FSU Adventures: Providence Canyon
A rainbow of different soils in Georgia’s northwest corner blankets a spectacular mini-version of Arizona’s natural world wonder, the Grand Canyon, and sits just 2-1/2 hours north of Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL.
Dubbed “Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon,” Providence Canyon Park offers 1,003 acres of trails and breathtaking scenery, including crimson swaths of the extremely rare plumleaf azalea. While the attraction boasts steep, challenging courses for the most seasoned hikers, the park offers plenty for less-experienced nature lovers, with miles of trails; open expanses for picnicking, camping, picture-taking, sunbathing, and stargazing; and even intriguing historical reminders of the area’s 19th-century origins.
Unlike the natural world wonder and bucket-list favorite in America’s Southwest, the 16 massive gullies at Providence Park, some as deep as 150 feet, developed simply from poor farming practices after the first influx of settlers arrived in 1825. Today, visitors can enjoy the best views without actual hiking if they chose; a three-minute walk from the parking lot takes observers to the railed, fragile edge of the canyons for a multi-hued panorama, including shades of coral, salmon, pink, crimson, and violet soil.
Trails with history on the side
The park boasts 10 miles of trails, all starting at the Visitor’s Center. Maps display routes leading to nine of the numbered canyons. For those with limited time, canyons 4 and 5 offer the most spectacular scenery. First timers would be wise to start with a direct route to the park’s upper rim, where the ultimate bird’s eye view awaits.
Along the rim’s path, hikers will encounter almost a dozen 1950s-era cars that once belonged to owners of an abandoned homestead that sits on the land. Park officials determined that removing the deteriorating vehicles would have caused too much damage to the environment and animals that made homes within the junk.
Slippery when wet
The park lies on marine sediments, and water often seeps into the canyon’s exposed clay. The canyon floor sits below sea level, and guests will find themselves walking through streams running through the Georgia clay. These areas become slippery. Lightweight, waterproof hiking boots are best, but at the very least, visitors should wear sturdy, comfortable shoes that can be washed.
Determined hikers can choose the 3-mile White Blaze Canyon Loop Trail, which circles the nine canyons and takes two hours to complete, though guests should allow extra time to explore. Soil walls along the canyon walls are fragile, so climbing is prohibited from the canyon floor or rim. While hiking into the canyons, visitors should stay in the middle of the creek beds to avoid the soils on the side that can become extremely muddy, similar to quicksand.
Challenge seekers satisfied
For the most devoted hikers, the Backcountry Trail offers a 7-mile loop and takes at least six hours. Rated extremely rugged and difficult, this trail leads into a forested area off of the White Blaze Canyon Loop Trail. Hikers start a ¼ of a mile down the Loop Trail at the creek bed itself. After about two miles through lush river birch trees, the trail becomes rugged, ascending a steep grade, and following an old logging road, where most of the park’s primitive campsites are located. Further down, as the trail becomes rugged again, hikers can view six canyons, although those six are not directly accessible.
Providence is among four parks in the Peach state where visitors can participate in the Georgia State Park’s Canyon Climber’s Club. For a $10 membership card, hikers can attempt the task of scaling to the top of Amicalola Falls, exploring the depths of Providence Canyon, braving the swinging bridge in Tallulah Gorge, and face the daunting staircase in Cloudland Canyon. “I did it!” t-shirts at the Visitors Center allow those who meet the challenge to proclaim their accomplishment.
In addition to hiking, Providence Park provides several scenic areas with covered tables, as well as a playground. No food or drinks are sold, however, so picnickers must stock their own coolers. For those with time, taking in the park can consume a whole day, from enjoying the stunning vistas and exploring different trails to breaking for picnicking, sunbathing, and taking endless photos capturing the explosion of colorful soils, striking azaleas, and diverse flora.
A day trip can easily stretch into overnight camping. For the latter, guests must call the Visitor’s Center to reserve a spot at one of three pioneer campsites or six backcountry sites. Pioneer camps, private camping areas suitable for groups, come equipped with pit toilets, water spigots, grills, and picnic shelters.
Backcountry sites appeal to the most adventuresome, consisting only of flat areas cleared for tents but with no amenities. Campers venturing to these sites must bring everything they will need, including water.
History and nighttime thrills
Guests with flexible calendars might choose to schedule visits around special summer events sponsored by the park. These include the Geology Hike, where the public can take a guided tour throughout the canyons and get detailed information about the geological formations and how the canyons evolved. A similar event, National Trails Day, enables visitors to join a ranger-led hike into the canyons, learning about the canyon’s history, ecosystem, and geology.
Two nighttime events entice guests as well. Astronomy Night, presented by the Coca-Cola Space Science Center each April on Earth Day, enables guests to learn about the night sky and view stars and planets through telescopes. Each Halloween eve, rangers lead a spooky-themed hike into the park’s canyons, complete with scary stories along the way.
The cost of visiting Providence Canyon Park, regardless of activity, is $5 for parking. This generous slice of Mother Nature is one of the best bargains in the area.
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