3 scenic road trips close to home

A salt marsh view near Darien on the coastal Altamaha Historic Scenic Byway.
Courtesy of ExploreGeorgia.org
A salt marsh view near Darien on the coastal Altamaha Historic Scenic Byway. Courtesy of ExploreGeorgia.org

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Discover history, culture and natural beauty along Georgia’s scenic byways

Travelers looking for safe getaways during the time of COVID-19 are getting behind the wheel and taking trips closer to home. If you’re ripe for a road trip, Georgia’s Department of Transportation (DOT) has designated 15 corridors as Georgia Scenic Byways.

“Road trips and safe-cations are trending within Georgia during the pandemic,” said Tracie Sanchez, tourism product development manager of Explore Georgia, the tourism arm of the state’s Department of Economic Development. “In-state road trips have driven the majority of this trend ― Georgians touring Georgia. The 15 scenic byways are a perfect existing resource to create road trip itineraries.”

Here are three byways to consider when planning future road trips, along with suggested activities and attractions along the way worth checking out. All DOT byways are well-marked with blue signage displaying a white flower and directional arrows pointing the way, so it’s hard to get lost. The directions given here are the easiest-to-reach access points from Atlanta.

A flare of dying light blazes a trail through intricacies of salt marsh near the mouth of the Altamaha River.
A flare of dying light blazes a trail through intricacies of salt marsh near the mouth of the Altamaha River.

Altamaha Historic Scenic Byway

What the Altamaha Historic Scenic Byway lacks in length at only 17 miles it makes up for in coastal beauty and historic treasures. Georgia’s coast is composed of a series of barrier islands, many of which are only accessible by boat, so it’s difficult to experience the fullness of it from a vehicle. This roadway traversing US 17 and GA 99 offers a short best-of experience with views of expansive salt marshes and the tidal waterways of the Altamaha River estuary system. It’s also home to notable historical sites and Georgia’s second-oldest planned settlement, the waterfront town of Darien. The self-guided Darien Walking Tour includes historic churches, tabby ruins and waterfront vistas. Download the map at exploregeorgia.org. Nearby Fort King George State Historic Site ($7.50, 302 McIntosh Road SE, Darien, 912-437-4770) features a reconstruction of the fort originally built in 1721 as the southernmost fortification of the British Empire in North America. Take in the panoramic marsh and river views on the nature trail or rent a kayak onsite to explore a portion of the Southeast Coast Saltwater Paddling Trail.

A former slave cabin at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site. (Jeanne Cyriaque)
A former slave cabin at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site. (Jeanne Cyriaque)

Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Historic Site ($8, 5556 U.S. 17 N, Brunswick, 912-264-7333) at the southern end of the byway is a former rice plantation. Learn about the history and culture of Georgia’s rice coast days of the early 1800s with a tour of the grounds. Hofwyl-Broadfield is a popular spot for birders because it’s a on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail.

The northern terminus of the byway is the Sapelo Island Visitor Center (1766 Landing Road, 912-437-3224) in Meridian, the ferry embarkation point to the barrier island that’s home to the isolated Gullah-Geechee community of Hog Hammock. Public tours have been suspended due to the pandemic, but you can book a private tour with Sapelo Island Tours (912-506-6463) run by a native islander.

South of the byway, St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island are accessible by car. The islands are best toured by renting a bicycle and peddling the miles of paved bike trails. Jekyll Island Campground on the north end of Jekyll Island is within walking/biking distance to the famously photogenic Driftwood Beach.

(Altamaha Historic Scenic Byway is 290 miles southeast of Atlanta. From I-95, take exit 49. Turn east on GA 251, then right on US 17. The byway begins at the intersection with GA 99. Darien-McIntosh County Visitor Center, 1111 Magnolia Bluff Way. 912-437-4837, www.visitdarien.com)

Millmore Mill on Shoulderbone Creek is a picturesque spot along the Historic Piedmont Scenic Byway.
Courtesy of Blake Guthrie
Millmore Mill on Shoulderbone Creek is a picturesque spot along the Historic Piedmont Scenic Byway. Courtesy of Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Historic Piedmont Scenic Byway

Georgia’s longest scenic byway is the 82-mile Historic Piedmont Scenic Byway that traverses GA 15 and GA 16 near Eatonton. Add to it the connected Warren-Piedmont Scenic Byway Extension and it tops out at 93 miles. These combined corridors showcase the rural, rolling Piedmont landscape and small towns of central Georgia, including Sparta and Warrenton, the eastern terminus.

Eatonton is the birthplace of two famous Southern authors, Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker, and sites in and around town focus on the two wordsmiths. Also nearby are two rare, still-intact centuries-old Native American effigies — Rock Hawk and Rock Eagle (Free, 350 Rock Eagle Road, Eatonton, 706-484-2899) The stone effigies depict the birds of prey they’re named after and have adjacent towers to climb for a bird’s-eye view. Each site provides an eye-opening living history lesson about the Native American culture that once thrived in the area. Rock Hawk (Free, Lawrence Shoals Road, Eatonton, 706-485-7701) is a part of the Lawrence Shoals Recreation Area (123 Wallace Dam Road, Eatonton, 706-485-5494), a don’t-miss spot directly on the byway providing access to Lake Oconee. Lawrence Shoals has miles of hiking trails, a swimming beach and a large campground for RV and tent campers. Further east on GA 16, the old Millmore Mill (GA 16, Sparta) still stands next to a spillway dam on Shoulderbone Creek, a frozen-in-time vista worthy of a snapshot. A historical marker at the site notes the spot where the Shoulder-Bone Creek Treaty was signed in 1786 when the Creeks ceded all lands east of the Oconee River.

Rock Eagle near Eatonton.
Rock Eagle near Eatonton.

Credit: AJC Staff Photo/Curtis Compton

Credit: AJC Staff Photo/Curtis Compton

Historic sites, homes, schools and churches are found throughout this route. Many of the homes are Tara-looking white-columned affairs from the antebellum era with their own historic markers. Take the spur south of Sparta to the tiny, remote community of Linton to see its many beautiful old homes. You may feel like you’re driving into the middle of nowhere, or back in time, on this dogleg route, but the blue directional roadway signs will keep you on track.

(Historic Piedmont Scenic Byway is 77 miles southeast of Atlanta. From I-20, take exit 114 and go 20 miles south on US 441 to GA 16 to access the byway. Eatonton and Putnam County Visitors Center, 108 W. Marion St., Eatonton. 706-485-7701, eatonton.com/tourism)

The Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway provides easy access to Georgia's highest point, 4,784-foot Brasstown Bald.
Courtesy of ExploreGeorgia.org
The Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway provides easy access to Georgia's highest point, 4,784-foot Brasstown Bald. Courtesy of ExploreGeorgia.org

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway

The 41-mile loop of the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is the only route in the state that’s also designated a National Scenic Byway. Coursing through the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the route traverses several state highways, including GA 17/75, GA 180 and GA 348. Panoramic views are plentiful, none more spectacular than the one from Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest point at 4,784 feet. The visitor center is closed for the season, but, weather permitting, visitors can still walk the roughly half-mile, uphill paved path to the observation tower at the summit.

Outdoor activities abound along the route, especially hiking. The Appalachian Trail crosses the byway in two spots, at Unicoi Gap and Hogpen Gap. Parking areas at each trailhead allow day visitors to take out-and-back hikes on the famed 2,190-mile trail connecting Georgia to Maine. Download an interactive map from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at appalachiantrail.org. Other short trails lead to cascading waterfalls such Raven Cliff Falls, High Shoals Falls and the impressive double cascade of Anna Ruby Falls.

Duke's Creek runs through Smithgall Woods State Park.
Duke's Creek runs through Smithgall Woods State Park.

Credit: Clint Williams / AJC

Credit: Clint Williams / AJC

Three state parks are on or near the byway. Anglers come to Smithgall Woods State Park ($5 parking, 61 Tsalaki Trail, Helen, 706-878-3087) to cast a line in the celebrated trout stream of Duke’s Creek. Take a trip through the treetops on the Unicoi Zipline and Aerial Adventure Tour at Unicoi State Park and Lodge. ($5 parking, 1788 GA 356, Helen, 800-573-9659). Vogel State Park ($5 parking, 405 Vogel State Park Road, Blairsville, 706-745-2628), one of Georgia’s two original state parks, sits at the base of Blood Mountain near the byway and offers a great view of the mountain from its 20-acre lake with a beach. Accommodations at Vogel and Unicoi include cottages and campsites. Smithgall Woods has cottages but no individual campsites.

The closest town to the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is Helen, the small Bavarian-themed town with an array of shopping, dining, and lodging options.

(Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is 92 miles northeast of Atlanta near Helen. From Helen, take GA-75 two miles north to the intersection of GA-75/17 to access the byway. Helen Welcome Center, 726 Brucken Strasse, Helen. 706-878-2181, www.helenga.org)

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