Don’t be thrown off by the school calendar. There is still plenty of summertime left to get outside and have fun, and after our family’s recent, last-minute diversion to Helen in the North Georgia mountains, we can enthusiastically recommend it to you, especially if you have children who enjoy spending time in the water.
If you do go to Helen, try not to be thrown off your raft as you clear the rapids along the Chattahoochee, because being dragged over rocks, even river rocks, is not as fun as it sounds. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Ten years ago in July, Joni and I honeymooned in the mountains near Hiawasee, and during those few days we dipped down into Helen to see what all the German fuss was about. Frankly, I wasn’t terribly impressed at the time. It looked to me like there needed to be more for young people to do.
All I was seeing were Bavarian-themed gift shops and restaurants, but Joni noticed something else. Crossing one of many bridges over the Chattahoochee River, she spotted people floating downstream on inflated tubes.
“We should do that,” she said.
I don’t know what was wrong with me back then, but I wasn’t convinced. I don’t remember my reply to Joni’s suggestion, but we didn’t go tubing.
Perhaps I was put off by it being the Chattahoochee River, which, by the time it reaches the Atlanta area, is usually murky-looking. Up in Helen, which is near where the Chattahoochee begins, the river is quite clear.
As well, I grew up in the Metro Atlanta area in the 1970s and 1980s when none of us kids thought of the Chattahoochee as where you would float down the river on purpose. But I digress.
Fast-forward to this summer.
Our eldest child had for weeks looked forward to what we might do on his eighth birthday. Originally, Joni and I talked about spending the day, or perhaps a couple of days, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but at the last minute we decided against that plan, and Joni said, “We should go tubing in Helen.”
In the spirit of transparency, I should note that Joni had been suggesting for weeks that Helen might be a better fit for our birthday outing, but I leaned toward Chattanooga, because it was in Chattanooga that I formally proposed to Joni. I placed the ring on her finger as she sat on a park bench on the midway point of Walnut Street Bridge, which spans the Tennessee River.
Plus, Chattanooga has lots of family-oriented attractions, not the least being Rock City Gardens on Lookout Mountain, which is on my top-ten list of favorite places in the United States to visit. Nevertheless, I looked into the Helen idea.
A quick scan of Helen’s Convention and Visitors Bureau website introduced us to Helen Water Park & Tubing, which is based at 222 Edelweiss Strasse (strasse is German for street). The next morning, we loaded up the minivan and headed for Helen.
It took us about two hours on the road to get there, and as soon as we entered Helen Water Park’s parking lot, I knew we were going to have a good time. It was one of those moments when you think to yourself, “Why don’t we get out of the suburbs more often?”
The Water Park
Helen Water Park first opened 10 years ago, meaning it was open when Joni and I toured through Helen on our honeymoon back in 2006, but we didn’t see it.
Compared to Six Flags White Water up in Marietta, Helen Water Park is really small, but much like those Olympic gymnasts, you shouldn’t underestimate this place. For starters, it sits on the bank of the Chattahoochee, which, as I mentioned above, is beautiful up there in the mountains. And there are loads of picnic tables and grills you can use to chill at your own pace.
After we enjoyed a picnic lunch, we enjoyed a couple of hours of water slides (four of them, each about 50 feet high) and the 1,000-foot lazy river, which is a 30-inch deep pool that wraps round the water park.
If you go, be sure to use the two-person raft on the tube slides. I tried the mat on my first go, and on that first dip I fell back and rocketed forward never again able to sit up, nor able to breathe, because water was going up my nose.
Gasping for breath, I was grateful to finally stand up in the bottom. It was only for the love of my children that I climbed those 72 steps again, this time with the two-person raft under my arm.
The second go was better, but I made the mistake of sitting too far forward in that back seat, which meant it was difficult to lean forward once the raft launched forward.
The third time was perfect. I sat further back, held on to the side handles tightly and enjoyed the ride. I was ready to do it again, but then my eight-year-old birthday boy begged me to try the open-air speed slides with him.
He doesn’t have an older brother to send along with him on these adventures, so I’m it. And so there I went.
They said we could use mats or just slide down on our backs, and the latter sounded easier, so that’s how we rolled for our first go.
We sat in our starting areas, and 1-2-3-GO. And then about two seconds later I was stuck on the first little hill. I sat up, slid myself forward and finally managed to continue my journey down to the pool.
Exiting the pool, the lifeguards kindly assured me lots of people get stuck on that hill, but I’m not sure. All the little people seemed to slide right down more quickly than I was able to.
Perhaps I needed a mat. I would try again with a mat.
(For goodness’ sake, dear reader, do not go down on a mat.)
Mats under arm, my little shadow and I again scaled those 72 steps, which by now were no bother at all, we were having that much fun.
I didn’t know at that time it would be my last trip down the slide, but appropriately I went out with a bang.
Not only did I clear that first hill with ease, but I also experienced negative Gs clearing the second one. I had gained so much speed that I skipped across the pool almost all the way back to the steps.
Helen Water Park & Tubing offers a water park and tubing. Makes sense, right? But you can choose to do one, the other or both. If you pay the $20 admission for the water park, tubing down the Chattahoochee is included if you’re up to it. Or you can pay $5 and just do the tubing.
Kids under 42 inches tall only cost $10, but they can’t ride the slides. They can play on the playground and in the lazy river, and they have a fun mushroom-looking waterfall that the kids love. And again, that price includes tubing, which is available to all ages. Children two years and under are admitted free.
After a couple of hours at the water park, we boarded the shuttle (an old school bus, which our homeschooled kids were thrilled to ride) taking us about two or three miles up the river. Based on water levels, it is said to normally take between two to three hours to cover this distance on the river.
Joni took the one-year-old into her tube, and we strapped our four-year-old daughter’s tube to hers. I had the other two kids’ tubes strapped either side of mine.
And we set out.
And we got stuck.
And I got out of the tube and walked and walked and walked across river rock barefooted.
This is a good place to mention that you should either bring water shoes or buy them for only $10 a pair (all sizes) at the water park gift shop.
Quickly, I figured out the easier way to go down river when water levels aren’t at peak is head-forward, chest-down. This is not for whitewater rafting, mind you, but for slow-speed tubing, it’s easier because you see the obstacles ahead better, and you can navigate and paddle better.
They will offer you a $5 navigation stick so you can keep yourself off the rocks, but the real challenge is just clearing the rocks in the shallow areas, so I wouldn’t have wanted a stick. Joni, on the other hand, wanted a stick once it was too late to buy one. At one point, she tried to get a fallen tree branch to do the job for her.
Tubing down the ‘Hooch was exhausting for me, but the fun of the adventure and seeing how much the kids were enjoying everything made it worth the effort. Normally, I wouldn’t advise floating tandem at all if you are with people who can navigate their own tubes, but little kids will have to be strapped, and the bigger the floatilla, the more difficult it will be to squeeze all of you down the right side of the rapids.
In other words, you’re going to get stuck a lot more if you link up more tubes.
Be careful on the waterfalls. They may look shallow, and indeed the largest single fall is probably no more than a foot-high drop, but if you get stuck and have to step out of your tube, you can’t really tell how far down your step will be. You may find yourself waist-deep and still not finding a secure foothold.
And that’s what happened to me. I stepped out of the tube on a little waterfall, and I still don’t know how far down the actual floor of the river was. I just held on to the raft as it, minus my weight, suddenly loosened itself. All the way down the multi-tiered falls, I held on and was just grateful the rocks over which I was being dragged were not sharp or rough.
And then we all had a big laugh. My six-year-old daughter asked me if we could do that one again, she enjoyed it so.
How can you get mad at a river when your kids enjoy it this much?
Two hours into the journey, we all wished we had brought drinks with us.
Joni actually did bring the rest of a 20-ounce Sprite bottle, but our four-year-old quickly set it free in the river.
Crazy but true, we caught up with that Sprite bottle later, and you would have thought we were travelers stranded in Death Valley. Each of us took a tiny sip in turn as the rest of us stared sharply to make sure nobody cheated and drank the whole thing in one go. Except that’s exactly what I did when it finally reached me.
It was Joni’s idea. She told the kids to give the last little bit to me because she said I was working the hardest. Once we got back to civilization and looked at ourselves in the minivan mirrors, I realized I also looked the roughest.
Take water bottles with you, but be sure you can keep your empties out of the river. There are several places along the way, including a city park, where you can go ashore and use the trash bins. And the restrooms.
Use those restrooms when you see that park. Otherwise, that last mile may seem just a little bit longer.
Like any great river, you can’t completely enjoy its beauty until you’ve actually been on it. The Thames in London, England is this way. Every river I’ve ever whitewater rafted is this way. You get a different perspective you can’t get from the bank no matter how great your imagination may be.
Tubing the ‘Hooch turned out to be a great idea, and hooking up with Helen Water Park & Tubing turned out to be a fantastic way to make the most of our Helen water fun experience. Besides having an excellent water park and convenient access to the Chattahoochee, everyone is so helpful and pleasant. It’s a laid-back, friendly environment, which is not so common anymore here in the Atlanta area.
The really great news is that you’ve still got time to enjoy all of the above, and not just on the weekends. Helen Water Park & Tubing is open daily through Labor Day.