Thrilling Destinations Just a Short Drive Away
by Susan Flowers
Moving to a new city is an adventure, itself. Now that you are settled in, perhaps you are ready for an adventure of a more pleasurable kind. Fortunately, numerous adventure-
filled vacations are within an easy drive of Atlanta.
From whitewater rafting in the Smokies to hiking in the Okefenokee Swamp, and from a one-of-a-kind Space Center experience to golfing some of the country’s best courses right next door in Alabama, exciting leisure opportunities abound for Atlanta’s newcomers. There’s even a little something for those who prefer to find their adventure at a game table. What better way to explore the area than to plan an adventure get-away in your new part of the world?
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia
With around 402,000 acres of exotic wildlife and lush vegetation, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is an adventure-lover’s paradise.
Meaning “the land of the trembling earth,” the Okefenokee is a five-hour drive from Atlanta in southeast Georgia.
If photography is your hobby, the refuge is the place for you. The swamp is teeming with amphibians, fish, mammals, reptiles and birds. Otters, ducks, frogs, hawks and a seemingly endless variety of other birds inhabit the refuge at various times of the year.
You may encounter some of nature’s larger animals as well. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, visitors paddling canoes through the swamp might glimpse an alligator or a bear. Of course, wilderness canoeing is an experience best reserved for those who can take on a challenge. Trails are demanding, and may require strenuous paddling or pushing canoes at some points. Visitors can also be subjected to extreme temperatures and precipitation. Canoers can camp at any of nine designated campsites located throughout the refuge.
Not up to paddling through the Okefenokee? You may enjoy taking a guided boat tour. Tours available include a 90-minute trip through the Suwannee Canal and Chesser Prairie, conducted by concessioner Okefenokee Adventures. You can also arrange for an extended or overnight excursion through the company.
Hikers will also enjoy their visit to the refuge as they cover one of eight authorized trails. Take in nature’s wonders as you observe birds and other wildlife in their natural habitat, and enjoy plant life that will surround you at every step. Walk the .2-mile Upland Discovery Trail and take advantage of your chance to photograph a colony of red-cockaded woodpeckers, or immerse yourself in the forests of the 4-mile Long Leaf Interpretive Trail. You may also enjoy cycling on the swamp’s paved roads, although bicycles are not permitted on hiking trails.
Fishermen can enjoy the refuge throughout the year—but you may have to compete with an alligator for your catch! The refuge features shallow water prairies, lakes and ponds, and fishing from boats, kayaks and canoes is permitted in various areas.
Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
From whitewater rafting to trout fishing and hiking, the area around Gatlinburg, TN, affords rich opportunities for those who love the outdoors—and it’s only a four-and-a-half-hour drive north of Atlanta.
Hikers can explore the Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s more than 800 miles of maintained trails. Black bears, elk and deer are among the wildlife that vacationing Atlantans might see as they trek through the wilderness. Visitors can also count on being dazzled by the park’s array of wildflowers, many of which bloom year-round. According to the National Park Service, many hikers choose trails that allow up-close views of the park’s spectacular waterfalls, which include Grotto, featuring direct access from the Trillium Gap Trail; Ramsey Cascades, at 100 feet, the park’s tallest waterfall; and Rainbow, which frequently offers a rainbow in the mists of its 80 feet of falling water.
Not interested in hiking? You may enjoy horseback riding through the park’s many horse trails, or cycling on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop, with its numerous views of wildlife and historic sites. The park is also a birdwatcher’s paradise, with 60 species living there year-round, accord- ing to the Gatlinburg Convention & Visitors Bureau. Campers, whether backpacking or traveling in a recreational vehicle, will find sites to accommodate a variety of needs.
With over 2,000 miles of streams, the park also offers abundant opportunities for fishing. Fishermen will also enjoy a visit to some of nearby Gatlinburg’s many rivers and streams, populated by fish from the city’s fully stocked trout-rearing facility. (When making your plans, remember that trout are released every Thursday, and no fishing is allowed on that day.)
Golfers who visit the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area won’t be disappointed. The Bent Creek Golf Course offers a front nine in the valley and a back nine in the mountains, punctuated by a stream which runs all the way through the course. And the recently renovated Gatlinburg Golf Course features a challenging course in a setting that’s a feast for the senses.
For a more adrenaline-charged getaway, you may want to try white- water rafting down the Big Pigeon River. With 12 Class III and 3 Class IV rapids, the river provides a thrill- ing, challenging ride.
Adventure can also be found in Pigeon Forge. Nearby Dollywood has one of the best roller coaster collections around, according to Tom Adkinson of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. A recently added zip line can carry visitors over the entire park for an aerial view.
Also in Pigeon Forge is Zorb Smoky Mountains, which allows visitors to be pushed down a 750-foot mountainside track while inside an 11-foot sphere. The city is also home to the country’s first indoor skydiving attraction, Flyaway. Using a vertical indoor wind tunnel powered by an airplane propeller, this attraction lets you experience the thrill of this extreme sport. The city’s Parkway offers excitement as well, with go-karts and small bungee jumping.
Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Alabama
For golfers, there’s no greater adventure than playing on that perfect course—and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has everything any golfer could ever want.
The trail actually consists of 26 courses, with 468 holes at 11 locations across Alabama, rang- ing from the northern sections of the state to near the Gulf Coast. Designed by course architect Robert Trent Jones as his masterpiece, the trail has been chosen as the best golf value in the country by the readers of Golf Digest, who also ranked it in the top eight for quality. No less an authority than the New York Times has said that the trail offers “some of the best public golf on earth.”
What inspires all this adulation? Stops including Hampton Cove, featuring three 18-hole courses dotted with thousands of Japanese black pines, massive oaks, dog- woods and crepe myrtles, and Ross Bridge, the third longest course in the world. Landscaping at all of the trail’s courses is exquisite, and golfers can count on challenges at every stop.
For Atlantans, the trail is easily accessible. Its eight stops are each within 15 minutes of an interstate, and all are no more than a two-hour drive from another stop. Courses are located in or near Anniston, Auburn, Birmingham, Dothan, Greenville, Huntsville, Mobile, Point Clear, Prattville (near Montgomery), Hoover and Muscle Shoals/Florence. Green fees range from $50 to a peak of $64.
Excellent lodging and restaurants are available throughout the trail. Relax and en- joy fine dining at any of eight world-class Marriott and Renaissance hotels, including the nautical-themed Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel in Mobile and the Auburn Marriott Opelika Hotel & Conference Center at Grand National in Opelika. Enjoy a little pampering after your day of golf at the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Resort & Spa, the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa in Florence and the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the convention center in Montgomery.
Whether you dream of soaring into space or exploring underground caverns, Huntsville, AL—less than four hours northwest of Atlanta—has the right getaway for you.
For would-be astronauts, the U.S Space & Rocket Center has attractions running the gamut from space program artifacts to Space Camps. Visitors can take in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration and gaze in wonder at the Saturn V rocket housed there, while Space Camp allows everyone from grade schoolers to grown-ups the opportunity to learn about manned space flight.
Adults can enjoy a weekend program that gives a real insider’s look at space shuttle simulators, mission control and the International Space Station. You may also choose a six-day adventure that focuses on astronaut training, including jet fighter simulators and SCUBA diving with an underwater astronaut trainer. The course concludes with an extended duration mission that can last as long as six hours.
For younger people, various programs are available for children age 9 and up, adolescents, and teens to age 18.
Just a 20-minute drive from Huntsville, Cathedral Caverns offers a breathtaking look at nature’s wonders, with 14 acres of underground caverns for amateur spelunkers to explore. Among the sights that awe visitors: the 45-foot Goliath stalagmite column, the Frozen Waterfall and the 126-foot entrance. Once you’ve finished exploring the caverns, other fun activities wait above, including nature trails, a climbing wall and gemstone mining. Tent camping facilities are available within Cathedral Caverns State Park for just $12 a night per site, and you can also plan a stay at one of several nearby hotels.
Regardless what form of thrill-seeking you prefer, it’s a hot summer for cool adventures. From the mountains up north to the swamp down south, and the whole length of Alabama to the west, plenty of exciting getaways can help you explore the region you now call home.