A Scenic Overlook Story
A Scenic Overlook Story
I had never been so terrified driving a road in my life. White knuckled and sweaty palmed I gripped the steering wheel tightly as I just kept climbing higher on the narrow paved road. But then I arrived at the summit of Bell Mountain and realized the drive wasn’t really all that bad and the view was outstanding. The tension was instantly replaced with awe as I walked out to the overlook high above the small town of Hiawassee, Georgia.
In the 1960s three men from nearby Murphy, North Carolina bought the mountain and strip mined the top for precious minerals. The business venture lasted all of a few years before utterly failing. The men left, leaving the top of the mountain scarred, bald, with a gaping hole that is still visible for miles.
In an effort to prevent this from ever happening again local resident Hal Herrin purchased the entire mountain. He took a mostly hands off approach, allowing the locals to use it as a day trip destination. It was a sort of right of passage for the locals to hike to the summit for amazing sunset views and paragliding. The rutted and winding road was a favorite for off road enthusiasts with Jeeps, four wheelers, and mountain bikes.
But all that came to an end, of sorts, with the passing of Hal Herrin. Upon his death he willed the mountain to Towns County for the purpose of establishing a park so everyone could continue to enjoy the gorgeous view. It took a few years for the county to come up with the funds but eventually they created a paved road to the top with two parking lots and a staircase leading to an observation deck over the summit.
The locals pretty much hated it, and would love nothing more than for me to stop typing right now. For decades it was a hidden destination known for stunning views that required a good deal of effort to reach it (whether on foot or off road vehicle). But now it’s open to the public with an easily accessible paved road. One couple I met at the top begged me to never write about this place.
“Our first date was a hike to the top,” the gentleman told me. “Our second date was up here, too.” But when I asked if they enjoyed having a paved road to the top the older couple smiled and hesitantly nodded, admitting they would never be able to hike to the top now if they wanted to. A few minutes later they hopped into their pickup truck and drove down the mountain.
They had something truly magnificent all to the themselves, but not it’s easier than ever for anyone and everyone to discover it. But the locals can’t deny they enjoy it, too.
“Turn left onto Shake Rag Road,” my GPS said. That should have been the first sign of the adventure I was about to enjoy. Shake Rag Road. That just has a country ring to it that screams, “Hang on tight, we goin’ for a ride!”
At first the two lane road was level with only a few turns. It wound through a pleasant neighborhood with quaint homes and large open fields. There was even a small apartment complex.
Eventually the double yellow lane faded away and the road became narrower. It took a sudden upturn and the climb began. There were still homes and a power line overhead as the road snaked left and right climbing even higher.
The road became steeper. I found myself pressed into the back of the seat as much as I was the bottom. The road was so narrow I don’t think two vehicles could have passed each other if they tried.
Then I came to the first hairpin. It wasn’t really the sharpness of the turn that scared me but rather the fact it climbed nearly 20′ in the middle of the curve. The second hairpin came almost immediately. I was goin’ for a ride now.
There were moments the road leveled out for maybe a hundred feet. Other moments the road turned upwards quickly and seriously. It wasn’t a terrible drive with a thick forest on all sides and a lush canopy of leaves overhead.
No sooner had I finally started to enjoy the drive I came to a large ominous sign at the far edge of a parking lot. WARNING STEEP GRADE,” the sign blared. The words “AT YOUR OWN RISK” were underlined. I looked at the dozen parking spaces, all of them available, and decided to just park it here and walk the rest of the way.
The next day I would return again (keep reading and you’ll see why) and realized the last 300′ climb on the road isn’t really all that bad. There are another dozen parking spaces in a large parking lot at the very top.
Standing in a carved barren pit where a mountain top used to be just might be the closest a person could ever come to the sensation of flying while their feet are still firmly on the ground. The view is as wide as it is tall with no trees or obstacles in the way. The failed business venture from a half century earlier has led to the creation of one of the most stunning scenic views in the country.
Perched at the edge of the mountain is a metal and concrete platform, level with the parking lot, named the Hal Herrin Overlook. It’s a great first view of the landscape far below the mountain top and easily accessible from the parking lot.
But the wooden observation deck is not to be ignored. It’s exactly one hundred steps to the top but that moderately strenuous climb technically puts you at the highest point on the mountain at 3,424′ above sea level. Go to the right or the left, it doesn’t matter because either way you are treated to uninterrupted 360-degree panorma views.
My first time to the summit was just as a series of thunderstorms was rolling across the mountains. Like usual I was there with my aluminum tripods ready and eager to capture photos of lightning and thinking nothing of personal safety, but that’s just what I do. Didn’t see any lightning that day but I did catch a glimpse of a rainbow and a halfway decent sunset.
But the next day I returned for a breathtaking sunset. A few clouds dotted the sky and a thin haze covered the horizon, creating the perfect conditions for a colorful and brilliant sunset. I wasn’t alone; people had driven from Tennessee, North Carolina, and even Florida to see the view from this mountain. The word was out long before I ever arrived that this was one of the spectacular views in the state, if not the entire country.
Sitting on the railing of the observation deck, watching the sun duck below the horizon and the color fade from the sky, I realized the road was terrifying because it was unfamiliar. It was absolutely thrilling to be sitting there. I would easily rank this is the top five mountain top views I’ve ever seen. In fact I would argue the view here is better than nearby Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. It was definitely a place I would return to visit again, and maybe next time spend a little time on Lake Chatuge.
Bell Mountain Park is open all day but there is a gate just passed the first parking lot that could be closed by the county during inclement weather. The first parking lot is a great place to stop if you just don’t want to drive up another incline, or if you think the top parking lot might be full. At the top parking lot there are twenty parking space, including one handicap, and enough room for maybe another half dozen vehicles if you park smartly.
Although wintery views would be stunning this is not a road to take during ice or snow. I can’t imagine the county sending a snow scrapper or even a salting truck up this very narrow road so it will probably be left untouched. It’s steep enough that if you get caught in icy conditions you are most likely going to lose control and wreck.
The road is pretty steep, certainly more than the average highway. Going up is actually the easy part; coming down is hard. It’s hard on the brakes. If you have the ability to downshift utilize that feature. If not take it slow because after fifteen or twenty minutes descending the mountain top and riding your brakes they’ll be a little hot and probably smelling. There is a gas station at the end of Shake Rag Road where I would sit for a few minutes to let the brakes cool down.