Less than 90 miles from Athens is one of America’s “most scenic drives,” according to Country Living Magazine: the Woodpecker Trail (Georgia Highway 121). In the early 1900s it was the fastest way to the west coast of Florida. But then, the term “fast” was relative, considering that the vehicles were the likes of Ford Model T’s bouncing along bumpy clay roads.
Now, the Woodpecker Trail is a quiet, little-used highway that shows off some of Georgia’s prettiest countryside. Small towns along the way still thrive as seats of service to their county residents. The Woodpecker Trail makes for a memorable day trip out of Athens that can turn into several days of wonder if you want to see everything there is to see.
This article reviews the Woodpecker Trail’s northern leg, which originates at the South Carolina border in Augusta and runs south near Hephzibah and on to Metter. Augusta is not covered in this article; it has so much to see that it needs a separate review.
In this 70-mile span, your trip can begin with a visit to Hephzibah’s historic First Ebenezer Baptist Church, a congregation that began in 1812 when a handful of slaves gathered for service on the Rhodes family’s plantation. Fearful of creating alarm when religious freedom for black slaves was non-existent, they chose the seclusion of a plantation to assemble and worship. In 1851, Absalom A. Rhodes sold a quarter of an acre of plantation land for two dollars to the board of deacons. The 56-member congregation joined the Georgia Baptist Association in 1867.
Heading south into Waynesboro (the “Bird Dog Capital of the World”) on Liberty Street, the Woodpecker Trail treats you to a historic community dating to 1783. Enjoy breakfast or lunch at any several local eateries that remind you of what “cooked to order” meant. Maybe that’s what prompted President George Washington to visit Waynesboro in 1791 on his Southern Tour? The “Old Quaker Road” heads east from Waynesboro to Savannah. Opened in 1769, it is among America’s earliest “highways.” As one of the longest and most important routes of colonial Georgia, much of the original route remains in use today.
Just to the south of Waynesboro is Magnolia Springs, a 1,070-acre state park, with natural springs producing seven million gallons of crystal-clear water every day. The springs flow from an underground aquifer through an area mostly comprising limestone riddled with sinkholes. Most of the water is naturally delivered from a great depth, which results in an average temperature of 72 degrees F throughout the year. That’s why Magnolia Springs also has alligators, along with an incredible array of birds such as wood ducks, white ibis, anhinga, endangered wood storks, and a variety of woodpeckers, of course. Who needs to drive to the Woodpecker Trail’s terminus in Florida with sights like this right here in Georgia?
Magnolia Springs State Park is also the former site of the Civil War-era Camp Lawton which, for a short time, housed 10,000 Union prisoners of war. It is now under archaeological excavation, but the ruins of an earthen stockade can be seen and toured.
South of the springs is the town of Millen, founded in 1835, and boasting two train depots on a working railway in its downtown area. One depot is a museum that is on the National Register of Historic Places; the other is in use by the Norfolk Southern Railroad. The town’s Cotton Avenue district is especially charming and, because it adjoins the railroad, you may see one of the 15 or more trains passing through town each day.
In between various towns lies miles of beautiful rural Georgia scenery, some awash in cotton and others in the heavy pine forests which contributed to the Woodpecker Trail’s name. Pileated woodpeckers (remember the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker?) populated these forests, nesting in its large old pines. In fact, during the early years of the trail, the cartoon woodpecker was used in signage to mark the trail. Along the way you see few vehicles, making it easy and safe to pull over for the many photo opportunities or for a picnic.
On the way to Metter, the next town south, you’ll find George L. Smith State Park, with camping, cottages, and a boating lake of Spanish moss-covered cypress trees. If you camp there, shine a flashlight out over the lake at night and look for the eyes of alligators on the hunt. Once in Metter, visit the beautiful Guido Gardens. What boomer doesn’t remember Rev. Michael Guido’s daily one-minute “Seed from the Sower” radio spots?
A Google map of this day trip can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/WPTmaps or on the Woodpecker Trail Association’s Website, www.woodpeckertrail.org. It is rich with more information about the trail and has links to a variety of other places to visit, including eateries, golf courses, and more points of interest.
In the spring, we’ll visit the southern half of the Woodpecker Trail, from Metter to St. George, including the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and a small town through which most trains pass that travel to and from Florida. But why should you wait? Maybe make a week of it. There is that much to see on the full 240 miles of Georgia’s Woodpecker Trail, once the quickest way to Florida through Georgia.
Ron Waters grew up in Augusta and traveled on the Woodpecker Trail many times to visit relatives in Florida. He is now retired from the electronics industry, and annually explores the Woodpecker Trail with his brothers for fun.
Rick Waters is a lifelong Georgian, and an Athenian since 1995, following a short career as a dentist. He spends his time outdoors, biking, kayaking, and hiking. Each fall he and his two brothers ‘glamp’ along the Woodpecker Trail in a Class B motor coach.