It’s always nice to take a day trip south and avoid the traffic and congestion of Atlanta. This 300- mile loop drive to southwest features 4 exciting Georgia adventures: the state’s very own “Little Grand Canyon,” the boyhood farm of our native-son, President Jimmy Carter, and the hallowed ground of Andersonville Cemetery and POW Memorial. You can do this day trip in 10-12 hours.
Take I-85 and I-185 south to Columbus and near Fort Benning, continue south on GA 280/27 to the small town of Lumpkin. Just before you arrive in Lumpkin, you will see the turn-off for Providence Canyon State Park. You can choose to go directly to the park and enjoy a picnic lunch with a view of the canyon, before you start your hike, or you can drive into Lumpkin for a delicious pulled pork sandwich lunch at 4WayBbq on Broad Street. You can smell the barbecue as you drive into the parking lot!
While in Lumpkin, stop on the historic square and tour the restoration of the Bedingfield Inn. Built in 1836 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the inn served as a stagecoach stop on the long trip from Atlanta to New Orleans. The inn was restored in 1965 and is considered the first small community preservation project in Georgia.
Providence Canyon State Park
After checking out Lumpkin, retrace your drive to the turn-off for Providence Canyon State Park. The 1000+-acre site is known for its array of colorful canyons, gullies and gorges, created by poor farming techniques in the 1800’s. Steady erosion of the soil, caused by run-off from the farmed fields, forged the canyons (some 150 feet deep) and exposed the geologic history of the site that dates back millions of years! Minerals have stained the sediments in a kaleidoscope of colors from tan-to white-to pink-to orange- to purple. You can wander through 16 different slot canyons and view the color changes on the cliffs above you.
Start at the Visitors Center for a mile trek down to the canyon floor. It is a steep descent of about 800 steps. (Remember you will have to climb back up!) At the bottom, you walk through muddy red/orange sand. You can stay on the canyon floor and visit several side canyons, or continue up the cliffs on the white-blazed, three-mile, Canyon Loop Trail. For hardier hikers, the red-blazed, seven-mile, Backcountry Trail will get you away from the crowds. Within the park you will discover the largest, natural collection of plumleaf azaleas (Rhododendron prunifolium), found in the world, that bloom in summer, along with 150 other varieties of flowering plants.
If you want to take a ranger-led tour of Providence Canyon, learn about its history and geology, and see native azaleas in bloom, plan your visit to the park on Sunday, June 4 for a hike from 1 – 2:30 p.m. as part of National Trails Day celebrations. For more information, call 229-838-4706.
Jimmy Carter National Historic Site
After exiting Providence Canyon, take GA 280/27 E for about 25 miles to the charming town of Plains, home of our 39th President, Jimmy Carter. The National Park Service has designated several locations in Plains as part of the historic site, and you can visit all these spots for free. As you come into town, you will see a sign for the Carter Boyhood Farm. Turn right on Old Plains Hwy to visit the farm. Here the Carter family grew peanuts, cotton and corn for sale to the public and also raised livestock. You can take a self-guided tour and hear a narration by Jimmy Carter about his youth on the farm.
Retrace your route back to GA 280/27 and turn right to go into town. On your left you will pass the compound where Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter now live. It is gated and guarded by Secret Service and not open to the public. Make a left at Billy Carter’s Service Station on North Bond Street and park at the Plains High School and Carter Visitor Center. Here both Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter attended school, and Rosalynn was valedictorian of the class of 1944! Today the school serves as the Carter museum.
Just up the road on Buena Vista Rd., you will also find Maranatha Baptist Church where the Carters attend worship services and Jimmy Carter often teaches Sunday school classes that are open to the public. Sometimes surprised tourists have even seen Jimmy Carter doing yard work on church grounds! To find a schedule for his church classes, go to plainsgeorgia.com/maranatha_church.
Near the small, Plains business district, look for the oldest building in town, the restored train depot. Built in 1888, the depot served as Carter’s campaign headquarters during his 1976 presidential campaign. After visiting the depot, walk across the tracks to the Plains’ store fronts on Main Street.
Here you can get a bite to eat at the Buffalo Café, housed in a restored bank building. Make sure to stop at Plain Peanuts, located in the historic Carter warehouse, where President Carter’s father, Earl, first operated his family peanut business. You can enjoy sampling and purchasing a delicious variety of peanut products, including raw, roasted, fried and candied peanuts and peanut butter ice cream!
Andersonville National Historic Site
Andersonville National Historic Site perfectly fits the designation of “hallowed ground!” Located 20 miles northeast of Plains, take GA 27 to Americus and then GA 49 to Andersonville. When you arrive in Andersonville, make time to visit all the sites – Andersonville National Cemetery, the Civil War prison site and the National Prisoner of War Museum.
In 1864, Camp Sumter, as the prison site was formally known, was built on 16 acres near the tiny village of Andersonville and enclosed with a 15-foot high stockade fence. It was near the end of the war and Confederate Army officials decided to move a large number of captured Union soldiers from Virginia to this more secure location in rural Georgia. Within months, the prison had to be expanded to 26 acres, but that was still not enough space to house the over 45,000 Union soldiers that passed through its gates. A “perfect storm” of dire conditions spelled disaster. Lack of food and fresh water, overcrowding, exposure, disease and poor sanitation led to the deaths of more than 13,000 Union soldiers during the 14 months the prison was utilized!
After the prison was shut down in 1865, Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, and Dorence Atwater, a former prisoner, came to Andersonville to record the deaths of each soldier. Later the site became a memorial park with headstones, placed inches apart, to honor those who died there. After touring the cemetery, you can visit the nearby site of the prison and see a reconstruction of the North Gate entrance to the stockade.
Your visit will not be complete without touring the POW Museum, a memorial to all prisoners of war who sacrificed so much for our country. It is a moving and disturbing experience to learn what these prisoners had to endure.
Complete your day trip with a quick visit across the road at Andersonville Civil War Village. Here you can get a bite to eat and tour the Drummer Boy Civil War Museum. Then drive north on GA 49, to GA 19 and head for home! For more information on Andersonville National Historic Site, go to: nps.gov/ande.