We’ve traveled through Georgia dozens of times over the years but it wasn’t until we got off the interstate that we realized how gorgeous it is. Specifically, a 6,500 acres forested tract located in Pine Mountain, just north of Columbus, Georgia, an hour and a half south of Atlanta
We’ve heard of the place, of course. As a resort destination, it draws over 750,000 visitors annually. But because we were always so rushed – that’s what traveling the interstates does to you – it wasn’t until we followed some reader suggestions and did some two-lane exploration down here that we found ourselves in this densely wooded area founded in 1952 by Cason J. and Virginia Hand Callaway to promote and protect native azalea species.
It’s much more than that now, so much that tens of thousands of other plants. trees and flowers have been protected in what is officially known as the Cason J. Callaway Memorial Forest, and was designated a National Natural Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior.
The Callaway family made their fortune early in the last century in the Georgia textile industry and the area that everyone calls Callaway Gardens features lakes, a huge swimming beach, wilderness tracts, a world class butterfly house, a resort, chapel, lodge and conference center. We visited in mid August, after school started down south, and had the sprawling place pretty much to ourselves.
We spent all day exploring the place.
Located in the tiny town of Pine Mountain, the sprawling resort is a place of spectacular solitude. Jennifer and I hiked the trails and walkways and stopped often, sitting in the shade, just marveling at the beauty. Pine Mountain – about 1,000 feet in elevation – is just high enough to avoid the stifling heat and humidity that plagues the rest of the Deep South in August. It’s still plenty warm, mind you, but comfortable enough to be outside in the shade
But not comfortable enough for us to take advantage of the more than 20 miles of secluded, forested bike paths. That is best an early morning activity in the month of August and by the time we found the bike rental place, the sun was a bit too intense for lots of physical exercise.
So we hiked a bit, then found one of the many benches scattered about. Shafts of sun filtered down through 90-feet-high longleaf pines. Birds chirped. There was no traffic noise, no whirring air conditioners. It was very relaxing and the air was scented with the satisfying aroma of the longleafs.
The longleafs are majestic. Their needlelike leaves, which come in bundles of three, can grow up to 18 inches long. Mature trees stand 80 to 100 feet tall. The single trunk, which is covered in thick, scaly bark, reaches up to 3 feet in diameter.These slow-growing trees live for over 300 years, and they may take up to half that time to reach their full size. The trees naturally prune their lower branches and grow nearly perfectly straight. At one time, they covered 80% of Georgia, and a swath of land that ran from Virginia, down to northern Florida, and west to Texas. Over logging decimated their forests and today, they’re found in great quantities only in places like Callaway Gardens.
We visited the Day Butterfly Center, named after Cecil B. Day, founder of the Day’s Inn motel chain and a philanthropist and supporter of the gardens. The structure is North America’s largest glass-enclosed tropical conservatory, housing over 1,000 butterflies of over 50 species.
I loved the Birds of Prey show at the Callaway Discovery Center. These magnificent creatures – which cannot be released into the wild, due either to injury or having developed an unnatural association with humans, known as “imprinting” – demonstrate their strength, speed and natural instincts in daily free-flighted shows. Several birds appear at each show, swooping overhead and giving guests an up-close look “on the glove,” while raptor experts explain how man’s actions affect their wellbeing.
I was taking photos when a red tail hawk swooped down, almost knocking the camera from my hands and literally brushing me with his fathers. I swear he was chuckling as he passed by and the people around me gasped and shrieked. It was awesome.
The gardens used to encompass 13,000 acres. A little more than half of that has slowly been sold off for housing developments, chalets and vacation villas. The 6,000 remaining acres offer plenty of things to see. Most amazing to us was learning that is is all man made, the original scrub and red clay terrain has been transformed into the lush park-like landscape of today, all conceived and created by Cason J. Callaway and his wife, Virginia Hand Callaway.
Callaway longed for a place where man and nature could abide together for the good of both. The retreat he established in the southernmost foothills of the Appalachian Mountains that bears his name lives up to the way he described it to friends when he said it was “the best garden since Adam was young.”
It’s well worth a visit.
There’s plenty of parking and the roads can easily handle any sized RV except for a Class A.
For camping, just go five miles down the road and you have over 100 beautifully wooded full-service sites to choose from in the 9,000-acre Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park. I’ll have a separate story on the park and Roosevelt’s Little White House in nearby Warm Springs, where he came for therapeutic treatments for polio.