South Bound and Down to Georgia

Marcus WoolfLong Weekend
Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area - iStock

Georgia is a land of rugged mountains, vast farm fields, great rivers, and historic cityscapes. From the crest of Kennesaw Mountain to the banks of the Chattahoochee River, Georgia's national parks allow you to trek through amazingly diverse terrain. These historic places and lush landscapes also document a remarkable stretch of human events, such as the construction of ancient American Indian earth mounds at Ocmulgee and Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign headquartered in the small town of Plains. Equally impressive is the fact that Georgia parks chronicle critical moments in our country's evolution, from the bloody Civil War battle at Chickamauga to the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.

DAY ONE 

Two cannons in a sunny field with a stone monument in between them, Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park

Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park

NPS Photo

Morning

Get an early start on the day and begin your adventure at the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park in Fort Oglethorpe. On this 5,500-acre plot of woodlands and farmland, the Confederate army achieved its last major victory of the Civil War in 1863, collectively, the Confederate and Union armies suffered some 35,000 casualties. Begin at the visitor center, where you can see a collection one the best displays of military small arms in the country.

Then take a seven-mile, self-guided driving tour, winding among ornate monuments and historical markers that provide great detail on the movement of troops, including exact locations where notable officers fell during battle. To get a true sense of the landscape, park your car and set out on foot along the battlefield's many miles of trails that course through shaded forest and skirt great open fields. Countless markers and monuments will inform you along the way.

Afternoon

Back on the road, travel east to I-75 to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. Gen. William T. Sherman's campaign to take Atlanta began here in 1864 when the Union army tried to sweep around Kennesaw Mountain (1,808 feet in elevation). Begin by exploring the museum to get a feel for the incredible battle that ensued here. After walking along the well-maintained trails—21 miles in total—you'll understand how the mountainous topography greatly affected the outcome of the battle.

Evening

No doubt you'll have worked up an appetite after your trek through history. Grab a bite at any of historic downtown Kennesaw’s bistros, grills, or restaurants. Then make the quick drive to Marietta to stay the night at the Whitlock Inn, a restored Victorian mansion built in 1900.

DAY TWO 

Two-story yellow house with brown trim, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park

Birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. at Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park

Shutterstock

Morning

Fuel up with a breakfast on Marietta Square in downtown Marietta, then drive 17 miles east to the Island Ford visitor center in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. The Chattahoochee River flows from the mountains of north Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico, and a 48-mile protected corridor north of Atlanta includes hiking trails, as well as river access for boating, fishing, or floating in tubes.

Rangers at the visitor center can provide information on recreation at Island Ford, as well as the many other sections of the park. Trails at Island Ford follow the riverbank, where you can see great blue herons soaring over the water, as well as rock alcoves where prehistoric inhabitants took shelter. Don't forget to bring a picnic so you can enjoy a riverside lunch.

Afternoon

You may be tempted to linger on the Chattahoochee, but just 20 minutes south, an important historic landmark is waiting. Head south on GA 400 and I-85 to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta.

Begin at the Visitor Center for a brief orientation to the sites and see the “Courage to Lead” exhibit, which details Dr. King’s work in the Civil Rights Movement. Take a ranger-led tour of Dr. King’s Birth Home and walk to the nearby King Center to visit his final resting place. Also close by is the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King was baptized and ordained as a minister. Grab lunch at one of Dr. King’s favorite lunchtime haunts, Paschal’s Restaurant, famous for its fried chicken and other soul food delicacies.

Evening

From the park, drive three miles northeast to Virginia Highland, a bustling neighborhood of bungalow houses, art galleries, restaurants, and pubs. Designed for walking, the area is the perfect place to browse antiques stores, grab a bite or enjoy live blues music. Stay at the Georgian Terrace, a historic hotel in Midtown Atlanta, which has hosted illustrious guests including author F. Scott Fitzgerald and President Calvin Coolidge.

DAY THREE 

People walking atop Great Temple Mound at Ocmulgee National Monument

Great Temple Mound, Ocmulgee National Monument

NPS Photo

Morning and Afternoon

From Atlanta, take I-75 90 miles south to the Ocmulgee National Historical Park in Macon. Ocmulgee is most known for its collection of earth mounds that American Indians constructed as far back as 1,000 B.C.E., but this area was occupied for more than 12,000 years. Begin at the site's museum and allow ample time to examine artifacts that range from the ice age to the 1700s.

Then walk the grounds of the monument and explore the grass-covered earth mounds. Follow a dark corridor into the heart of the Earth Lodge to see a circular ceremonial room and climb to the top of the Great Temple Mound for a bird's-eye view of an adjacent wetland. A half-mile River Walk Trail crosses the wetland, where you can view bluebirds, blue herons, and egrets.

Evening

Head into Macon for dinner and relax to some smooth jazz at the Douglass Theatre, made famous by some of the biggest names in R&B. Stay at the 1842 Inn, a Greek Revival-style antebellum house and adjacent Victorian-style cottage, all decorated with fine English antiques and paintings.

DAY FOUR 

Living historians patrol along the outside of the stockade wall at Andersonville National Historic Site

Living historians patrol the stockade wall, Andersonville National Historic Site

NPS Photo

Morning

 Drive 65 miles southwest to the Andersonville National Historic Site in Andersonville. One of the largest—and most infamous—prisoner of war camps during the Civil War, Andersonville (also known as Camp Sumter) held 45,000 Union soldiers, nearly 13,000 of whom died from illness and malnutrition. The site's National Prisoner of War Museum includes artwork, photographs and other displays that document the suffering of Andersonville prisoners, as well as American POWs from other wars. Stroll the prison grounds to get a sense of daily life in this notorious camp. From the prison site, it's a short drive to the Andersonville National Cemetery, which includes graves of Andersonville prisoners and serves as a national cemetery for veterans today.

Afternoon

Approximately 22 miles southwest of Andersonville, you'll find your next destination: Plains, the hometown of 39th President Jimmy Carter. Grab lunch in the quaint historic downtown, which hosts a peanut festival each September. From here, the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site is just down the road. Visit Plains High School, which serves as the museum and visitor center, to see restored classrooms and offices as well as exhibits about Carter’s upbringing and accomplishments. The nearby Plains Train Depot details Carter’s 1976 run for presidency, headquartered in the building, and the restored Boyhood Farm explores President Carter’s early years in Plaines.

Evening

As you end your tour of the Peach State, you may want to head back to Atlanta for your last night. Or spend the night at the Plains Historic Inn, where each room at the inn is elegantly decorated with furnishings from a specific decade, from 1920 to 1980.

Each park in Georgia has a fascinating story to tell, from the prehistoric mounds at Ocmulgee to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Learn more about these and other parks and #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque in this historic state.

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The perfect escape from the daily grind, these parks are all within or close to major U.S. metropolitan areas, representing a diversity of people, landscapes, and stories.

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