TALLULAH FALLS, Ga. —The rocky gorge is nearly 1,000 feet deep, two miles long and a quarter-mile wide. It is filled with thundering waterfalls.
It was once wild. Now it is tamed.
It is also where well-heeled Georgians vacationed in the 19th century.
Welcome to Tallulah Gorge State Park in Northeast Georgia.
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The heavily wooded gorge with its stark granite walls is quite simply one of the most spectacular gorges in the eastern United States.
In less than a mile, the Tallulah River plunges 500 feet with six major waterfalls: Ladore (46 feet), Tempesta (76 feet), Hurricane (96 feet), Oceana (50 feet), Bridal Veil (17 feet) and Lover's Leap (16 feet).
The cliffs add to the natural beauty and provide overlooks into the gorge. The views are breathtaking and all but guaranteed to knock your socks off.
For decades, Tallulah Falls was known as the Niagara of the South. It was called one of the seven natural wonders of Georgia. Some say its name comes from the Cherokee word for "terrible river."
The river begins at Standing Indian Mountain in North Carolina and tumbles 4,700 feet in 46 miles before it joins the nearby Chattooga River.
Today you can hike along the gorge's rim to vistas and overlooks. You can descend dizzying steps to a suspension bridge 80 feet above the Tallulah River.
You can hike to the bottom of the gorge, although the free permits are limited to 100 a day.
You won't be alone on your visit to Tallulah Gorge. The park is one of the most popular in Georgia for its scenery and gets about 263,000 visitors a year.
The rim trail on the canyon's north side is an easy hike that starts at the park's visitor center.
It is about one mile long and will take 45 minutes to walk from end to end. According to most, it offers the best views in the park.
Overlook No. 1 is touted as offering the best view of the gorge from the north rim. Oceana is immediately below. Bridal Veil Falls with its smooth sliding rock face is at the east end of the gorge. You are about 750 feet above the Tallulah River.
A new overlook was added in 2010 at Inspiration Point at the eastern end of the gorge. It requires a quarter-mile extra walk and a climb of 212 feet. The views are worth it.
The sun dries out the south-facing cliffs, so the dominant plants are dwarfed oaks and pines. It's a tough terrain for vegetation.
Overlook No. 2 offers views of Ladore Falls (L'Eau d'Or or water of gold) and Hawthorne Cascade and Pool. The gorge here is not as deep: about 350 feet. It is at Overlook No. 2 where you can descend via the Hurricane Falls Staircase into the heart of the gorge.
It is 750 steps down to the bridge and another 450 steps to the bottom. It is a steep climb to the top.
Overlook No. 3 provides views of Hurricane Falls, the tallest in the gorge at 96 feet. Overlook No. 4 offers the best views of the dam and the upper gorge from the north rim.
Overlooks 6-10 are on the canyon's South Rim Trail. It is about the same length as its northern counterpart and, obviously, offers different views. But fewer people visit that side of the canyon.
The deepest spot is near Overlook No. 10 where the canyon is nearly 1,000 feet deep.
The south rim is wetter and more vegetated. Hemlocks and rhododendrons thrive at the bottom of the gorge, mixed pines at its top.
Side streams produce smaller waterfalls into the gorge like Caldonia Cascade.
The park offers whitewater paddling when water levels are appropriate, swimming on a 63-acre lake, mountain biking, a bicycle trail, camping, ranger programs, fishing, picnicking, tennis courts and 20 miles of hiking-biking trails.
Rock climbing is allowed with permits from the park.
The Jane Hurt Yarn Interpretive Center is a first-rate facility with 16,000 square feet of displays on the park's geology, flora, fauna and cultural history. It opened in 1996.
It offers a 15-minute film on climbing the Tallulah cliffs and paddling its foaming whitewater.
The gorge and its waterfalls became a major tourist attraction in the 1800s.
Artist George Cooke painted Tallulah Falls in 1843.
Writer-artist Thomas Addison Richards made the gorge and its falls a key attraction in his 1842 book Georgia Illustrated, and his 1852 book Tallulah and Jocassee.
That brought more visitors to rugged and isolated north Georgia. Local residents provided shelter for visitors in their homes.
In 1882, the Tallulah Falls Railway was built to make the gorge more accessible to tourists from Atlanta and south Georgia. It became Georgia's first major tourist attraction and one of the biggest in the South.
Resort hotels, boardinghouses and bars sprang up on both sides of the gorge. More than 20 hotels were built in the Victorian resort town. The gorge would get as many as 2,000 visitors on Sunday afternoons.
In 1883, tightrope walker Professor Leon (real name J.A. St. John) crossed the gorge in a publicity stunt for a hotel.
In 1970, Karl Wallenda crossed the gorge on a tightrope. It was a 1,000-foot walk. He was watched by 30,000 people. The towers for his cable still stand on the two canyon rims.
The 2,739-acre state park is an unusual joint venture between the state of Georgia and the Georgia Power Co. The utility still uses the gorge to produce electricity. The agreement came in 1993.
Just above the falls on the Tallulah River is the hydroelectric dam that was built in 1912 and 1913 by the Georgia Railway & Power (now Georgia Power). It needed more electricity to power Atlanta's streetcars.
The dam, 116 feet high and 400 feet wide, still directs water from the lake via a 6,666-foot tunnel around the falls to an electric generating station downstream.
The facility was once the No. 1 electric producer in the state of Georgia.
The typical flow on the Tallulah River through the gorge is very limited: 35 to 40 cubic feet per second. That's about 350 gallons a second.
During what the state and the utility call aesthetic releases, the river will be flowing at 200 cubic feet per second. That is scheduled 28 weekend days per year. It will replicate pre-dam flows.
In whitewater releases, the flow is 500 cubic feet per second on Saturdays and 700 cubic feet per second on Sundays. That is done on five weekends in April and November. The added water increases the thrills and the danger for paddlers, but the releases in late 2010 were canceled by dam repairs.
Building the dam created a major environmental battle in north Georgia.
Helen Dortch Longstreet, the widow of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, led the fight against the dam. A section of the rim trail at the park is named in her honor.
Longstreet, who lived in nearby Gainesville, fought to have the gorge protected by the state and organized the Tallulah Falls Conservation Association. It was one of the first conservation efforts in Georgia, but the Georgia Assembly was unable to raise the $1 million needed to acquire the gorge.
After the hydroelectric facility began operating, tourism at Tallulah Falls started to decline. Fires destroyed the hotels by the early 1920s.
With its variations of light, shade and moisture, Tallulah Gorge features an array of ecosystems or habitats for plants and animals.
It is home to the persistent trillium, an endangered species that grows in the gorge and at a few other locations in Georgia and South Carolina. The gorge has even gone Hollywood, appearing in such films as Deliverance and Grizzly.
The park is easily accessible off of north-south U.S. 441.
Hours: 8 a.m. to dusk daily. The interpretive center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is $5 per vehicle.
For Tallulah Gorge information, contact the state park at P.O. Box 248, 338 Jane Hurt Yarn Drive, Tallulah Falls, GA 30573, 706-754-7970, http://www.georgiastateparks.org/tallulahgorge.You can reach the Georgia Power camping reservation office at 706-754-7979.
For Tallulah Falls tourist information, contact the Rabun County Welcome Center, P.O. Box 750, 232 Highway 441, Clayton, GA 30525, 706-782-4812, http://www.gamountains.com; or the Habersham Chamber of Commerce, 668 Clarkesville St., P.O. Box 366, Cornelia, GA 30531, 800-835-2559 or 706-778-4654, http://www.habershamchamber.com.