‘Tis the Season for a Holiday Road Trip from Atlanta to AshevilleBy Lia Picard
Atlantans head to the mountains when they need an escape from the hustle and bustle. Asheville, North Carolina, is only a 3.5-hour drive north and offers respite in the form of rolling mountain vistas with a hazy blue horizon, a vibrant art scene and seasonally inspired dining.
Sometimes life can get so hectic during the holidays that we don’t even get to enjoy the season. So instead of rushing through the relatively short trip, why not slow down and make the most of the Blue Ridge holiday festivities? From fantastical train rides to decor sightings to roadside goats, here’s how to plan a fun-filled holiday road trip from Atlanta to Asheville.
As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.
Do a little sightseeing in the Big Peach before venturing north. Visit the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Piedmont Park, which offers a visual feast of floral displays and sculptures. It’s worth visiting at night during the holidays to catch the annual Garden Lights, Holidays Nights exhibit. Bundle up, sip a hot toddy (or cocoa for the kids) and take in the twinkling lights. You’ll definitely want to buy a ticket in advance.
When you’re ready to leave, consider how you want to get to Asheville. There are a few routes to choose from, but the most scenic is to take I-85 north to I-985 north to U.S.-23 north. It’s less direct than taking I-85 most of the way, but it barely adds any additional time and is a much prettier route.
Don’t travel hungry. Grab a sandwich from Buena Gente, a Cuban bakery and café located in Decatur. In addition to killer Cuban sandwiches, they also sell empanadas and pastelitos (turnovers filled with guava and cream cheese), which make great road snacks should you get hungry later.
Atlanta to Helen
If you can time your trip accordingly, head to the German-inspired town of Helen, Georgia, for its annual Christkindlmarkt. Held only two weekends per year, this Christmas market is a go-to destination for all things holiday related, from sweets to gifts. You’ll find the outdoor market in the center of town, which makes it easy to explore other shops and eateries while you’re there.
From Atlanta, you’ll have to hop on Georgia 400 north to reach Helen, and then pick up the rest of the recommended driving route from here.
Note: For a one-of-a-kind pit stop en route to Helen, pop by Alto, Georgia, to see a quirky display of oversized art, “The School Bus Graveyard.” Here you’ll find dozens of retired school buses that form a living gallery and perimeter fence around Walter Wade’s auto shop. The shapes, sizes and histories of each bus are as varied as the artwork that adorns them — like cartoon faces, animals and abstract patterns.
Helen to Tallulah Gorge State Park
Head back east to get to U.S.-23 north and to continue on your journey. Before traveling onward, though, stop at Tallulah Gorge to stretch your legs for a bit. Since it’s chilly this time of year, dress accordingly.
Located in Rabun County, Tallulah Gorge is two miles long, almost 1,000 feet deep and offers beautiful views and challenging hikes. There are plenty of spots that overlook the gorge and the various waterfalls that make up Tallulah Falls.
You can also hike to the bottom of the gorge by climbing down a 600-step staircase that takes you to a suspension bridge. After you cross the bridge, another 400-step staircase takes you to the floor. It’s important to check the latest park information before you visit. Permits are required to hike to the gorge floor and may be limited (or not offered at all). Parking is $5 and can be purchased with cash on-site or online ahead of time.
Local’s tip: If you need to fuel up before your hike, you can’t go wrong with a stop at Shirley’s Soul Food Café in Toccoa, Georgia. Order a heaping plate of fried chicken, mac and cheese and cracklin’ cornbread, and leave satisfied (and ready to burn some of those calories in the gorge).
Tallulah Gorge to Goats on the Roof
You know what this trip needs? Adorable goats. Luckily, you can find them at Goats on the Roof. The roadside attraction in Tiger, Georgia, is easy to spot from the road. Admire the goats from afar or buy a bag of food to feed them.
There are other activities on-site, too, like gem mining, but it’s really all about the goats. Who knows, you may even get to say hi to Santa.
Goats on the Roof to Dillard House
You likely worked up an appetite while hiking or gawking at the goats, so it’s time to stop at Dillard House in Dillard, Georgia, on the Georgia–North Carolina border. Set on a historic property with sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Dillard House shows off during the holidays with Christmas trees, poinsettias and plenty of decor that’ll make your eyes twinkle.
If you’re hungry, head to their restaurant where you can expect an all-out Southern feast in an elegant dining room with grand windows. There’s a prix fixe menu of Southern dishes like fried chicken, country-style steak and all of the side dishes you could want.
All of it is brought to the table, and seconds (or thirds, even) can be ordered. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet, only the food comes to you. You can also order the food to go.
Dillard House to Sylva, North Carolina
Once you cross into North Carolina, it’s (typically) smooth sailing to Asheville. Stop at Sylva, about an hour outside of Asheville, to explore a picturesque mountain town. Quaint offerings on Main Street include a coffee shop-meets-boutique called The Farmhouse and City Lights Bookstore.
While you’re there, climb the 107 steps of the historic Jackson County Courthouse. At the top, turn around and take in the beautiful view of Main Street and the surrounding mountains (you’ll want to have your camera handy). During the holidays you’ll find plenty of decorations around town and great gift-buying opportunities.
If you’re a feline lover, don’t miss Sylva’s (very unusual) American Museum of the House Cat, showcasing a collection of items related to house cats, like 19th-century toy cats, handblown glass cats and vintage photos and folk art.
Sylva to Bryson City
Head west from Sylva to Bryson City, North Carolina, for a magical detour. The small mountain town is home to the Polar Express train ride, which runs from early November through December 31.
Climb aboard and get ready for a journey to the North Pole set to sounds from “The Polar Express” movie with beautiful views of the Smokies along the way. From hot chocolate to a visit from Santa himself, children and adults of all ages will be in the holiday spirit by the time the ride is over.
Welcome to Asheville! During the holidays Asheville is especially charming, with places like Biltmore Estate offering over-the-top Christmas displays. After exploring the estate, head to Battery Park Book Exchange to continue your visit in style.
The used bookstore, located downtown, is actually quite glamorous and features a Champagne bar. Order bubbly by the glass, flight or bottle. Check their social media before you go to make sure they are open and to see the latest specials and events.
You don’t have to go very far for more holiday festiveness. Downtown is decked out with lights and the North Carolina Arboretum has a drive-thru Christmas lights spectacle.
Of course, the Asheville area is a beacon for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers — including Santa, who likes to sharpen his chimney game at the biggest one of all, Chimney Rock State Park. On select weekends in December, you can watch jolly old St. Nick rappel 315-feet down the park’s granite outcropping, and celebrate with live music, photo ops and more.