Tuesday, September 23, 2014 · 6:23 a.m.

Field Excursions: Golden fun in historic Dahlonega, Ga.

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Children and adults alike will enjoy tubing on the Chestatee River in Dahlonega, Ga. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

The riverbanks glisten like gold in Dahlonega, Ga., the site of America’s first gold rush, located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in North Georgia. Although most of the sparkle along the banks of the historically gold-laden Chestatee and Etowah rivers is actually the mineral mica, there is still “gold in them-there hills” of Dahlonega.

“When people think of 'gold rush,' they always think of the American West,” said Julia Autry, interpretive ranger at the Dahlonega Gold Museum. “People forget that America’s first gold rush took place in Dahlonega.”

An estimated 42,000 pounds of gold have been found in Dahlonega since 1828, when town resident Benjamin Parks picked up a nugget of gold in the woods, formally launching Georgia’s gold rush.

A large gold nugget found in Dahlonega. (Photo: Dahlonega Gold Museum)

Parks’ discovery of gold within lands that belonged to the Cherokee Nation drew thousands of prospectors to the area lusting for gold, but also served as a major cause of the Cherokee Removal, when the state of Georgia expelled Cherokees from their ancestral lands in 1838.

Some of the most successful mines in Georgia were those in Dahlonega and Lumpkin County. A U.S. Branch Mint opened in Dahlonega in 1838, coining more than $6 million in gold before closing in 1861.The Civil War and the Great Depression influenced the flux of gold-mining operations in North Georgia, and, ultimately, gold fever went the way of the American West.

Golden fun in Dahlonega
Today, Dahlonega is prospering on its rich cultural and natural history. Visitors can try their hand at panning for gold and learn about the history of Georgia’s gold rush. The town’s historic district features charming shops, locally owned restaurants, wineries and jewelers with Dahlonega gold-made jewelry and the highly collectible Dahlonega gold coins.

The Dahlonega Gold Museum, housed at the historic Lumpkin County Courthouse. (Photo: Dahlonega Gold Museum)

The dramatic story of America’s first gold rush unfolds at the Dahlonega Gold Museum. Housed at the historic 1836 Lumpkin County Courthouse, even the walls of the museum glisten with gold—the bricks were made from local mud that contained flecks of gold.

The museum features, among other things, a complete set of Dahlonega gold coins from the former U.S. Branch Mint in Dahlonega, a gold nugget weighing more than 5 ounces from Duke’s Creek and an old stamp mill used to crush rock to get the gold.

For visitors seeking to find some of their own gold, Crisson Gold Mine, the only licensed gold-mining operation in Georgia, offers gold-panning and gold-mining opportunities for visitors.

Consolidated Gold Mine in Dahlonega offers tours of their former gold-mining operation, where a huge quartz vein system that contained gold (called the Glory Hole) was discovered and mined in the late 1800s. Original cart rails, electrical lines and even an operational pneumatic drill recovered from the mine can still be viewed within the mine. Visitors can also pan for gold and gemstones at the former mine.

“The idea that you might hit the jackpot is what keeps people coming back,” Autry said. “In reality, if you find a few flakes, you’ve done well.”

Dahlonega’s golden waters
The pristine waters of the Chestatee and Etowah rivers that wind into Dahlonega offer opportunities for outdoor fun and exploration, from gold panning and swimming to tubing, canoeing and kayaking. Cabin rentals on various waterways—which make access to the water much easier—can be found online at www.dahlonega.org.

Because much of the gold to be found in Dahlonega today is in rivers and creeks, a simple gold pan can entertain adults and children for hours. Tiny flakes of gold—called flour gold—can still be found if patiently and carefully panned. Purchase a gold pan (with instructions) at the Dahlonega Gold Museum, Crisson Gold Mine or Consolidated Gold Mine.

Getting out on the water is a great way to experience Dahlonega’s scenic landscape. Appalachian Outfitters in Dahlonega offers tubing trips on the Chestatee River, as well as canoe and kayak trips on the Chestatee and Etowah rivers and Yahoola Creek.

According to Ben LaChance, owner of Appalachian Outfitters, their tubing, canoe and kayak trips offer access to pristine waterways that have their headwaters in the Chattahoochee National Forest.

“The water quality of the Chestatee and Etowah rivers is really good,” LaChance said. “The otter populations there are strong and fishing is great, which are great indicators of water quality.

“We offer easy stretches of river, and we have the equipment to keep families and novices safe and comfortable,” LaChance said. “There is nothing that compares to getting away from the road and being on the river—it is such a different experience than simply walking in the woods.”

Kayakers on the Chestatee River in Dahlonega. (Photo: Appalachian Outdoors)

Additional outdoor fun can be found 20 miles east of Dahlonega at Amicalola State Park, which features the Southeast’s tallest waterfall, Amicalola Falls. An 8.5-mile trail leads from the park to Springer Mountain, the southern end of the famous 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail. The park features a mountaintop lodge, cottages and a campground, as well as the popular Maple Restaurant, known for its spectacular views and Sunday brunch buffet.

Just two and a half hours southeast of Chattanooga, Dahlonega offers families and history buffs gold-filled days of fun. To learn more, visit the Dahlonega website at www.dahlonega.org.

What: Historic Dahlonega, Georgia
Where:  North Georgia, approximately 110 miles southeast of Chattanooga
For more information: Visit the Dahlonega website at www.dahlonega.org

Jenni Frankenberg Veal enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.

A historic view of the Lumpkin County Courthouse. (Photo: Dahlonega Gold Museum)
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