Situated in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the area around Helen offers the closest mountains to Florida.
As an Airbnb host with a small rental less than 15 minutes from Helen, Georgia, I will say that the majority of our guests come from Florida. We were surprised to discover this when we started hosting, but it all made sense once we learned that Yonah Mountain and the Blue Ridge Mountains near Helen are the closest mountains to Florida.
Even though Helen has fewer than 500 full-time residents, it’s Georgia’s third most visited city—and I feel absolutely confident that this has everything to do with being the southernmost major mountain system in the South. (And maybe something else to do with being a uniquely Bavarian town with an annual Oktoberfest celebration that is the best stateside.)
Many Floridians visit Helen in the fall to experience a change of season, fall foliage and mountain activities. While many of us north of Florida consider a trip to the beach a classic summer vacation, Floridians have beaches at their fingertips. So for them, a classic vacation is something they don’t have access to regularly: the mountains.
Of all the mountains closest to Florida, those near Helen are the most popular for Florida travelers. The town offers plenty of mountain activities, along with fun entertainment options for kids and nearby wineries for adults. Visitors can choose to be one with the mountains by staying at primitive tent sites or relish the mountain views from pricier scenic resorts. Either way, Floridians can get a full taste of the mountains at just a day’s drive north to North Georgia.
Less than 10 minutes south of downtown Helen, Yonah Mountain is a spectacular mountain with a vigorous nearly 5-mile hike. But the views at the top of the trail make it worth every last drop of effort getting there. Floridians will find that the views from the 3,143-foot peak are much different than their usual sea level views.
Driving Distance to Helen
If you’re wondering how long it will take to drive to the nearest mountains from Florida, here are some general ideas for key cities in Florida:
- Jacksonville to Helen: 6 hours, 15 minutes (433 miles)
- Orlando to Helen: 7 hours, 30 minutes (525 miles)
- Sarasota to Helen: 8 hours, 30 minutes (596 miles)
- Palm Beach to Helen: 9 hours, 40 minutes (686 miles)
- Naples to Helen: 9 hours, 50 (702 miles)
- Miami to Helen: 10 hours, 35 minutes (751 miles)
Flying Distance to Helen
Many of Florida’s airports offer direct flights to Hartsfield Jackson Airport in Atlanta, with the longest flights clocking in at just under two hours. Of course, once you get to the Atlanta airport, you still need to get to Helen, which can be an hour-and-a-half to two-hour drive depending on traffic. You can rent a car from the airport or schedule a pickup from one of Helen’s few transportation services.
The good news is, once you get to Helen, the air is a little purer, the grass a little greener and the traffic much lighter (except maybe during Oktoberfest!).
Related: Where to See the Most Colorful Fall Foliage Near Helen
10 MOUNTAIN ACTIVITIES IN HELEN, THE CLOSEST MOUNTAINS NEAR FLORIDA
One great benefit of a mountain town is a true changing of the seasons. Fall is hands down the most popular season for traveling to Helen, which boasts the closest mountains to Florida. But you can also enjoy the mountain views and hikes in spring when nature begins to bloom as well as summer, when most waterfall hikes offer amazing swimming holes.
If you’re looking for mountain hikes, you’ve come to the right place. Helen is situated at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and nearby the start of the Appalachian Trail. We’ve put together a list of 8 easy, scenic short hikes near Helen (less than 2.5 miles) if you’re a novice hiker or may have young kids with you.
If you’re looking for more moderate or harder hikes, try one of these:
- Raven Cliff Falls Trail (moderate, 5.8 miles, $5 parking fee)
- Testnatee Gap to Cow Rock Mountain (moderate, 1.8 miles)
- High Shoals Falls (moderate, 2.9 miles)
- Unicoi to Helen Trail (moderate, 5.2 miles, $5 fee to park at Unicoi, but no fee to start the hike in Helen)
- Mount Yonah Trail (hard, 4.8 miles)
- Andrews Cove Trail (hard, 3.5 miles)
- Unicoi Gap and Indian Grave Gap Loop (hard, 5 miles)
Though hiking is amazing when you can see the fall foliage all around you, hiking near Helen is also great in summertime. The area boasts some popular natural swimming spots that make for one of the most sought after summer activities in Helen—especially on a hot day. Try the swimming holes at High Shoals Falls, Helton Creek Falls, Hemlock Falls or Wildcat Creek Sliding Rock. And the Ash Creek Trail at Smithgall Woods State Park is an exciting 3.8-mile hike where you traverse Dukes Creek on foot not once, but twice.
The area around Helen is known for both recreational and fly fishing. With multiple creeks, rivers and lakes, the area lures fishermen from all over the US.
Chattahoochee Wildlife Management Area: Boasts some of the best fishing in Helen, where you’ll find both hatchery and wild trout. The river begins high up in North Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and flows down through Helen and the surrounding area.
Duke’s Creek: This trout-fishing mecca runs through nearby Smithgall Woods State Park and is open for fishing year-round.
Unicoi Lake: This 53-acre lake is stocked with catfish, bluegill, crappie, brook trout, rainbow trout, brown trout and largemouth bass. Fish can be taken from May 15 and Oct. 31, but are only catch and release the rest of the year.
Soque River: Most of this river runs along private property, which means you need permission to fly fish for its amazing trout. Unless you have connections, you’ll need to hire a fishing guide for the Soque River. Luckily, Unicoi Outfitters in Helen is a full-service fly shop that does just that. The company is a permittee of the Chattahoochee-Oconee, Sumter and Nantahala National Forests and offers guided fishing in private water, public water and warm water. You can also purchase your Georgia fishing license here.
3. Tubing the Chattahoochee River
Tubing in Helen is one of the top tourist activities in the summer, and it’s even popular for locals. Not only is tubing family-friendly, but it’s also budget-friendly. It’s a great way to cool off and relax while soaking up the great outdoors.
On any given summer day, you’ll see both tourists and locals parade down the river on brightly colored tubes. It’s typically a battle of green vs. pink tubes, which represent the two tubing companies in Helen: Cool River Tubing (green) and Helen Tubing & Waterpark (pink). The river is full of an abundance of both colors, along with blue and yellow tubes, which indicate tubes with bottoms in them. (Don’t be fooled; you will still get wet in a tube with a bottom!)
It’s true that no Georgia mountain summer vacation is complete until you shoot the Hooch, so grab your bathing suit and towel and find out everything you need to know about tubing in Helen.
4. Mountain Biking
If you’re adventurous and athletic, there’s hardly a better way to enjoy a trip to the mountains than by hopping on a mountain bike trail. Luckily, the area around Helen offers a few trail options for you.
Yonah Preserve Trails: Located 15 minutes south of Helen. Offers 11+ miles of both easy and intermediate loops around scenic Turner’s Lake (also doubles as hiking trails) and there is no fee for parking.
Unicoi State Park: Just a 5 minute drive north of downtown. Nearly an 8-mile trail rated as intermediate or difficult, but with beautiful views. A $5 day pass or Georgia State Park Pass is required to park.
Other nearby mountain biking trails include: Upper Hooch Loop (16 miles, intermediate), Hickory Nut Trail (4.2 miles, very difficult), Chimney Mountain Road (6.9 miles, intermediate), Augustine Gap Road (6.7 miles, intermediate) and Tray Mountain Road (8.1 miles, intermediate).
5. Exploring nearby State Parks
If you love outdoor adventure, Helen is the perfect getaway for nature lovers. This charming mountain town is surrounded by forests, state parks, lakes, rivers and historic sites.
If you’ve come to Helen with an itinerary for outdoor activities, be sure to add visit some of the nearby state parks. For just a $5 daily parking pass, you can experience incredible hiking, cycling, fishing and swimming. And if you have the budget to throw at outdoor activities, you can try ziplining, paddleboarding, kayaking and more.
So pack your leashed dog, your hiking shoes and your adventurous attitude as you experience the beauty of the Appalachian foothills at these state parks close to Helen.
6. Horseback Riding
Horse lovers who visit Helen have two nearby riding options in the area. Chattahoochee Stables is only an 8-minute drive from Helen to nearby Sautee Nacoochee and offers a 1-hour guided trail ride for riders ages 6+. The majority of the company’s trail horses are quarter horses, which are known for having a calm, steady and gentle demeanor that makes them ideal for beginner riders. The 1-hour ride will take you through views of the Chattahoochee River and beautiful mountain scenery.
Another great option is Sunburst Adventures, a 17-minute drive east of downtown Helen to Clarksville, Georgia. The company offers several guided trail options, ranging from 1-3 hours. Kids 7 years and up can ride alone, while those ages 3-6 can double up on a horse so they don’t miss out on the fun. Sunburst’s trails pass by various scenic points, such as a moonshine still, miniature animal farm, as well as picturesque mountain tops and valleys.
7. Mountain Cabins with Hot Tubs
Nothing says mountain vacation like a log cabin outfitted with a hot tub. Whether you’re traveling as a couple or a large group, Helen has countless cabin options that will suit your needs. Check out the Visitor’s Bureau list of reputable cabins near Helen. You’re sure to find one to accommodate your group size, budget and amenity requirements (go for the hot tub!).
8. Rafting the Chattahoochee River
If tubing down the Chattahoochee River isn’t adventurous enough for you, try rafting with Wildwood Outfitters. Raft the wild waves of sections 1-4 of the Chattahoochee River. You can choose a tamer ride with family or a more exciting adventure with friends. All trips are 5-10 miles in length and range from 2.5 to 6 hours. Wildwood Outfitters operates from March to September and kids ages 5+ may raft the river.
9. Wineries with Mountain Views
When you mix Georgia red clay, gently sloped vineyard terrain, mountain breezes and the optimal mountainous elevation, you get high-quality wine grapes and a thriving wine production that now rivals those of California and Europe. It’s time you visit the new wine country of North Georgia.
On your visit to Helen, make a point to stop by some of the area’s wineries and vineyards. Most vineyards near Helen offer tours and tastings—or you can purchase wine by the glass or bottle to take home with you. Whether you prefer red or white wine (or even rosé or muscadine), North Georgia wineries offer an array of grape varieties for all palates.
Soak up the scenic views of grapevines cascading in rows over lush green hills. And enjoy the backdrop with every sip, as most wineries near Helen offers breathtaking views of the mountains.
10. Rock Climbing
Though well known for its hiking trail, Yonah Mountain also offers outdoor enthusiasts several rock climbing options. Even the Ranger Training School uses the mountain to train its brigade. Yonah Mountain has areas for climbing, rappelling and bouldering that stay quite popular during warmer months. Check out route details here.
Less than 40 minutes east of Helen, Tallulah Gorge offers experienced climbers a chance to get a permit to go into the gorge to tackle one of the most challenging climbs in Georgia. Flying Frog is a popular route.
Currahee Mountain near Toccoa, Georgia, offers excellent opportunities for mountain climbing near Helen, at at 45-minute drive southeast. Currahee has 67 total climbing routes, a combination of trad and sport. Frequent climbers suggest Frictionary and Pigs on the Wing as good climbs.
Go Visit Helen
If you’re looking for other family-friendly activities near Helen, which has the closest mountains to Florida nearby, check out some of our favorites:
- Free and Cheap Things to Do in Helen
- Hiking with Kids: DeSoto Falls Trail
- Best Activities for Kids Near Helen, Georgia
What are your favorite mountain activities to do?