Clayton, Georgia

Population: 2,234

In the northeastern corner of Georgia is the quintessential southern town of Clayton. It’s charming and idyllic, yet pulsing with fresh new energy. Only an hour and a half from the urban centers of Atlanta and Asheville, Clayton is where you go to slow down. The county seat of Rabun County, Clayton is literally more forest than it is town—over 60 percent of the county at large is national forest and state park land while another 20 percent is owned by Georgia Power.

Clayton’s proximity to Tallulah Gorge is just one of the reasons this small mountain town is an ideal adventure basecamp.

That, says Wander North Georgia founder Josh Brown, is what makes Clayton one of the Southeast’s best basecamps for recreation. Brown has been making weekend trips to Clayton for well over a decade. Finally, he decided to make the move full-time and has a brick-and-mortar shop on Main Street that sells locally and regionally made crafts.

“There is such an interesting dynamic in town,” says Brown. “I’d say about 99 percent of the population here go back five or six generations and have been living here for 200 years. There’s this huge foundation of history from those generations, but it’s not antagonistic. The locals don’t hate the tourists and the tourists don’t call the locals redneck hillbillies. Clayton blends both worlds really nicely. It’s one of those unique places where people come, they fall in love with it, and they come back over and over again. The visitors even start to feel like locals.”

Play: Families with small children, or even passersby in need of a quick hike to stretch the legs, should be sure to make a stop at Hemlock Falls in Moccasin Creek State Park. At only two miles round-trip, this relatively flat trail leads to an impressively picturesque waterfall. Bring a rod and head upstream to try your hand at catching the creek’s resident native brook and rainbow trout population. Keep up the water-themed adventures by hiring a river outfitter to show you down the Chattooga River (for the best rapid-packed action, hit up section IV). Southeastern Expeditions will make the most of your seven-hour trip for $105 during the week, $129 on the weekend, lunch included. Another classic Southeastern whitewater gem, the Tallulah Gorge, flows nearby, and while the paddling on this river is much more advanced, the 20+ miles of hiking trails through the state park will let you get a taste of the action. At day’s end, head up to Black Rock Mountain State Park, Georgia’s highest state park. The park’s signature bluffs are visible from downtown Clayton. When the summer afternoon thunderstorms hit, head to Wander North Georgia, a hip place to shop, hang, and dig for off-the-beaten-path trail recommendations. There’s an indoor bocce ball court in the back of the store, complete with astroturf, darts, corn hole, and a big screen tele. What’s not to love about that?

Stay: Pitch a tent at Black Rock Mountain State Park for $32 per night. This is the closest camping to downtown Clayton and will keep you at the heart of the action. Some more luxurious accommodations can be found on Airbnb—for $135 per night you can rent a totally renovated 1880’s cabin in the Wolffork Valley of Rabun Gap, or, for about $100 more, you can stay in the complete opposite, a new-age “Tree House” located in the Mountain House [modern] compound designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects. The White Birch Inn in downtown Clayton also has six cabin-style rooms starting at $165 per night.

Eat: Clayton’s small-town vibe certainly has a big-city feel to its eating options. Get your caffeine fix for the day at White Birch Provisions, where you can also resupply your bread, wine, cigar, and pastry needs (I mean, you are on vacation, right?). Breakfast is at Sunday Dinner, a downhome family-run joint that will make you feel like family, even if it’s your first time visiting. Fortify and its sister restaurant Fortify Pi are dishing out some top-of-the-line food that is locally sourced and exquisitely crafted. If it’s a nice day out, Universal Joint is the place to be. With a large outdoor patio, live Friday and Saturday night music, and some 15 beers on tap, it’s no wonder that this place has been a hit among locals and tourists alike. Got a game you can’t miss? Head over to Clarks’ On Main, a sports-bar-done-right with 35 beers on tap, 25 TV screens, and a Cheers vibe that’ll have you coming back time and again.

Spruce Pine, North Carolina

Population: 2,123

In the early 1900s, Spruce Pine was considered the Toe River Valley’s biggest town, thanks in large part to the vastly expanding railroad and mining industries of the time. Both of those industries have since dwindled to naught, and that’s left Spruce Pine’s residents the opportunity to reinvent their identity. At the heart of this next chapter is the great outdoors.

Located amid thousands of acres of western North Carolina’s most treasured public lands, Spruce Pine is the closest major town to three of the region’s iconic mountains—Mount Mitchell, Roan Mountain, and Grandfather Mountain. Its proximity to these Southeastern gems, coupled with in-town river access, has the potential to make Spruce Pine North Carolina’s next best mountain town. At least, that’s what Spruce Pine native Starli McDowell, Executive Director of the Toe River Valley Watch, thinks.

For backdoor access to Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, and Roan Mountain, Spruce Pine is the place to be.

“Spruce Pine is all about that hometown, small, country feel with friendly people,” says McDowell. “We’re right at the center of all of these mountains, and the water that flows off of those mountains feeds the rivers and streams. We’re blessed with abundant clean water and good mountain people.”

McDowell was instrumental in the 2009 removal of the Spruce Pine dam on the Toe River, which opened access for paddlers through downtown Spruce Pine. Now, the river is free-flowing, and one of the few free-flowing rivers in the state. She’s currently working on a three-phase greenway that will increase pedestrian and bicycle accessibility to Spruce Pine. When complete in 2018, the greenway will connect downtown Spruce Pine to the Blue Ridge Parkway and will be recognized as an official section of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail which honors the Revolutionary soldiers who fought the British at King’s Mountain.

Play: Float the Toe River. Thanks to the hard work of McDowell and the Toe River Valley Watch, there’s an extremely in-depth online resource for paddling the Toe River Canoe Trail. Check out toerivervalley.org for more information on put-ins, camping, water levels, and more. Though mostly flat, the river does have some really fun class II+ rapids and flows for 20 miles unimpeded to the mouth of the Nolichucky Gorge, another classic river in the Southeast. Take advantage of Spruce Pine’s backdoor access to some of the most rugged terrain in the Southeast by hitting the trails on Roan Mountain. Appalachian Trail thru hikers treasure Roan for its miles of open, canopy-free trail that traverse a stunning grassy bald. Bring a camera if you go—hiking amid a 360-degree theater of endless blue ridgelines lends itself to countless photo opps. If you’re visiting during apple season, head up on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Historic Orchard at Altapass. The you-pick orchard features walking trails and over 40 different heirloom apple varieties, making it a perfect blend of history and recreation. At day’s end, Spruce Pine’s Riverside Park offers a mellow, paved, half-mile-long trail that parallels the Toe River. Keep an eye out for the river’s winged residents like the spotted and solitary sandpipers, great blue herons, and belted kingfishers.

Stay: For quiet camping that puts you front and center to all of the adventure and scenery that defines the Blue Ridge Parkway, look no further than Springmaid Mountain. Tent sites start at $25 per night and come complete with a picnic table and fire ring with grill. If you’re in the market for a lodging option with a roof, Springmaid also has a handful of one- to five-bedroom cabins for rent starting at $85 per night. Campers can enjoy kayaking, fishing, or even horseback riding right on-site, too.

Eat: No visit to Spruce Pine is complete without breakfast at the town’s two favorite breakfast spots, DT’s Blue Ridge Java and Fox and the Fig. For the full breakfast menu, head to DT’s. If it’s a quick coffee and maybe a cup of yogurt and homemade granola, try the Fox and the Fig. Later in the day, hit up Chef Nate Allen’s Knife & Fork for craft cocktails and a sophisticated, seasonally inspired meal. We can’t recommend anything here, because the menu changes almost daily, but we’ve heard the apple brandy beef is divine. The Tropical Grill is a much more casual dining option but a tried and true local go-to.