Photograph by Andrew Kornylak, Aurora Photos
GPS: 34°41'N 84°29'W
Hedged by more than two million acres of protected poplar, oak, and hemlock forest, Ellijay is a quieter (and closer) location to launch into the Appalachian Trail than its Chattahoochee backcountry neighbors. And the town's slow pace is soothing: Brick-lined downtown sidewalks lead past antique stores, outfitters, and old-fashioned ice-cream shops. Traffic jams are confined to two weekends in October, when the town's annual Apple Festival draws 40,000 visitors.
Ellijay anchors dozen of hikeable, bikeable options, but the hands-down favorite of solitude seekers is the 288-mile (463-kilometer) Benton MacKaye Trail, a wilder version of the AT. Perhaps the most clandestine adventure trek in the South, it loops out of Ellijay into some of the remotest parts of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. Paddlers can drive an hour south for hard-core whitewater on the Ocoee River, site of the 1996 Olympics. Beginners can get their keels wet with Ocoee Adventure Center, which offers both individual and group whitewater instruction on the Ocoee (from $129 per person; www.ocoeeadventurecenter.com).
Unbelievably, there are no franchise restaurants in town. The Hitching Post sells its 33-degree (1-degree-Celsius) beer in to-go milk jugs with pizza pies (+1 706 276 9924). Heaven.
Penny-wise trekkers head to the friendly Mulberry Gap Bunkhouse Inn (from $45 per bunk; www.mulberrygap.com). Falling Waters Mountain Lodge is a cozy base on 360 acres (146 hectares) of Chattahoochee wilderness (doubles from $150; www.fallingwatersmtlodge.com).