You might want to pay attention to where you put your feet when you visit Dahlonega, Georgia. In 1828, so the story goes, Benjamin Parks was hunting deer in this mountainous part of north Georgia and stumbled over a small rock. Upon closer inspection, he found it was streaked with gold, an accidental fortune that ignited a frenzied search for the precious metal.
Between 1829 and 1849—the year of the Gold Rush in California— miners rushed to the area, lured by the siren call of 98-percent pure gold. By 1839, Dahlonega produced so much of the metal that the federal government established a U.S. Mint branch in what is today Price Memorial Hall at the University of North Georgia, whose 7,200 students outnumber Dahlonega’s 6,000 residents. Price Hall’s dome, visible from the town square, gleams with the Dahlonega gold leaf.
During the small town’s heyday, more than 250 gold mines pocked the hills and valleys of north Georgia, two of which have survived and are now open to visitors. At Crisson open-pit mine, established in 1847 and the only working gold mine left in Georgia, you can witness a 130-year- old stamp mill pulverize quartz rocks to release tiny particles of gold. Make sure to try your hand at panning for loose specks in water troughs on-site.
Peer deeply into the heart of mining on a 40-minute guided tour at Consolidated Gold Mine, which contains a 22-foot-thick vein of quartz—one of the largest gold-bearing veins in the world. Some 200 feet underground in the dark, damp shaft, you’ll glean nuggets about the hazards of mining, a job from which many men failed to retire. Prolonged exposure to rock dust, the cyanide and mercury re ning process, not to mention the dangers of blasting subterranean rock faces with dynamite to expose veins, all of these threats claimed a heavy toll.
The buildings lining Dahlonega’s public square, which was laid out in 1833, date from the golden days of the 1840s to 1880s. Given their age, it’s not surprising these structures are considered haunted, and guests can revel in the spookiest stories during an evening ghost expedition with Dahlonega Walking Tours. An 1836 brick courthouse squats in the square’s center, and is now home to the Dahlonega Gold Museum. Locals allege that some of the building’s bricks, fashioned from the mud of nearby Cane Creek, are ecked with gold.
Clustered on and around the square are 18 independently owned restaurants, seven tasting rooms representing Georgia’s best wines, and a bevy of shops. During the Old Fashioned Christmas celebration, Dahlonega twinkles with 72,000 white lights—which sparkle from the Friday after Thanksgiving into January.
Though Dahlonega holds fast to its precious metal heritage—the town’s largest annual festival is appropriately dubbed Gold Rush Days—David Zunker, Dahlonega’s tourism director, likes to say “wine is the new gold” these days. Six wineries cluster the hills around town, and more may be coming soon. Local vintners anxiously await their area’s official designation as the Dahlonega Plateau AVA (American Viticultural Area) from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a title that will literally put them on the American wine map.
Dahlonega’s oldest winery, Three Sisters, was incorporated in 1996 as Lumpkin County’s first legal winery since Prohibition, taking its name from the trio of peaks rising above the 184-acre farm. Owners Sharon and Doug Paul grow nine varietals (three whites and six reds), including Norton (aka Cynthia), an indigenous American wine grape named for Dr. Daniel Norton, who introduced the vinifera and wild grape hybrid vitis aestivalis in Virginia in 1821. “Cynthiana will be the shining example of Georgia grapes in years to come,” predicts Sharon, whose 19 wines include a Georgia Port made from Touriga Nacional grapes.
Next door—as the crow flies—the contemporary farmhouse hosting Frogtown Cellars Vineyards looks as if it’s been plucked from a hillside in Napa Valley. Cherokee for “Place of the Frog,” Frogtown grows 25 different grape varietals on 44 acres. Owner and winemaker Craig Kritzer crafts estate- grown and bottled dry wines in the French style for his Frogtown label. Among the best sellers are the Bordeaux-style red called Propaganda, and Shotgun, a bold red blend.
Nearby Kaya Vineyard and Winery has recently risen on the former site of Blackstock Vineyards. From atop a 1,600-foot-high ridge, the new tasting room and terrace on the renovated property relish views of the vineyard and mountains beyond. Kaya currently makes eight wines—all nished in stainless steel—and will add six oak-aged releases this fall. Ambitious plans call for a future 22-room hotel and event facility.
At 1,800 feet, the southwest-facing slopes of Wolf Mountain Vineyards are best suited to growing red-grape varietals—Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Tannat, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Touring Nacional—which are used to blend Wolf Mountain’s Estate Red Wines. After a tasting here, linger over a duck barbecue sandwich or a g, pear, and prosciutto pizza in the window-lined Vineyard Café.
Vines cling to the stucco façade of Montaluce, a striking Tuscan-style winery resting on a 400-acre estate, where the tasting room currently offers ve reds and ve whites—including a rare sparkling mead. In addition to Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese, Montaluce produces a smoky Syrah and a Cabernet Franc aged in oak for 18 months.
The area’s youngest winery, Cavender Creek Vineyards, opened in 2011. Owner Claire Livingston crafts both dry and sweet wines, many of the dry reds blended with Norton grapes. Named for one of the resident creatures, the Donkey Hotie Red is an earthy blend of predominantly Norton with Cabernet Franc. Next to the tasting room, an 1820s log cabin, restored with two bedrooms and two baths, is available for rent.
Livingston, a newcomer to Dahlonega, moved to these magical mountains a year ago from Dublin, Georgia. When asked how she likes her new hometown, she waxes poetic: “I feel like heaven opened up and a little piece fell out as Dahlonega.” Pure gold.
Mountain Laurel Creek Inn & Spa
Rustic luxury resides on 14 acres at this gracious B&B, which hides an expansive day spa downstairs. All six rooms boast antique furnishings, a jetted tub, and a balcony. 202 Talmer Grizzle Rd, Dahlonega, GA. (706) 867-8134, mountainlaurelcreek.com
Hotel & Villas Located a block from the square, this hotel and special- event venue occupies a lovingly renovated 1880s home with 13 spacious new rooms. // 135 N Chestatee St, Dahlonega, GA. (706) 867-1313, dahlonegasquarevilla.com
Le Vigne at Montaluce
Hillsides of vines cascade below the dining room at Montaluce Winery, where the new chef, Chris Matson, brings New York savoir- faire to dishes such as honey-roasted pork loin spiced with juniper and anise. 946 Via Montaluce, Dahlonega, GA. (706) 867- 4060, montaluce.com
Try the tasty Mediterranean- influenced small plates at this cozy café, whose building encompasses the town’s 1850s jail cells— now used for storing wine and other provisions. // 51 W Main St, Dahlonega, GA. (706) 867-8551, thecorkscrewcafe.com
Paul Thomas Chocolates
Paul Hoffman handcrafts delectable bonbons in the shop he owns with his wife, Lori. Wrapped in shiny gold foil, his Dahlonega Gold Bars fold golden raisins and Georgia pecans into milk or dark chocolate. 102 Public Square N, Dahlonega, GA. (706) 864-6333, paulthomaschocolates.com
Brad Walker Pottery
Watch Walker throw bowls, mugs, and more on the pottery wheel at his small studio and shop, where he has worked for 41 years. Vivid hues color his finished pieces. 70 Public Square N, Dahlonega, GA. (706) 864-7130
The Crimson Moon
Lodges in an 1848 building on the square, this intimate listening room hosts nationally known and up-and-coming folk, bluegrass, blues, and country musicians. The pine ceiling, floor, and walls create outstanding acoustics. 24 N Park St, Dahlonega, GA. (706) 864- 3982, thecrimsonmoon.com