family: Doug, Lamar and Tom. Then turn right on Sandy Ford road, make a left over an old stone bridge marked with the only Dick’s Creek signage you’ll find, and continue onto a dirt road. From there, a barely 3-mile drive feels much longer due to the 10 to 15 mph speeds required to safely traverse the road without creating a dust storm.

Rolling cow pastures and very private homesteads line the last bits of Sandy Ford road. Perhaps you’ll think the lives lived on these rural estates follow a pace leagues slower than city speed. In fact, if you don’t slow down in order to ford Dick’s Creek, which bisects the road, there’s a chance you’ll miss the 4-foot-tall U.S. Forest Service wood post that marks the first steps of the walk down to the falls.

There’s space enough for two cars at the foot of the trail. When this reporter and a photographer first set out on the trail, it offered no hints to how far or how difficult the trail might become. But know that it’s safe for all ages, and takes about 15 minutes from car to falls.

After a few minutes of paralleling Dick’s Creek, the roar of the falls begins to build from a distant rumble through the leaves to a splattering hustle in the final strides.

The creek begins a hastened decent a number of yards before the actual falls, and before the trail begins to drop toward the falls destination into the Chattooga River. Halfway through the descent toward the river bank, a separate, steeper trail sharply runs down toward the fall, and is only suitable for able climbers. But anyone comfortable enough to navigate it will find easy access, though you’ll have to step into cold Chattooga waters to giant boulders perfect for lounging and snacking.

Tiger Mountain Vineyards, Tiger, Ga.   (Richard Hamm/Staff)

The vista from the rocks is beautiful. At the right time of day, canoers and kayakers will glide down the jagged rapids that stretch more than 50 yards across the river, their chatter and splashing silenced by the tall falls. You can silently cheer as the rapids dunk their rafts.

As lunch approaches, head back to the car and speed off toward Tiger Mountain vineyards located at 2592 Old Highway 441 in Tiger. Back down Warwoman Road, back through Clayton and a few miles drive to the city of Tiger, you’ll find a 100-year-old dairy farm that now grows grapes and produces award-winning wines. Owned for generations by the Ezzard family, the winery and vineyards are now owned by descendant Martha and John Ezzard, a surgeon who grew up milking cows on the land.

As the vines of Viognier, Norton and Manseng grapes green and bud in the acres behind the winery, the tables of the Red Barn Café open. In a converted barn, diners can lunch while gazing upon the verdant train of Tiger Mountain that quickly rises just past the vineyard’s footprint. For a private meal, the café boasts a small dining area in a converted calf pen that’s till cordoned off by the original rough-hewn wooden barrier.

The vineyard property is 100 acres, 11 of which are populated by grapes, the Ezzard’s will open every inch of their land for you to roam, just not their private residence. To see fully the vines in their prime, visit in September or October when harvest and production is in full swing, and in November to see the leaves change. But all summer the land is ready for visitors to stroll through the vine rows with a bottle of Cab Franc and a picnic basket.

By sampling Tiger Mountain’s wines in a $5 tasting, you’ll absorb the varietal characteristics of the grapes, infused by the north Georgia soil. Alongside samples of Georgia cheese made by Sweetgrass Dairy in Thomasville, you can sample Georgia-grown Malbecs, Argentina’s ubiquitous grape, the native Norton and Touriga Nacional, a port grape tweaked by Tiger’s vintners. Tiger Mountains main winemakers, Tristen and Jabe, consider themselves farmers first, mainly because of the daily tending the vines require. They’ll welcome you to sit among the vines and examine their workplace.

As the dinner hour arises, you can stop in historic Clayton for a quick bite at the classic Clayton Café at 50 N. Main St. if the lunch hour is still upon you. This old-school lunchery is heavy on traditional Southern food, doesn’t take credit cards and sells no alcohol. Or you can walk across the street to Universal Joint at 109 N. Main St. to switch from wine to beer. This converted car mechanic shop rolls up the bay doors to reveal a bar and dozens of taps. If you’re feeling adventurous, try their homemade, gluten-free meat substitute – it does not skimp on calories.

Just north of Clayton by barely 10 minutes is Rabun Gap, where at the bottom of a rocky hill, at the base of wide, productive agricultural valley, sits Mike and Linda Johnson’s bed and breakfast, Sylvan Falls Mill at 156 Taylors Chapel Rd. Here at the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River, which flows eventually into the Mississippi River, the man-made Sylvan Lake spills down the falls by the Johnson’s home and irrigates the veggie-filled Wolffork Valley below.

Years ago, a grist mill was installed. Originally wooden, the mill converted to a 27-foot-tall steel overshot wheel in the 1930s. In a room below the now bed and breakfast common room, the Johnsons grind cornmeal, polenta and grits that they serve in breakfasts and sell at Locally Grown here in Athens. Rooms, of which there are four, start at $129. Two rooms boast special vistas: a tiny upstairs abode overlooks the Sylvan water splashing over rocks while another offers a heightened, expansive view of the valley.

The Johnsons whip up a three-course breakfast every day and will happily sip local wine with their guests on a patio that can be almost overrun by the falls, but is perfectly safe and cozy, warmed on cool nights by a wood fire. Sylvan Falls Mill is just moments from Black Rock Mountain state park, where a lake and numerous hikes await visitors.

This voyage feels both close-to-home and a getaway, perfect for short weekends spent perhaps with out-of-town guests or in-laws. Children, too, will find the trails exciting, though may tire after seeing the sixth grape variety.

For more, visit these websites:

Universal Joint

Tiger Mountain

Black Rock Mountain

Dick’s Creek Falls