The 54 miles of blacktop known as Ga. 400 is bookended by the high-rises and suburbs of Atlanta on its south end and the rolling hills and winding back roads of Dahlonega on the north. About an hour's drive from the city, just off of U.S. 19, "Dahlonega" is Cherokee for "golden color" or "yellow money." And it's true – you can pan for gold here. In fact, the precious metal was actually discovered in the hills of north Georgia 20 years before it was unearthed in California. Should the mood strike (couldn't resist ... ), you'll first want to visit the Dahlonega Gold Museum (Public Square, 706-864-2257, www.dahlonega.org) for a little background. Afterward, both the Consolidated Gold Mines (185 Consolidated Gold Mine Road, 706-864-8473, www.consolidatedgoldmine.com) and the Crisson Gold Mine (2736 Morrison Moore Parkway, 706-864-6363, www.crissongoldmine.com) offer panning for gold and gemstone mining. You'll also get mine tours at Consolidated Gold Mines, and, at Crisson, old-school ore crushing via trommel.
We suggest you hit the trommel before making your rounds at the vineyards surrounding the small mountain town. Almost as well known these days for the grapes grown in its terroir as the gold found within, Dahlonega's home to a number of vineyards and wineries worth a visit – and a taste. Blackstock Vineyards and Winery (5400 Town Creek Road, 706-219-2789, www.bsvw.com); Frogtown Cellars (700 Ridge Point Drive, 706-865-0687, www.frogtownwine.com); Wolf Mountain Vineyards (180 Wolf Mountain Trail, 706-867-9862, www.wolfmountainvineyards.com); and Three Sisters Vineyards (439 Vineyard Way, 706-865-9463, www.threesistersvineyards.com) should be on your list. If you only have time for one, we recommend Frogtown. If you don't have a designated driver, stick to Dahlonega's Historic Square, where tasting rooms abound – all within stumbling distance. But try to keep it somewhat classy, people. (If you like bluegrass with your wine, Three Sisters hosts the eighth annual Georgia Wine Festival on site June 5-6.)
Dahlonega's town square (on the National Register of Historic Places) hosts a number of events throughout the year, including the very cool Appalachian Jam Saturdays through the first week in October. It's as much open jam session as it is concert: Anyone's allowed to bring an instrument and play whatever with whomever. Left your dulcimer at home? Stop into Vintage Musical Instruments (42 Public Square, 706-864-2682) for a backup.
For eats, Picnic Cafe (30 Public Square, 706-864-1095) is the place for lunch: yummy sandwiches, soups and cookies fill the menu. Hell, Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong.com even recommends the place. (Dahlonega's a cycling hub and the finish for Tour de Georgia's mountain stage.) Crimson Moon Cafe (24 N. Park St., Suite A, 706-864-3982, www.thecrimsonmoon.com) serves a mean breakfast – great coffee – and hosts live musicians nightly. For something a little fancier (even though saying the name might make you think otherwise), try the Oar House (3072 E. Highway 52, 706-864-9938, www.theoarhouse.com), a more refined mountain eatery with decks overlooking the Chestatee River.
Speaking of the Chestatee, two rivers flow through Dahlonega: the Chestatee and the Etowah. Both are prime for a leisurely float on a hot summer day. You can call on the professionals at Appalachian Outfitters (706-864-7117, 2084 S. Chestatee/Highway 60, www.canoegeorgia.com) for all your tubing/kayaking/canoeing needs, or you can grab some floats of your own (don't forget one for the beer) and find a good spot to drop in. (Also, don't forget to scope out and leave a car at a finish point.) And because Dahlonega's seated in Appalachia among the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chattahoochee National Forest (www.stateparks.com/chattahoochee.html), there's also plenty of hiking, climbing and camping.
If you're too tired (or too tipsy) after a day spent in Dahlonega, consider pitching a tent for the night to sleep it all off. Better yet, snuggle up in a yurt at Cedar House Inn & Yurts (6463 Highway 19, 706-867-9446, www.georgiamountaininn.com). The yurts – eco-friendly shelters a few steps up from a tent, here with queen beds and compostable toilets – range from $105-$135 per night. Mmmm, compostable toilets.