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Driving to the Summit of Bell Mountain for Stunning Views of the North Georgia Mountains

One of the most stunning mountain top overlooks in Georgia features a terrifying road and tragic history.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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I had never been so terrified driving a road in my life. I gripped the steering wheel with white-knuckled ferocity and gently goosed the gas pedal. The engine roared as I slowly climbed the steep paved road up the mountain. The road was so narrow that if another car were heading down, one of us would have to back up.

Finally, the road leveled and came into a parking lot. There were a dozen empty parking spaces. At the end of the parking lot, the road continued another climb past an ominous white metal sign with bold red lettering. “WARNING STEEP GRADE,” the sign blared. “Vehicles that travel beyond this point on footpath AT YOUR OWN RISK.”

I’m done, I thought to myself. I immediately pulled into one of the empty parking spaces and walked the remaining three hundred feet on the road to the summit of Bell Mountain in Hiawassee, Georgia.

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The V-shaped gouge at the top of Bell Mountain is viewable from most points around Hiawassee and Lake Chatuge.

History of Bell Mountain

In the 1960s, three men from nearby Murphy, North Carolina, bought the land across Bell Mountain in Hiawassee, Georgia. They began strip-mining the mountain, looking for valuable minerals.

But only three years later, the men abandoned the mining venture. They left behind a mountain summit scarred from the strip-mining operation, a one-hundred-foot-deep gouge of barren rock where nothing could ever grow again. The V-shaped summit was an eyesore throughout the town and a constant reminder to the locals that something amazing was lost.

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In 1971, a local man named Hal Herrin bought the land of the former strip mine to preserve it from future development. He never made any improvements to the property, but he left it open for the public to explore. A rite of passage for teens was to trudge up the rutted access road to the summit in four-wheel-drive trucks, four-wheelers, and mountain bikes to enjoy the views – and each other’s company.

When Herrin passed away in 2014, he willed the 18-acre property to Towns County with the provision it was preserved and left open to the public. The county painstakingly paved a road to the summit and created two parking lots, carving one out of the forest and spreading the other across the scarred summit. They built wooden stairs and observation decks across the jagged rocks.

Two years later, Bell Mountain County Park and Historic Site opened to the public. Now, anyone with a two-wheel-drive vehicle can enjoy the stunning views. But first, you must drive to the summit.

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Lots of parking spaces on the mountain’s summit, and a gorgeous view from the parking lot without any need to climb stairs.

Driving to the Summit

It was only a 2.3-mile drive from US Highway 76 to the summit of Bell Mountain. The Garmin GPS mounted to my dashboard said it would only be an 8-minute drive. But this was a mountain road, and if I’ve learned anything from years of road tripping, it’s that a computer does not know how long it will take to drive a mountain road.

Turning onto Shake Rag Road, the drive started easily enough. Private homes, rolling fields, and an apartment complex lined the road. But eventually, the double yellow lane faded, and the paved road narrowed.

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Then, it took a sudden upward turn. It was an odd sensation as I felt gravity pulling me into the back of the seat rather than down as the road became steeper. I gripped the steering wheel with white-knuckled ferocity and gently goosed the gas pedal. The engine roared as I inched up the mountain.

Finally, the road leveled and came into a parking lot. There were a dozen empty parking spaces. At the end of the parking lot, the road continued another climb past an ominous white metal sign with bold red lettering. “WARNING STEEP GRADE,” the sign blared. “Vehicles that travel beyond this point on footpath AT YOUR OWN RISK.”

I’m done, I thought to myself. I immediately pulled into one of the empty parking spaces and walked the remaining five hundred feet on the road to the summit of Bell Mountain.

Pro Travel Tip The paved road to Bell Mountain’s summit is passable for all types of personal vehicles. However, smaller vehicles are easier to navigate on the narrow road. Although no signs expressly forbid it, it is not possible to drive large campervans, RVs, or travel trailers to the summit.

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Three wooden observation decks are spread across Bell Mountain’s summit, and from all of them a gorgeous view of Lake Chatuge.

The Hal Herrin Overlook and Observation Decks

The failed business venture from more than half a century earlier left the summit scarred but also created one of the most stunning scenic overlooks in the state. Without any trees to block the view, the 3,392-foot summit offered an uninterrupted 360-degree panorama view. It was a better view than nearby Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia.

The final five-hundred-foot drive was the steepest part of the road but passable for any personal car. A parking lot with room for about a dozen cars was spread across the summit.

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The Hal Herrin Overlook is a metal deck level with the parking lot on the west side of the summit. The accessible overlook is a great place to watch the sunset.

A long wooden staircase ascends the jagged rocks to a trio of decks atop the mountain from the overlook. At 3,424-feet, the observation decks are the highest point on the mountain. Each of the decks offers unmatched panorama views of the mountains.

7.5-miles southwest, the barely perceptible peak of Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia, protrudes from other nearby peaks. Lake Chatuge sprawls across nearly 7,000 acres to the west, a source for outdoor recreation in the small mountain town. If you look closely enough, you’ll see the bend in US Highway 76 around the lake, a route connecting all the small towns from Clayton to Ellijay through the north Georgia mountains.

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Most of the rocks are covered in graffiti.

A Great Graffiti Problem

Long before a paved road provided easy access for everyone to enjoy sunset views from Bell Mountain’s summit, locals would traverse the top with a can of spray paint. When the county park opened, local officials allowed the practice of painting the rocks to continue as part of the mountain’s “colorful past.”

But it became a problem when people began painting the road, wooden decks, and metal fixtures. Soon enough, every jagged rock, inch of board, and several parking spaces were covered in graffiti, some of which were unsuitable for children to see.

If you keep your eyes on the mountains, you will enjoy the stunning views from Bell Mountain. But try not to look down.

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The view of sunset across Lake Chatuge from the observation deck on Bell Mountain.

Returning to Bell Mountain

The first time I drove the winding paved road up Bell Mountain, I only made it as far as the lower parking lot. After seeing the ominous sign warning of a steep grade and proceeding at my own risk, I parked there and walked the remaining five hundred feet to the summit.

A series of summer thunderstorms were moving across the sky that first night. From a perch on the wooden observation deck, I caught sight of a tiny rainbow in the downpour of a storm nearby. Thunder echoed in the distance – and eventually got closer. I left the summit behind, knowing I had a bit of a walk to the car.

Despite being the most terrifying road I had ever driven, I returned the next night.

Gripping the steering wheel less tightly the second time, I again climbed the narrow paved road. But this time, I slowly passed the ominous sign and continued to the parking lot on the summit.

And this time, I had a better view.

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A few wispy clouds were sprinkled across the sky. A gentle breeze cooled the hot summer air. Sounds of boats on the lake and cars on the highway didn’t reach the summit, casting the mountain peak in serene silence.

The sunset was not spectacular, but it was not awful, either. A splash of orange was cast over the wispy clouds as the sun ducked below the horizon. Minutes later, the color was gone along with the light.

It was the most terrifying road I had ever driven in my life. And I went two days in a row. The stunning views from Bell Mountain were worth the drive, and I know I will visit one day again.

7 Responses

  1. I used to go up there years ago (maybe 30 or more) dirt road, very rutted, not driveable by a regular vehicle. Had to walk the last several hundred yards, but it was worth the view when we got up there. Back then, we would be the only ones and it was nice to see the sunset with my sweetee. Glad to see it is now open for everyone, but dislike the graffiti

    1. I do not know of any hiking trails at the base of Bell Mountain reaching the summit. The only way to the top used to be a dirt path before they paved it.

  2. It really is gorgeous up there, isn’t it? I’m one of the transplanted locals & I’m glad the park is there. I live on the lower slopes of Bell – the side opposite from Shake Rag. We have some of the prettiest sunsets I’ve ever seen up here. You should come back in the fall, when the leaves have changed.

    1. It was literally breathtaking. The drive up there scared me half to death, but then it instantly became one of my favorite mountain top views anywhere. I want to come back there for every season eventually, even a snowy day! Did you ever reach the top before they paved the road?

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