As I headed towards Columbus on Columbus Day, I contemplated the irony of this holiday which should instead be known as Native American Indian Day, since they were here first. Instead, we reserve that celebration for Thanksgiving remembrance when we ate their corn, stole their land, and gave them syphilis. But I digress already.
In celebration of my birthday, I wanted to go some place I had not yet visited while getting outdoors to enjoy “October’s Bright Blue Weather*.” My destination was the rarely publicized Providence Canyon in southwest Georgia, also known as “Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon.” This State Park had been on my “to do” list since I first moved to Georgia eight years ago. It is located in the middle of nowhere just outside of Lumpkin, GA, which is also in the middle of nowhere, a couple of hours south of Columbus, GA. (A word of caution, make sure you take a left in Columbus and don’t do as I did by following the interstate I-185 straight into the armed gates of Fort Benning!)
The southwestern part of Georgia reminds me a lot of East Texas –cotton fields, tall pines, and lots of mud-covered ATV’s driven by burly men and women wearing camouflage. I stopped for a bag of ice to fill my cooler at the corner market at an intersection of two farm-to-market roads. They sold ice by the scoop from an ice machine in the back of the store, right in between the worms and crickets for sale. I had never seen crickets for sale before – you could hear them before you could see them. My conversation with the woman behind the counter went like this:
Me: “There must be a lot of hunting around here. Everyone’s wearing camouflage.”
Her: “Yes maay-haam!”
Me: “What do they hunt for?”
Her: (said in a dry, nasally monotone) “Innythang that moooves…”:
Me: (said while backing slowly toward the door,) “Okay, well, I’ll just be going now…”
There are several ways to explore Providence Canyon. You can enjoy some phenomenal overlook views from the picnic areas along the entrance road. You can descend down into the canyon from the trailhead behind the Visitor’s Center and just hit the highlights (Canyons 4 and 5 are the most scenic.) You can take the three mile “white blaze” circuit trail which cuts through the canyon and loops up and around the overlook sites. Or you can explore each one of the nine small canyons. I opted to do all of the above. I hiked through the canyon for four straight hours without stopping. It would have been even longer if not for the fact that the park was closing at 6:00pm.
I recommend a good pair of hiking boots to explore the canyon, because at a minimum, you must ford a small stream on the canyon floor where water runs about an inch deep. If you wish to explore further into the nine canyons, much of this is done along this muddy creek bed, in loose sand, or climbing over rocks and tree roots. Although some do it in sandals, hiking boots are just easier to navigate the mud and sand.
The contrast of colors was just jaw-dropping. The eroded walls ranged from deep russet to fiery red against a cobalt blue sky. Less susceptible to erosion was the white sandstone which stood out like embossed marble sculptures against the red canyon walls, accented by deep greens of the pines and crimson reds of the hardwoods at the peak of fall color.
Providence Canyon State Park only offers backcountry camping options where everything must be packed in and out along an eight mile trail. Although I have long wanted to try backcountry camping, I didn’t think my birthday weekend was the best choice for a solo primitive wilderness experience; so instead I sought out a campground with a few conveniences. My research led me to three campground options:
The closest campsite to the canyon was Florence Marina State Park which offered sites that could be reserved in advance. They boasted “full hook-ups in every site!” However, in spite of the acres of beautiful green waterfront property, the campsites were all crammed along three parallel paved “alleys” angled in like a Sonic Drive-in. It was impossible to tell where one occupant ended and the other began. It was like one massive RV parking lot….not ideal for the tent camper, wedged in between big rigs with their humming generators providing the ambiance beside the campfire.
The second option, Rood River, was a “fisherman’s camp” with 22 campsites positioned along the river. Although they were “first come – first served,” and the price was right (FREE!) it was a little heavy on the testosterone for this solo female camper. The sites were beautifully shaded under the hanging Spanish moss from the giant oak trees overhead, but lined up one next to the other, it was difficult for me to imagine being comfortable enough to step out of my tent at night when nature called.
The third option would have had even Goldilocks proclaiming “Just right!” Although it was a bit far from the canyon at 40 miles south, it was the quintessential camping experience. Called “Cotton Hill” for a reason, it was down miles of two lane flanked on both sides by tall cotton, snow-white bolls open and ready to be stripped from their stalks. Finally, I reached the turn-off into a tall pine forest in what was a quiet, serene setting with plenty of wide open space and beauty abound.
“Cotton Hill Campground” got great reviews in my “Best Tent Camping in Georgia” book. The author stressed “Pine Hill Loop is the place to be.” Unfortunately, Pine Hill Loop had already been closed for the season…..Until, that is, the night before I arrived. Since it was a three day weekend, they were turning people away, so the Army Corp of Engineers agreed to open up the loop for the weekend. Although the RV side of the loop filled up quickly, I was the only tent camper in the park, so I had the entire loop all to myself. Call it luck; call it manifestation; it made for a magnificent camping experience.
Cotton Hill Park was the cleanest, best maintained campground I think I have ever visited. Even the tent sites had water and electricity with smooth, level tent pads. And each campsite was right on the shoreline of beautiful George T Bagby Lake. The scenic shoreline and calm coves surrounding the pine covered islands would have made the idyllic place for a sunset paddle in my Sea Eagle inflatable kayak. There was only one small problem…
Although I don’t usually give in to fear, I didn’t really want to make the headlines by being eaten on my birthday.
After a full day of hiking, I enjoyed the perfect campfire feast – sirloin strip, baked potato and corn on the cob roasted over the hot coals, and a celebratory bottle of Argentinean Malbec, polished off with a little dark chocolate beside the campfire beneath a star-filled sky and waxing moon.
It was a good day to celebrate being born…
*October’s Bright Blue Weather
by Helen Hunt Jackson
O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather;
When loud the bumblebee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And goldenrod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;
When gentians roll their fingers tight
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;
When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining;
When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing;
When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting;
When comrades seek sweet country haunts,
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October’s bright blue weather.
O sun and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October’s bright blue weather.