A drive to north Georgia this summer reveals a bonus beyond pretty scenery. Nestled in the northeast Georgia mountains, the 33-acre Hamilton Gardens’ rhododendron-lined pathways create a peaceful respite, even when the blooms have faded. As part of the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds property, the area is frequently hopping with music events, festivals and special events.
Within the gardens, three seasons of acoustic evening concerts – spring, summer and fall – offer an excellent reason for a trip to Hiawassee where the temperatures can be a full 10 degrees cooler than Lake Lanier.
Summer’s series takes place every Thursday from June 29-July 27, when arts vendors and food trucks offer their wares starting at 6 p.m. Admission is free – donations are accepted – and the acoustic music begins at 6:30 p.m. Bring chairs and a picnic if you like.
Come early to tour the gardens. The largest collection of rhododendrons in the Southeast started as two gardens belonging to Hazel and Fred Hamilton. As collectors and propagators of rhododendrons and azaleas, they traveled to add to their collections – one in Atlanta and the other near their home in Towns County. As they aged, the maintenance became challenging, so the couple donated and moved many of the plants to a Towns County park on land donated by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
What’s now the 33-acre Hamilton Gardens was first planted in 1981 with nearly 1,100 rhododendrons, a gift from the couple with the stipulation that it be maintained and open to the public in perpetuity.
The collection has grown in numbers as well as varieties. Some of the rhodies are now more than 20 feet tall, and when they’re in bloom from April through the middle of June, the garden is breathtaking. When in bloom, the colors range from nearly white to pale pink, magenta, violet, deep red and burgundy.
By mid-summer, the blooms are gone, but the scenery is every bit as beautiful. The temperatures are cooler than around Lake Lanier, and the towering evergreen plants give perfect protection from the hot sun.
Native wildflowers, including trillium, shooting stars, wild ginger, trout lilies, and Solomon’s seal, are tucked among the tall hardwoods. Benches donated to the memory of people’s loved ones or community volunteers create intermittent places to sit a while. Lake Chatuge, visible through the hardwoods, evergreens and pines, offers a serene backdrop whether the rhodies are in bloom or not. A waterwheel at the top of a rock-lined stream is an excuse to gaze upward before crossing a bridge spanning a shallow gulley.
The Hamilton Rhododendron Gardens is a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization. Entrance into the garden is $6. All proceeds from ticket sales help fund the ongoing cost of maintaining the gardens.
For more information, visit www.hamiltongardens.org or call 706 970-0011.
Photo: by Pamela A. Keene