Cloud-wreathed mountains, vast Atlantic beaches, swamps with bald cypresses, and elegant old cities, Georgia has more than its fair share of beautiful places.
The Applachian mountainscapes in the north, cloaked in forest, are scenic without inspiring dread, and are home to the southern terminus for the 2,200 Appalachian Trail.
Georgia’s coastline is a long string of barrier Islands with widescreen Atlantic beaches, maritime woods once favored by Gilded Age families like the Carnegies, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers.
My list includes five of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia, and four of these feature epic canyons, made accessible via hair-raising staircases. If you dare to climb or descend them all you’ll qualify for the GA State Parks’ Canyon Climbers Club.
In late 1864, Union Army general William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea laid waste to a lot of civilian infrastructure in Georgia, but Savannah was able to negotiate a peaceful surrender, sparing one of the most beautiful cities in the South.
In two spellbinding historic districts you mosey around cobblestone streets and genteel squares with moss-veiled live oaks, admiring one of the definitive collections of antebellum architecture.
The Savannah Historic District retains its original Georgian plan from the 1730s, with an unusual layout involving a matrix of more than 20 central squares, which now contribute so much to the city’s beauty.
The old world and modern world clash on the cobblestone River Street, where historic waterfront warehouses greet a steady flow of massive container ships serving the largest seaport in Georgia.
Be sure to check out my guide on Savannah as well!
2. Cumberland Island National Seashore
For big skies, vast oceanscapes, rich wildlife and pure solitude, the largest of all of Georgia’s barrier islands checks all the right boxes.
Right against the line with Florida, Cumberland Island is impossibly scenic, with 17 miles of undeveloped sandy coastline.
At one time almost all of the island was in the hands of the Carnegie family, and the spectral ruins of one of their mansions, Dungeness mingle with palms and live oaks near the southern end.
Wild horses can be seen grazing around the old estates and frolicking on the beaches, and you can take guided tours for a closer glimpse of this wildlife and a sense of the lives of the people who called the island home, from the extremely wealthy to the enslaved.
To underline its seclusion, Cumberland Island is only accessible by ferry, and I recommend booking well in advance.
3. Amicalola Falls State Park
Before hikers hit the Appalachian Trail in earnest they can get some inspiration at one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders near the trailhead.
At 728 feet, Amicalola Falls is the highest waterfall in Georgia, and is the third-highest waterfall of its kind east of the Mississippi.
Amicalola Creek tumbles down a wide terrace, bordered by deep hardwood forest. With four sets of trails and a well-positioned bridge next to the lower cascade, you have a choice of ways to experience the waterfall.
The most rewarding, but by far the most challenging, is the stairway that skirts the side of the falls, with a glorious view of the valley from the summit.
4. Jekyll Island
Two thirds of this magnificent barrier island in the Golden Isles is protected natural habitat, and this includes eight miles of immaculate beaches.
I think it’s a measure of Jekyll Island’s beauty that for much of its modern history, this place was a private club, attracting powerful families at the turn of the century like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers.
You take an informative tram tour of the club’s former properties, now preserved as an historic district and still resonating with Gilded Age splendor.
On the long sandy coastline you can explore the ghostly Driftwood Beach, where coastal erosion has littered the sand with the skeletal remains of trees.
The island has a superb trail network, so you can easily get around by bike under the boughs of venerable live oaks.
Finally, a beloved local resident is the sea turtle, and there’s a wonderful center on the island rehabilitating injured and sick turtles, and presenting interactive exhibits about these creatures.
5. Brasstown Bald
You don’t need to be an intrepid adventurer to ascend the highest point in Georgia. Brasstown Bald, at 4,784 ft, is topped with a visitor center.
You can get there from the parking lot via the half-mile Summit Trail, or for extra convenience just wait for the shuttle bus.
Upstairs is an observation deck with the most comprehensive panorama of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, reaching across a sea of dark green peaks and valleys, over four states and as far as Atlanta if you catch a clear day.
There’s a history and science museum in the visitor center, as well as a store with local artisanal products.
If the views kindle a sense of adventure in you, there are trails shooting off from the parking area, including the Jacks Knob Trail, a National Recreation Trail intersecting with the Appalachian Trail.
6. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Straddling the GA-FL line is an massive peat-filled swamp, inhabited by alligators and growing the distinctive bald cypress, both a symbol for the wetlands of the south.
As well as these iconic species, the Okefenokee Swamp is a haven for threatened and endangered wildlife, including wood storks, indigo snakes, and red-cockaded woodpeckers.
The wilderness is preserved as a 680-square-mile national wildlife refuge, and if you’re looking for a place to start my bet is the Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center in Folkston.
Here at Chesser Island you can cross a piece of the swamp on a boardwalk, and climb the Owl’s Roost Tower to appreciate the vastness of this environment.
To get out on the water, boat tours and canoe/kayak rentals are available via Okefenokee Adventures, based by the visitor center.
7. Cloudland Canyon State Park
Things get a lot more rugged at Cloudland Canyon State Park, on the west flank of Lookout Mountain in the far northwest corner of the state. Here a gorge more than 1,000 feet deep has been cut from the sedimentary rock by Sitton Gulch Creek.
You barely have to leave the parking lot or the picnic area for awe-inspiring views of the canyon, and these continue along the West Rim Loop Trail.
Taking this path, you can marvel at the canyon from several angles, before climbing up and onto the plateau, with views of nearby Sand Mountain and the city of Trenton to inspire you.
If you’ve got the energy and the nerve to descend a 600-step staircase, I strongly suggest taking the Waterfalls Trail. This brings you to two marvelous plunges, at Cherokee Falls and then a little further, at the base of the canyon, is Hemlock Falls.
8. Tallulah Gorge State Park
Just downstream from the hydroelectric Tallulah Falls Dam, the Tallulah River suddenly swoops into a misty canyon, two miles long and up to 1,000 feet deep, with almost vertical walls.
This is another of Georgia’s seven natural wonders, and what looks like a forbidding piece of wilderness is surprisingly easy to explore thanks to a lot of stairs.
The Rim Trail leads to a series of high, numbered overlooks where you can get a handle on the dimensions of this giant cleft in the landscape, and get a bird’s eye view of the six waterfalls that cause the river to drop 500 feet in just a mile.
Best of all, in my opinion, is the suspension bridge, crossing the river at a height of 80 feet following a long descent on a stairway spiraling through the wooded side of the gorge.
9. Stone Mountain Park
In a few places on my list, awesome beauty goes hand-in-hand with a painful history, and that is especially true of Stone Mountain, just east of Atlanta.
Bulging from the ground is an isolated inselberg, composed of several kinds of igneous rock and commanding the landscape with a prominence of 825 feet.
This is an amazing natural formation, measuring five miles in circumference at its base, and ready to be crested via the Summit Skyride from the north, or an out-and-back trail approaching from the west side.
In the early 1970s the north side was defaced with what is officially the largest bas-relief carving in the world, depicting three Confederate leaders.
Since the 2010s there have been growing calls to remove this work. In a long-running tradition the park has staged the Stone Mountain Laser Show Spectacular on summer evenings with a laser lighting display and fireworks.
10. St. Simons Island
The largest of the Golden Isles is an alluring place, with sweeping Atlantic beaches, golf courses, and a lot of photo-friendly landmarks.
Especially pretty is St. Simons Island Light on the southern tip, first raised in 1810, and then rebuilt in 1872 after being pulled down by retreating Confederate soldiers in the Civil War.
You can scale the 129 steps for a view across Saint Simons Sound, and there’s a museum in the 1872 keeper’s cottage.
Away from the coast, the island’s warm climate nurtures handsome live oaks, draped in wispy Spanish moss, and there’s a peaceful stand of maritime forest at Cannon’s Point Preserve, on a former plantation.
There’s more history in store at Fort Frederica National Monument, preserving the vestiges of a fort and settlement built in the mid-18th century by the British to defend the colony against Spanish raids.
11. Sweetwater Creek State Park
One of many things I love about this tract of rocky deciduous forest on Sweetwater Creek is how close it is to downtown Atlanta.
You can be here in just 20 minutes from the Centennial Olympic Park, finding yourself in the kind of landscape that wouldn’t look out of place further north in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Trails follow the creek and climb past hardwoods with wild azaleas, ferns and magnolias, to the top of rocky bluffs for views of the rapids and also the Atlanta skyline through the trees.
On Sweetwater Creek you can see the atmospheric ruins of a mill run by the New Manchester Manufacturing Company and destroyed in the Civil War.
The park has an award-winning visitor center uncovering this area’s past, with Native American artifacts, items from the Civil War, and exhibits detailing the local biodiversity and geology.
12. Rock City Gardens
Several miles from Cloudland Canyon, the summit of Lookout Mountain is the setting for a one-of–kind visitor attraction that opened in 1932.
Making the most of the huge rock formations and far-reaching views 1,700 feet above sea level, Rock City was conceived as one large rock garden with 400 native plant species.
The result is something special, where the Enchanted Trail takes you through these plantings, with brilliant blooms in spring and romantic color in fall.
You’ll see a 100-foot man-made waterfall on the cliff, and cross a rocky chasm on the Swing-A-Long Bridge. The views atop the cliff at Lover’s Leap need to be seen to be believed, whether or not you can see seven states as the attraction has always claimed.
In the 1960s when faced with a declining lumber industry, this little mountain town did the only logical thing, and remodeled itself as a charming Alpine village.
With hipped roofs, half timbering and long eaves, every building in the heart of Helen, even the few occupied by national chains, looks like it could have been transplanted from Bavaria.
You can dine on traditional German fare, and shop for authentic Bavarian handicrafts and specialty products. Helen is much more than a novelty though, as the perfect springboard for experiences in the Southern Appalachians.
The magnificent Anna Ruby Falls are a few minutes away, and is just one of three worthwhile waterfalls close by. You don’t even need to leave the town to begin a mountain hike or horseback ride, or a paddling or tubing trip along the spectacular Chattahoochee River.
You may also like my guide on the best hidden gems in Georgia.
14. Tybee Island
At Georgia’s easternmost point, just a few minutes from downtown Savannah, Tybee Island is a barrier island with breathtaking coastal scenery paired with momentous man-made history.
The headline for me is the five miles of public beaches, all wide, shallow and washed by the rolling Atlantic surf.
At dawn Tybee Pier is wonderful in silhouette, while the distinctive black and white Tybee Island Light Station at the north end goes right back to 1736—although it’s been rebuilt a few times since then.
Dolphins abound in the waters around Tybee Island and you can even watch them playing in a boat’s wake on a tour. There’s compelling history at Fort Pulaski, once considered impenetrable, but breached by the Union Army’s new rifled cannon during a siege in 1862.
15. Preacher’s Rock
My recommendation for an easy but instantly rewarding day hike on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia is a two-mile trek up to a magnificent overlook not far from Dahlonega.
The trailhead and parking area is at Woody Gap on SR 60, on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail remembered fondly by thru hikers.
At first you’ll meander up a manageable slope through hardwood forest before coming to a series of switchbacks as you approach the summit of Big Cedar Mountain.
Suddenly you’ll come to a high outcrop where you can look north and admire a massive sweep of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Preacher’s Rock is awesome at any time of year, but the woods’ spring blooms are a treat, and the colors in fall are sensational.
One of the largest historic districts in Georgia awaits at this endearing small town in Morgan County. Diligent preservation work has helped stave off bland modern development, and ensure a sense of place in Madison.
If you’re attracted to the ornate architecture of the antebellum, well Madison has close to 100 houses from this period, which is remarkable for such a small town. Naturally there’s thorny history to grapple with, and this is part of the experience.
One accessible example is Heritage Hall (1811), a grand Greek Revival residence, preserved as a historic house museum painting a picture of how Madison’s affluent upper crust lived in the decades before the Civil War.
17. Sawnee Mountain Preserve
Another piece of upland wilderness within striking distance of Atlanta is this 963-acre preserve, protecting a portion of the 1,946-foot Sawnee Mountain.
With its five-mile ridgeline this peak is an imposing feature of the landscape, rising 750 feet over the surrounding area and also affording clear views north to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
One beloved overlook is Indian Seats, a group of scenic granite ledges that can be reached via a direct out-and-back trail or a longer loop, passing long abandoned gold mines on the way.
If you’re visiting at the height of summer I recommend planning a hike on the Mountainside Trail, which is less trafficked than the Indian Seats Trail and is always in the shade of the forest canopy.
18. Fort Mountain State Park
I love the sense of mystery swirling around Fort Mountain, a peak in the Cohutta Mountains, and named for a rock wall along its peak.
The origin of this zigzagging 885-foot structure is unknown, but was likely built as a defensive structure by Native Americans some 1,500 years ago.
You can see many of the park’s standout features along the looping 1.5-mile Summit Trail, delivering you to the Fort Mountain Lookout for one of North Georgia’s great vistas, reaching deep into the Cohutta Wilderness.
You can study the wall along the way, and check out a sturdy fire tower, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
19. Blue Ridge
This cute town has come through as a flourishing mountain resort in the last couple of decades. I don’t think it’s a mystery, with nearby access to hundreds of miles of trails in the area for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking.
On Blue Ridge’s east flank is a sparkling upland lake, with recreation areas, campgrounds and marinas on its shores.
The scenery is a joy all year, but reaches new levels in autumn when the leaves turn. You can call in at Mercier Orchards, dating back to 1943, for some apple picking, or take a ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, tracing the picturesque banks of the Toccoa River to McCaysville, some ten miles to the north.
20. Chatuge Lake
In 1942 the Hiwassee River was impounded to form this 11-square-mile reservoir. I have to say, Chatuge Lake is one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the region, with the misty, wooded slopes of the Southern Appalachian Mountains setting the scene.
Managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Chatuge Lake has more than 132 miles of shoreline, whether you want to camp, lounge on a beach, go swimming, take picnics, launch a boat, go fishing, or any combination of these activities.
You’ll find it hard to resist the call of those mountains, and you may be relieved to learn that you can drive to the summit of Bell Mountain for an enchanting 360° panorama of the indented lakeshore and those rippling peaks.
21. Atlanta Botanical Garden
Hopping from one themed garden to the next, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the heart of Midtown at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Dotted with engaging works of art, these spaces are all intertwined, so one moment you’ll be in a peaceful Japanese enclave and the next you’ll be studying edible plants, ambling past boxwood hedges in a parterre or taking the time to smell the roses.
The indoor spaces are amazing, with rainforest and desert plants in the Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory, also inhabited by tropical birds, reptiles and amphibians.
The Fuqua Orchid Center holds the largest collection of ‘species orchids’ in the country, using technology to recreate the unique environment in which high-elevation orchids thrive at the equator.
A highlight for me is the Kendeda Canopy Walk, 600 feet long and 40 feet above the rare stand of urban forest.
I have several guides on Atlanta:
- 15 Best Atlanta Tours
- 15 Best Things to Do in Downtown Atlanta
- 55 Best Things to Do in Atlanta (Georgia) (by a Local)
- 15 Best Day Trips from Atlanta (by a Local)
- Where to Stay in Atlanta – Neighborhoods & Area Guide
22. Providence Canyon State Park
My bet for the strangest place on this list is a network of enormous gullies sliced from the sedimentary rock in the southwest of Georgia.
Given the depth of Providence Canyon you may be surprised to learn that it’s mostly a consequence of modern erosion, caused by poor farming practices in the 19th century.
Alarming as that fact may be, it takes nothing away from the grandeur of this place, with its tall shards of exposed rock in a spectrum from snow white to deep red.
Things get even more beautiful at the height of summer when the plumleaf azalea, the rarest azalea in the United States, decorates the scenery with pink, white, orange, and red blossoms.
23. Vogel State Park
I wouldn’t be surprised if more than half of the places on this list could be found within the Chattahoochee National Forest, such is its size and the amount of pristine mountain wilderness within its units.
One is Vogel State Park ensconced in the Blue Ridge Mountains, near the foot of Blood Mountain, which is the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia.
Vogel is the second-oldest state park in Georgia, and an ideal base for recreation in inspiring scenery, and for trips to the likes of Brasstown Bald and Neel Gap, a lofty mountain pass nearby.
In autumn the woods are embroidered with different shades, from red to gold, and leaf peepers account for a lot of the park’s annual traffic. Hikers are spoiled for choice, and all of the trails have something spectacular, whether it’s a waterfall or mountain view.
A lovable town in the foothills of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, Dahlonega was the scene of what is thought to be America’s first gold rush.
After the first discovery in 1829, the surrounding rivers and creeks were filled with frenzied and overzealous prospectors.
One grand monument from the gold rush days is the Old Lumpkin County Courthouse (1836), the oldest surviving courthouse in Georgia, and now a museum loaded with artifacts from the 1830s and 1840s.
You can become a prospector at the Consolidated Gold Mine and Crisson Gold Mine, but there’s another aspect to Dahlonega’s appeal.
Namely wine, as the city is at the heart of the North Georgia Wine Country, with a multitude of vineyards and wineries, tasting rooms and cellars within easy reach.
25. State Botanical Garden of Georgia
It might not be on my list, but Athens is a lovely city, and if I had to pick one place you absolutely have to see it’s this sumptuous botanical garden managed by the University of Georgia.
Three miles south of the main campus, this space was set aside in the 1960s, and as well as being beautiful is a living laboratory vital for research, education, but also shining as a place to relax.
Among the dozen or so collections are native azaleas, rhododendrons, dahlias, and groundcover plants.
The Heritage Garden is an absorbing look at the crops most important to Georgia, from peaches to cotton to tobacco, while the International Garden is a trip through time, beginning in the Middle Ages with medicinal and culinary herbs.
My rather obvious pro tip is to come in spring when the azaleas, rhododendrons and bulb flowers are in bloom, but there’s also a dazzling light display in the holiday season.
Further reading: 25 Best Things to do in Georgia