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Aug. 22, 2019
10:23 pm


Vanderford's Travel Column

A beautiful waterfall with a tragic history

From below the misty cascade of water free-falling 186 feet into a deep pool that empties into a tiny stream lined with colorful wild azaleas and rhododendron, one would never imagine the dark side of this picturesque natural wonder. Nevertheless, in the wee hours of a rainy night on November 6, 1977, an earthen dam at the top of this breathtaking waterfall gave way, and 176 million gallons of water plummeted into the tiny valley below that is home to Toccoa Falls College. Thirty-nine people were killed, another 60 injured. Most of the college campus was destroyed.
Compassionate people from all over the world, who had never heard of Toccoa or the tiny Christian college, responded immediately with their money and their hearts. More than $3 million in funds and hundreds of volunteer workers poured into the little valley to help.
Because of that tragedy, the dam and lake were never rebuilt, and every effort has been made to allow Toccoa Falls to return to its natural state. It is 29 feet higher than Niagara Falls and truly one of the most magnificent waterfalls in the “Peach State.” It certainly lives up to the name given by the Cherokee Indians, “Toccoah,” which means “beautiful.”
Toccoa Falls is within the city limits of Toccoa, Ga. and on the campus of Toccoa Falls College, which is a four-year, fully accredited Christian liberal arts college. It was originally founded in 1907 by Dr. Richard Forrest and his wife in Golden Valley, N.C., which was a remote area only reachable by horse and wagon. The Forrests soon realized that if the college was to grow, it needed to be located closer to major transportation lines. They searched and eventually found the perfect place near the booming town of Toccoa in a picturesque setting of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
In order to view the falls, visitors must pass through the Toccoa Falls Gift Shop en route to a path lined with colorful flowers, conversational benches, cool breezes and gorgeous natural surroundings that leads about 100 yards to the falls. This trek follows a babbling brook that continues flowing beyond the welcome center through the lower part of the wooded campus of the college.
Additionally, the Gate Cottage Restaurant overlooking Toccoa Creek is used for weddings, rehearsals and receptions. It also caters to many civic clubs, organizational meetings, business luncheons and other special events. For more information, call 706-886-6831.
The light passing through water that almost changes to an eerie mist before being consumed by the pool below has prism-like qualities that seem to hypnotize those who watch. Therefore, any visit to Toccoa or the almost 100 year-old college would be incomplete without spending a few memorable minutes gazing up at this miracle of nature called Toccoa Falls!

Bill Vanderford has won numerous awards for his writing, photography, videography, and has been inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Guide. 
He can be reached at or at his web site:

July 2019 column

Mountain beauty is synonyous with Sky Valley

Every sojourn into the blue hills of Northeast Georgia awakens feelings of my Cherokee ancestors’ spirits. The beauty of these sacred mountains and all the stories of the past easily flow through my mind and body which makes me forever embrace every return trip.
In my youth, my father and I would roam these hills and valleys seeking the wild, elusive native brook trout or track black bear to feed us through the winter. My return this time, however, was to chase a little white ball in one of the most picturesque places in Georgia: Sky Valley.
Though this area along the Georgia/North Carolina border was once part of the Cherokee Nation, white settlers have been scattered throughout these mountains for more than 200 years. Before Sky Valley became a resort town in 1978, it had been the Square D Cattle Ranch. It was later known as the original Kingwood Country Club, but was converted into a ski resort that had a comfortable lodge with floor-to-ceiling wood burning fireplace. Some of the ski slopes continued to operate until a change of ownership in 2004 closed them down completely.
The Sky Valley community continued to grow, but the largest change came when Atlanta-based golf architect, Bill Bergin, spent two years renovating the golf course. The final result is a golf venue with breathtaking views, challenging fairways and greens and the addition of tennis, swimming and many other activities.
After the financial crash in 2008, the Sky Valley homeowners banded together and bought the golf course to protect it for the future. Following their purchase, the owners decided to build the new clubhouse to enhance the course and provide a place to socialize and enjoy excellent food. Their investment in the golf and community has resulted in the Sky Valley Country Club being a successful and thriving place for the members and the public.
Today, Sky Valley Country Club is a semi-private facility. Memberships are available and required for most club social activities. The club hosts non-member golfers and group functions at these facilities. The golf course operates year round and has a golf learning center which includes a practice range and a large putting green. Instruction is available from PGA Professional and Golf Manager, Steve Heher, who can schedule individual play, group play and tournaments.
Sky Valley is the highest city in Georgia located between Clayton, Georgia, and Highlands, N.C, and surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest. This pristine mountain terrain features waterfalls, hiking trails and awesome vistas. Elevations range from 3,200 to 4,200 feet, but within a few miles are hundreds of shops, high-end restaurants, award-winning vineyards, spas, arts and antiques. Sky Valley is also becoming a very popular year-round vacation and destination wedding venue. The area is spectacular and the surrounding mountains and foothills are breathtaking. It is easy to understand why the Cherokee called these mountains, “The Great Blue Hills of God.”

June 2019 column

Budapest: A safe, beautiful European destination

In the past few years, most European cities have thrown their borders wide open to a mass migration of people with questionable character and extremely different culture from the war torn Middle East. Hungary, however, has been able to maintain their unique traditions by carefully screening the masses with strict immigration laws. Therefore, Budapest is today one of the most beautiful and safest destinations for tourists to visit in Europe.
The old Hungarian city of Budapest can take you back to medieval times with a simple turn of the head. One can easily walk to many of the most interesting historical places like the Margarate Bridge that was partly designed by the famous French architect, Gustave Eiffel, the Palatinus Buildings, the Lánczy House, the Haggenmacher House, and the Mahler House, where Gustav Mahler lived when he directed at the Opera House. Only a stone’s throw away stands the Western Railway Station where Gustave Eiffel’s name can still be seen on the iron columns of the glass hall. This area also offers evening entertainment, restaurants, pubs and coffee shops. Probably the most famous of these is the New York Coffee House, which is considered one of the most beautiful coffee houses in Europe. The Parlament, the St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Opera are all within walking distance.
The first settlement along the Danube at Budapest was around the time of the birth of Christ. Later the Romans came and built roads, baths and numerous other buildings. They were then defeated by the Bulgarians who built the fortress cities of Buda and Pest on each side of the river. The Hungarians finally captured the area around the 9th century, but didn’t join Buda and Pest until 1873.
To really enjoy any visit to Budapest, walk down to the Danube on the Pest side and follow the promenade along the river to the Chain Bridge, then take the walkway on the bridge across to the Buda side. Buy a ticket for the tram that is to the left of the tunnel. This unique vehicle travels to the top of Gellert Hill on a 48 percent grade for about the distance of a football field and affords you one of the most picturesque panoramas in the world!
The tiny side streets in the Castle District give a feeling of going back to the Middle Ages. Hidden courtyards, beautifully restored houses and colorful coat of arms along the way. All major streets in the Castle District meet at Holy Trinity Square which is right in front of the Matthias Church. In ancient times, this square was the main marketplace and the site of many public executions.
That anything survived after World War II is amazing ... considering the devastating air raids by Allied bombers during 1944 and 1945, and the Russian bombardment and siege of the city in early 1945. Also, after Hungary became a communist people’s republic in 1949, the government viewed buildings in the Buda Castle District as symbols of the former regime and destroyed most of them.
Despite all the wars and devastation throughout history, Budapest is still one of the most photographic cities in Europe. The Pest side of the Danube River is fairly flat and houses most modern commercial growth, while Buda contains the treasures of the past, including the royal history of the Hungarian people. The two cites joined become the phenomenal mixture of past and present known throughout the world as – Budapest!

May 2019 column

Elachee - A natural for studying nature in our backyard

The language of my ancestors, the Cherokee Indians, had a word “Elachee” which translated to “New Green Earth.” The use of this ancient word is so appropriate for today’s mission of the Elachee Nature Science Center in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve.
According to archaeological findings, Archaic Indians were the earliest human inhabitants in this area, Woodland and Mississippian tribes took their place and by the 16th and 17th centuries the area became home to the Creek and Cherokee nations. Because the Walnut Creek watershed’s geography was not ideal for farming, the area escaped the 1800s cotton cultivation phenomenon.
Nevertheless in 1927, Johnson and Johnson Company purchased most of the Walnut Creek watershed to construct the Chicopee Mill and Village, which indirectly protected the natural forest and its important water source. Chicopee Mill drastically reduced production during the 1970s and donated almost 3,000 acres of the pristine watershed to the Gainesville Area Park Commission.
Because of the vision of five local ladies (Becky Geiger, Rosemary Johnson (Dodd), Sissy Lawson, Ellen Odegaard and Julia Cromartie, the birth of Elachee Nature Science and Creative Museum, Inc. was nurtured. During these early days, Elachee had day camps for children on a small patch of woods on Lake Lanier near Woodland Circle. By the early 1980s, Elachee also offered hiking, camping and nature study activities for families. As part of its evolution, its board of trustees more clearly defined Elachee’s mission as a nature education provider, but made finding a more permanent home a priority.
Finally in 1984, The Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission gave Elachee permission to build a nature center in Chicopee Woods. Blending the concepts of taking the classroom experience outdoors, Elachee launched its innovative school programs in 1986, serving over 16,000 students from the City of Gainesville and Hall County schools. A 1989 Hall County one-cent local option sales tax raised funds to build phase one of the Elachee Nature Science Center that included the Visitor Center and classroom complex. Elachee Nature Science Center in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve opened to the public in 1990.
Today, Elachee has become a destination for kids from 9 to 90 to explore and become educated on so much of the outdoor and natural world. Visitors can enjoy the hiking trails, view the natural history and live animal exhibits or learn at the Chicopee Lake Aquatic Studies Center. Seasonal public programs include: Stars Over Elachee; Raptor Fest at Elachee; Trillium Trek Trail Run and Walk; Snake Day at Elachee; Camp Elachee for Spring Break; Summer Day Camps; PreK Educational Programs that offer school field trips; Elachee Outreach Programs and Home School Programs.
In this era of computers and sprawling urban development, Elachee Nature Science Center ( provides a picturesque natural area for all people to connect with nature and learn about the fantastic outdoor world. This fabulous place is located in one of the largest protected green spaces in Georgia, and is well worth a visit!
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