BY JUSTINE ICKES
TIPS FOR FAMILY HIKES & LOCAL PLACES TO EXPLORE
Georgia’s heartland is a broad and varied region stretching from the Piedmont Plateau to the ancient Coastal Plain. The area is filled with distinctive natural beauty. Autumn is a great time to explore our parks and trails. But you need more than sunscreen, water and high-energy snacks to enjoy a family hike. To maximize the fun and keep the cries of “Are we there yet?” to a minimum, try these suggestions:
Ready, Set, Go!
Taking the time to plan your family’s next outdoor adventure can mean the difference between an okay experience and a great one. Here are some steps you can take before you hit the trail:
Choose the Right Trail: Choose a trail that matches your family’s hiking skill and experience. Always pace your outing to the youngest or slowest walker in your family and build in time for breaks. If your family is new to hiking, choose a short, easy, circular trail. Paved trails—like those in the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail—are great for families with children of different ages and abilities because they are accessible by bike, stroller and foot. Once you’ve built up your family’s endurance, you can attempt longer and more challenging trails where your kids can scramble over ravines and boulders. No matter how short or long your hike, remember to pace yourself and take frequent breaks.
Know Your Trail: Familiarize yourself with the trail before you go. Use your local library and the internet to gather resources about the area you’ll be exploring. For example, the Georgia State Park Service offers highlights of most of the state parks at www.gastateparks.org. Determine what is the best time for your hike, based on your family’s routine, and plan around nap-time, if necessary. A good rule of thumb is to double the estimated time you think the hike will take. If you decide to take in the breathtaking leaf-peeping around Helen, Georgia, this fall, then stay in close touch to make sure that the fall foliage is in full color when you visit.
Plan for Shade: Use shady trails or hike in the morning when temperatures are cooler. Boardwalks along a river are excellent places for a family excursion but, because they are often exposed to the elements, they can really heat up. Start out early so you can beat the heat and get on the trail before other hikers have had a chance to spook the wildlife. “Most animals are more active in the morning and many cold-blooded critters—reptiles, amphibians, and insects—are trying to warm up and might be sitting right out in the open,” says Abugattas.
Consider Your Family’s Interests: Match the destination to your children’s interests. Is there a star-gazer in your family? The Lockerly Arboretum near Milledgeville or Atlanta Botanical Gardens may offer guided walks on full moon nights, Halloween, the winter solstice or other holidays. Your budding paleontologist might enjoy helping park archaeologists to unearth and interpret the prehistoric remains of dinosaurs, plants and early mammals. Are there boy or girl scouts in your family? Maybe there is a corn maize nearby where they can practice their orienteering skills.
Free Fun: Take advantage of free or low-cost hands-on exhibits, theme gardens, guided hikes, and educational programs. Many state and regional parks offer family-oriented programs on a range of topics—animal tracking, stream adventures, meadow rambles, and even geocaching, a modern-day treasure hunt where families use GPS units to find hidden containers.
Out on the Trail!
The key to kid-centered hikes is to focus on exploring and enjoying, not on a distance to cover or destination to reach. Try these ideas once your family is out on the trail:
Log Roll: Lift up or roll over a log or rock and investigate what’s underneath. A magnifying glass and/or a box is useful for holding and observing small creatures. Just remember to release any creature next to where you found it and take care not to crush any plants or insects when you replace the log or rock.
Souvenirs for the Senses: Fill up a small bag or jar with objects you find along the way. Try to use objects with a distinct texture or smell—a pine needle, a feather, a seed pod, for example. Ask your children to close their eyes and guess what each object is using only their senses.
Find the Fake: Plant a fake item along the trail and challenge your children to spot it. Choose objects that are small and easily overlooked—like a pipe cleaner animal, artificial flower or toy insect—so that your kids develop their powers of observation.
Quiet Time: Stop walking, close your eyes and listen for a minute. Then invite everyone to name, describe or imitate what they heard.
Encourage children to move in different ways. They can take giant steps, small steps, skip, pretend the ground is quicksand, play red light/green light, or imitate animals.
We made it!
The fun and learning don’t have to end when the hike does. Encourage your family to savor the moment and create memories with these activities:
Family Journal: Record your hikes in a journal. Family members can take turns recording the sights, sounds and sensations of your outings. Even younger children who can’t yet read and write can glue in trail maps, make leaf rubbings, trace natural stencils or draw pictures.
Map Your Journey: Use a real map or Google Earth and invite your children to recount the highs and lows of the experience. For example, “Here’s where we walked over that log bridge.”
Expert Opinion: Show your photos to an expert. Well-known naturalist Alonso Abugattas says, “Often folks ask me to identify a strange animal or plant they took a photo of while on a family walk.”
Whether it’s a half-mile stroll around the neighborhood park or a day-long excursion, hiking is something the whole family can enjoy. Keep this in mind and your next hike will be “a walk in the park”
Amerson River Park
2551 North Pierce Drive, Macon
Park Hours: 9 a.m.–7 p.m.
Cost: $3 parking fee
Visit this 180-acre historical natural lake with miles of riverfront and wooden trails. A pavilion provides 12 picnic tables and handicap-usable playground is the perfect spot for a family gathering. Kayaking, canoeing, motor boating, tubing, and swimming are allowed at your own risk. (See Ocmulgee Heritage Trail below for more information.)
Cannon’s Point Preserve (North end of St. Simon’s Island)
Our publisher’s great, great, great grandfather, Daniel Cannon, settled Cannon’s Point in the 1730s. Remnants of the home remain today. Cannon’s Point is the last intact maritime forest on St. Simons Island and is rich in cultural and natural history. This 608 acre wilderness is now a part of St. Simons Land Trust’s Greenprint and trail system. The peninsula has over six miles of salt marsh, tidal creek and river shore line that provide habitat for wildlife such as oysters, birds, fish, manatee, and shell fish. Bring plenty of bug spray and your own food and drinks. Activities available to the public include biking, hiking, picnicking, and enjoying the scenic expanse of the property.
Dauset Trails Nature Center
360 Mt. Vernon Church Rd., Jackson
Park Hours: Monday–Friday 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.–7 p.m., Sunday 12–7 p.m.
Explore the Animal Trail and Wonder Room to see many species of animals. Learn about trees and plants on the Tree ID Trail and Woodland Garden. Check out the farm animals at the barnyard exhibit. Enjoy picnics, horse, hike and bike trails.
Georgia Veterans State Park
Park Hours: 7 a.m.–10 p.m.
Spend quality time on 8,600 acres of Lake Blackshear while camping, fishing or boating. Visit the swimming beach, model airplane flying field, Frisbee disc course or Georgia Veterans Memorial Golf Course. The four picnic shelters provide the perfect spot in case you work up a hunger.
High Falls State Park
76 High Falls Park Dr., Jackson
Park Hours: 7 a.m.–10 p.m.
Cost: $5 parking fee
Relax by the waterfall on the Towaliga River. Hike the 4.5 miles of trails. This adventurous park offers a 650-acre lake, swimming pool and 5 picnic shelters. Kayak, canoe, pedal and fishing boat rentals available as well.
Indian Springs State Park
678 Lake Clark Rd., Flovilla
Park Hours: 7 a.m.–10 p.m.
Cost: $5 parking fee except Wednesdays
Learn the history of Creek Indians at this historical state park. It includes a seasonal 105-acre lake and swimming beach, ¾ mile nature trail, seasonal museum, playgrounds, campsites, cottages and picnic shelters. Private boats are allowed as well as boat rentals and miniature golf.
Ocmulgee Heritage Trail
479 Cherry St., Macon
Park Hours: Anytime year-round
This trail makes the perfect getaway for riverside picnics with playground areas. Visitors exercise, run, walk, rollerblade and bike at their own pace. Bring your dog to soak up some sunshine.
Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge
718 Juliette Rd, Round Oak
Park Hours: Anytime year-round
Nearly 200 bird species and 50 mammal species inhabit this 35,000-acre forest. With 35 active family groups, it is well known for hunting, fishing and hiking for miles. Prescribed management services along with streams and ponds help keep this forest populated with southern native wildlife. A father and son’s dream expedition.
1060 Keith Dr., Perry
Park Hours: 8 a.m.–Dark
Stroll on the nature trail surrounding two fishing ponds full of bass, catfish and bream. Rent Rozar Park’s 28,000 square foot community center for your reception, club meeting, fund-raiser, family reunion, and more. Instructional classes for gymnastics/dance, swimming, karate, and arts/crafts are also held.
Sprewell Bluff State Outdoor Recreation Area
740 Sprewell Bluff Rd., Thomaston
Park Hours: 7 a.m.–Sunset
Cost: $5 parking fee
Enjoy a day on the Flint River. Visitors access boat ramps to fish for bass and catfish, a 3-mile hiking trail, horseshoes and volleyball. Picnic areas with grills are available for families to spend all day. Bird watchers observe many species in their natural habitat.
Twin Bridges Trail
162 Sinclair Marina Rd. NE, Milledgeville
Hours: Anytime year-round
Endeavor through low valleys and ridges on a wooden trail on the Little River arm of Lake Sinclair. Small mammals, birds and other animals can easily be observed in their habitats within the large trees. Exceptional for a quiet sightseeing excursion. #