Rolling along the river in lower Georgia and Alabama, travelers can revel in the historic treasures of the Old South and Mother Nature.
By JANET GROENE
Published July 31, 2005
[Photo: Georgia Tourism]
A replica of the original Fort Gaines can be visited in a park overlooking the Chattahoochee.
Long before Europeans reached North America, American Indians fished what we now call the Chattahoochee River and traveled with its current. When the first white explorers arrived, the route since named the Chattahoochee Trace was just that: Narrow paths cut by animals seeking the best route along the river had been deepened and widened by natives looking for a similar, safe way.
Then, settlers built cabins along the Trace, and the river was selected as the border between roughly the lower halves of Georgia and Alabama.
Now, you can pick up a good map and design a trip that takes you up one side of the river and back along the other shore.
In addition to taking in about 20 historic markers placed on homes, jails, schools and churches, you can go fishing, birding and boating on the river, and on the shores nearby there are plenty of antiques stores, golf courses and historic sites.
The river has bridges every 40 miles or so, but the Chattahoochee divides the Eastern and Central time zones, so it may be less confusing to stick to one side on the way north and the other on the return trip.
Note, too, that not all the highways mentioned here are waterfront. State Road 165 between Eufaula and Phenix City, Ala., is a designated Scenic Highway that hugs the river, but because of occasional flooding, most other major roads are built above the flood plain and can often be miles from the river.
To get started, take your favorite route north to Interstate 10 across the top of Florida, head west and then drive north from Tallahassee on U.S. 27. In less than an hour, you'll reach Bainbridge, Ga., gateway to Lake Seminole State Park.
About where Florida, Georgia and Alabama meet, the 37,500-acre lake is great for anglers, duck and deer hunters, bird watchers, arrowhead hunters and anyone who loves wilderness. It's shallow but is dotted with depressions known as lime sinks, a good place to drop a line for bass. Visitors also swim, water-ski and canoe at the lake and walk its 2.2-mile Gopher Tortoise Nature Trail. There are also bikes to rent and a miniature golf course.
Jack Wingate's Lunker Lodge, a staging area for fishing tournaments, also has one of the area's best restaurants for barbecue and fried catfish.
Heading north along the river
To drive the Georgia side of the Chattahoochee, take rural SR 39. Just north of Blakely, Kolomoki Mounds State Park includes middens left by ancient people who roamed the river as early as 1000 B.C. Their civilization is believed to have reached its peak between 350 and 450 A.D. but disappeared some centuries later.
The state park has miniature golf, two lakes for fishing and canoeing, hiking trails, ranger-led astronomy programs and campsites with hookups.
About 19 miles north on SR 39 is Fort Gaines, a sleepy hamlet perfect for travelers who shun the interstates. Walk the few streets past old homes and step into the rustic Frontier Country Museum. The site was once occupied by the Globe Tavern and Inn, a stagecoach stop. The fort itself was built about 1814; a copy of the original stands in a pleasant park overlooking the river.
Farther north on 39, you'll enter Providence Canyon State Conservation Park, where the bluffs above the Chattahoochee reach 150 feet high. This is the place to hike rugged trails and look for wildflowers, including the rare plumleaf azalea. It's a daylong kaleidoscope as changing angles of sunlight play on colored layers of canyon walls.
A few miles to the east, on SR 39C, is the small town of Lumpkin. In a living history, 1850s-style village here called historic Westville, visitors can watch artisans at work and buy their wares.
From Lumpkin head north on U.S. 27 - this is several miles from the Chattahoochee - and drive about 37 miles to Columbus. This old industrial city on the river has all the charms of what we now think of as the Old South.
Daily tours take visitors to five of Columbus' most significant old homes. Hike, jog or bicycle along the 15-mile RiverWalk, which passes waterfalls noted by the first Spanish explorers.
Steamboats brought early settlers to the area, and many of them harnessed the waterfalls' energy to power machinery in factories.
A special stop here is the National Civil War Naval Museum. It houses ships including the CSS Chattahoochee, which was sunk during the war and recovered in the 20th century. There are also interactive exhibits, time lines and a wealth of memorabilia.
Also worth visiting in Columbus is the Coca-Cola Space Science Center, for its astronomy programs and simulated space shuttle mission. The city also boasts one of the best concert halls in the Southeast, the 3-year-old RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.
Time to turn around
Cross the river now to reach Alabama, where SR 165 passes miles of river scenery. Allot at least one day for Eufaula, filled with historic neighborhoods that reflect the history of American architecture.
Its antebellum treasures include Fendell Hall, an Italianate mansion built in 1860, and Hart House, a Greek revival home built in 1850. Also open to the public is the Shorter Mansion, built in 1884.
Outside town, Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge is on the Chattahoochee Flyway, a wonderland of ducks, geese, wood storks, sandhill cranes, raptors, wading birds, shorebirds and songbirds.
A habitat encompassing 3,000 acres of wetland, 1,000 acres of grassland, 2,000 acres of woodlands and 4,000 acres of open water, the refuge supports countless rookeries and many osprey and bald eagle nests.
Lake Eufaula, a reservoir created by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s, is a 45,181-acre fishery known for its black crappies, largemouth bass and catfish. The lake is surrounded by parks, campgrounds, picnic sites, boat ramps, old Indian trails and pebbled shores on which sharp-eyed hikers still find arrowheads.
Motorists can continue south along the river, but the going gets slower and farther from the water. Instead, take U.S. 431 into Dothan for a taste of small-town Alabama life. Just northwest of the city at Fort Rucker, the U.S. Army Aviation Museum houses more than 160 historic aircrafts, dating to the Wright brothers' early planes sold to the military.
In Dothan, see the Wiregrass Museum of Art, housed in a restored power plant, and a restored opera house built in 1915.
In Landmark Park, pioneer dwellings and farm equipment have been brought together in a living history museum. Crops are planted, butter churned and animals tended in the rituals of farm life. This is a great stop for children.
The more research you put into exploring the Chattahoochee Trace before you head there, the greater the reward.
- Janet and Gordon Groene are a Florida-based travel writing team. Their books include "Great Eastern RV Trips" (Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw-Hill) and "Fantastic Discounts & Deals for Anyone Over 50" (Cold Spring Press).
IF YOU GO
STAYING THERE: Campgrounds are abundant in state and county parks throughout the Chattahoochee Trace.
The largest choices of major chain hotels and motels are found in Columbus, Ga., and Dothan, Ala.
Bed and breakfast inns include Sutlive House in Fort Gaines, Ga., (229) 768-3546; Four Seasons, an 1859 house in Clayton, Ala., just west of Eufaula, (334) 775-9758; and Gates House in Columbus, Ga., toll-free 1-800-891-3187.
WHEN TO GO: Summer and autumn events along the Trace include fishing tournaments in Bainbridge, Ga., and summer night concert series in Dothan and Opelika, Ala.
Among the special events in the near future are the following; call the phone numbers or go to the Web sites to check exact dates, times, places and fees:
August: Don't miss the Swamp Gravy Storytelling Festival, the second weekend of the month, in Colquitt, Ga. Call 229 758-5450; www.swampgravy.com
Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival, Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain, Ga. Toll-free 1-800-CALLAWAY 225-5292; www.callawaygardens.org
Southeast Alabama Pro-Rodeo, Ozark, Ala., Chamber of Commerce; toll-free 1-800-582-8497.September: Fiddler's Contest at historic Westville, Lumpkin, Ga. Toll-free 1-888-733-1850; www.westville.org