Chronicles of a State Park Journey: Part 2

Spring in Ga State Parks

My family and I are on a mission to visit every state park in Georgia, one a month, until we have explored the ins-and-outs of each one. Each quarter over 2014, we’ll share with you a sample from our diaries on this journey. May you be encouraged to explore the hundreds of thousands of acres that make Georgia beautiful.

April 28 – George L. Smith State Park in Twin City, Georgia

Richard B Russell

I’m sitting on the screened-in porch, listening to the rain fall; we’re hoping for a break in the clouds in order to canoe on the lake. In the meantime, I watch the kids play in the expansive backyard of our cottage, running through the puddles.  Earlier this morning we hiked around Parrish Mill and Pond.  The mill, originally built in 1880, is a grist mill and saw mill, as well as a covered bridge and dam.  Wait! I think the rain has stopped!

The boys and I returned from a canoe excursion on the pond, elated.  It was their first time canoeing, and my oldest has declared it a new love.  Cypress and tupelo trees towered from the black water, and Spanish moss hung low. Blue heron and white ibis flew low along the edge of the water. Long periods passed without a word from either boy; we were awe-struck.

April 29 -  After a restful night sleep, we piled in the truck for a 20-minute ride to Magnolia Springs State Park.  The natural spring flows with 7-9 million gallons of water each day, and I was determined to see this natural wonder.  The alligators and turtles – hundreds of turtles – captured the boys’ attention.

After ogling the wildlife on the boardwalk, we explored near the visitor center.  I was astonished to learn that Camp Lawton was on this site. It served as a prison during the Civil War, and the artifacts and stockade wall were only recently unearthed. We learned about the new limited edition Civil War Jr Ranger Badge, on which the boys are now diligently working.

May 2 – Unicoi State Park in Helen, Georgia


UnicoiOur original plans were to stay in the Lodge at Unicoi State Park, but once the boys caught a glimpse of the “barrel” cabins they begged for a change of plans.  Luckily, one had just become available. It was a little older than other cottages we have stayed in (the Unicoi GM told me that renovations are coming soon,) but it was fun!

We could see the lake from our porch, and it called to us.  Just as the sun was setting we opted for a hike around the lake; the trailhead was just a few yards from our door.  Solar lights along the trail marked our way. We crossed a creek and a playground as we wound by the campground, but we kept walking to the dock, beckoned by the throaty call of a bullfrog.

May 3 – We slept-in this morning and had coffee on the porch; the boys wondered aloud about the bullfrog we scouted last night.  After breakfast, we took a short ride to Anna Ruby Falls.  It isn’t in Unicoi State Park – it’s run by the US Forestry Service – but it is just on the border of the park.  The wildflowers were in full bloom, dotting the walk with bright colors against the lush green forest.  The boys confidently walked the short hike to the falls, and it was worth every step.

June 17 Black Rock Mountain State Park in Mountain City, Georgia

Black Rock Mountain

The clouds were rolling in as we settled into our cottage; we talked about the “cotton balls” hanging in the mountains while we sat on the back porch. After unpacking our bags and answering a multitude of questions about the “awesome” stone fireplace that stood as the cottage centerpiece, we decided to hit the trail.

Ada-Hi is a half-mile trail, but we worked diligently on this hike because of the steep slope.  Dense thickets of rhododendron and mossy-covered rocks were our reward as we marched to the falls at the end of the trail. It reminded me of Smithgall Woods State Park.  We were lucky enough to visit the falls the day after a rainstorm, so the water was flowing generously.

June 18 – Early this morning we drove less than a half-hour to Tallulah Gorge State Park. The boys have a few more years before they can hike the gorge floor or the suspension bridge, but we enjoyed the North and South Rim Trails. A series of falls along the gorge floor grabbed our attention, as well as the towers used by Karl Wallenda when he walked across the gorge via tightrope.

Back at Black Rock Mountain we relaxed by taking a walk around Black Rock Lake, then visiting Foxfire Museum.  Foxfire isn’t part of the Park’s system, but it is on property adjacent to the park. Our favorite part was ringing the bell at the Chapel. It was a truly unique way to teach the boys about Appalachian life.

You can click through here to read about our winter Georgia State Parks journey.

lesliLesli Peterson is Georgia’s Destination Expert for Trekaroo and founder of 365 Atlanta Family. She is a homeschooling mom to 2 young boys and bonus mom to two teenagers. From her home base of Atlanta, Lesli spends her time life-learning with the kids one road-trip at a time, and sharing her experiences along the way. 

Holiday Date Nights in Atlanta

Nutcracker Title

Christmas is not only for children.  It is the perfect excuse for a romantic date night, as well. Whether you long for classic Christmas traditions or seek something a little more contemporary, we have you covered.  Atlanta is the perfect city for savoring the holidays with the one you love.

Fine Arts

Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker – What is more romantic than hailing in the holiday season at the Fabulous Fox Theater? This year marks 54 years of Atlanta tradition, and it is the only rendition with a live orchestra and choir.  The return special guest is Drew Thomas from America’s Got Talent, bringing magic and special effects to this cherished performance.

Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol – Enjoy this timeless classic performed by Atlanta’s finest actors. Don’t miss this year, it is Chris Kayser’s 20th production, and his final season as Scrooge.  See the Alliance website for the Bantam + Biddy package, which includes an appy, entrée, dinner, and drink before the show.

Overnight Escapes

BarnsleyBarnsley Gardens Resort – The luxurious Barnsley Resort offers its Light Up The Holidays package during the month of December, starting at $259 per night.  The 1800’s manor house and gardens are adorned with over one million lights.  Enjoy wreath making classes, a “Gingerbread Workshop” (hosted by the famed Fairy Godmother – yes they have an actual Fairy Godmother on Staff,) and classes on crafting the perfect holiday cocktail. The promotion includes cottage accommodations, a keepsake ornament, and resort credit for use at the spa, restaurants, gift shop, or resort activities such as clay shooting or horseback riding.

Chateau Elan Winery and Resort – Spoil your loved one with the Saison Festive Package, starting at $149 per night.  This includes accommodations at the Inn, a bottle of Chateau Elan wine delivered to your room, and a breakfast buffet for two. Feeling especially naughty? Upgrade to the Spaliday Package, which includes a spa suite and credit.  Enjoy brunch with Santa, carolers making merry, cooking classes, live music, and more.

Live Music

Vince Gill and Amy Grant photoChristmas with Amy Grant and Vince Gill featuring the ASO –Music superstars Amy Grant and Vince Gill perform their beloved holiday show with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, currently in their 68th season.  In this two-hour program at Fox Theatre, this husband-and-wife team celebrates the season with traditional Christmas classics, festive contemporary melodies, and a sprinkling of their biggest hits.

The Yacht Rock Revue Holiday Special – Imagine holiday tunes from Hall & Oats, Steely Dan, Michael McDonald, or other ‘70s light-rock stars. More than a cover band, Yacht Rock Revue blurs the lines between tribute, original act, and comedy performance.  Having played with Weezer, Skynard, Nine Inch Nails, and many more, this band has won a series of accolades including “Best Overall Music Act in Atlanta” by Creative Loafing.


AgethasAgatha’s A Taste of Mystery – If dinner and a play just aren’t enough to impress, how about a little murder to spice things up? Agetha’s comedic murder mystery theater sets the stage for a “killer” date night.  Watch The Nut Croaker Ballet: Murder on Your Toes as it unfolds in the dining room around you, between servings of a five-course meal. Audience participation is encouraged but not required.

Santaland Diaries – Horizon Theatre’s Santaland Diaries, originally written by David Sedaris (think NPR,) embodies sarcasm, satire, and adult-only Christmas humor.  An unemployed Crumpet finds seasonal work as a Macy’s Department Store elf. It is in the setting that you hear his “anything goes” observations about his job, his co-workers, and the holiday festivities around him.  Careful where you sit; he might poke fun at you, too.

Get Active

Atlantic StationIce Skating at Atlantic Station – New this year to Atlantic Station is a 10,000 sq ft ice skating wonderland.  The rink takes over District Street, surrounded by the shops and restaurants in the area.  After taking a few rounds on the rink (please stay long enough to admire the 400 ton Zamboni do her job) head to Meehan’s Public House for dinner and drinks. Be sure to plan your stay during one of the Snow Shows; dates and times are on the website. Other rinks in the city include the Southwest Rink at Park Tavern (adult-only skate begins at 8:30 on weekends) and Centennial Olympic Park.

Snow Mountain – Looking for an opportunity to “break the ice” with someone new? Snow Mountain is the place to do it! Take a spin on Avalanche Alley, a 400-foot tubing hill, and then cozy up for s’mores at Snow Fire Point. A Combo Pass will get you two-hours of tubing plus all the attractions of Stone Mountain Christmas including the Singalong Train, Summit Skyride, and the Snow Angel snowfall and fireworks.

lesliLesli Peterson is Georgia’s Destination Expert for Trekaroo and founder of 365 Atlanta Family. She is a homeschooling mom to 2 young boys and bonus mom to two teenagers. From her home base of Atlanta, Lesli spends her time life-learning with the kids one road-trip at a time, and sharing her experiences along the way. 

10 Holiday Light Displays Around Atlanta


‘Tis the season for sparkle and glitz, a time to pile into the car and tour the myriad light displays around Georgia. Below is a list of the 10 biggest and brightest displays in the Atlanta area. Fill the thermos with cocoa, and dig out the holiday tunes; let’s hit the road!

Garden Lights at Atlanta Botanical Garden (Nov. 16 – Jan. 4): This Garden Lights adventure ignites all of your senses! With more than 1 million lights, the garden is alive with seasonal spirit. Orchestral Orbs glow harmoniously with holiday tunes. S’mores on the Twinkling Terrace and treats from the Glow Bar taunt your taste buds. This year, colorful figures from Imaginary Worlds join the Ice Storm Trees and Poinsettia Tower. Listed in Forbes “10 Dazzling Light Displays Around the World,” you’ll want to buy your tickets early for this monumental event.

lake lanierMagical Nights of Lights at Lake Lanier (Nov. 15 – Dec. 31): Tune your MP3 player to Burl Ives, and drive six leisurely miles enjoying larger-than-life holiday light displays. Your adventure doesn’t end with the light show. Be sure to stop at the Holiday Village and enjoy ice skating, carnival rides, s’mores sticks and a few moments with Santa. Look for double coupon days in November, and fill the car with the entire family because tickets are by car and not by person.

Light Up the Holidays at Barnsley Resort (Nov. 30 – Dec. 30): Visitors (including those who are not staying overnight) are welcome to view more than 1 million lights and festive décor in the historic 1800s manor house ruins, surrounding gardens and English-style village. There is a small fee for the self-guided tour, but those with dinner reservations at one of the resort’s two onsite restaurants can tour the garden at no cost. For a truly special holiday experience, visitors can take advantage of the Light Up the Holidays promotion available for overnight stays from Nov. 30 – Dec. 30, 2013, with luxurious cottage accommodations and more.

Stone Mountain Christmas at Stone Mountain Park (Nov. 9 – Jan. 1): Two million lights, Christmas shows, Rudolph and Bumble create a night to remember. Don’t miss a five-mile excursion on the Singalong Christmas Train, featuring a satellite message from Santa’s elves and a track-side show, The Gift, about the very first Christmas. Be sure to grab a seat for the nightly Christmas Parade where you can see Santa and Mrs. Claus, and end your night with the magic of the Snow Angel flying high to create snow and fireworks.

rock cityEnchanted Garden of Lights at Rock City Gardens (Nov. 22 – Jan. 4): Although it is often associated with Chattanooga, did you know Rock City Gardens is actually in Georgia? Tour the gardens, aglow with more than 30 holiday scenes encompassing more than 1 million lights. Stop in the pavilion for nightly entertainment, gingerbread cookie decorating and warm fire pits. Special VIP tickets are available for Dinner with Santa and early garden entrance.

Global Winter Wonderland Atlanta at Turner Field (Nov. 21 – Jan. 5): Experience the transformation of Turner Field into a lantern festival and multicultural theme park. Debuting in Atlanta this year, illuminating lanterns as large as 50 feet tall and 100 feet wide depict landmarks from countries all over the globe. Families can delight in carnival rides and games, international dining options, live shows, and celebrations of holiday traditions and cultures from all over the globe. Single-entry or season passes are available, and prices include all rides and live entertainment.

Christmas at The Rock Ranch (Dec. 1 – Dec. 31): Guests to The Rock Ranch can cut their lights and slowly roll through the mile-long display of thousands of lights, all strung by volunteers and ranch hands of the property. Bring the family by Truett’s Barn for hot cocoa and apple cider, soups and other treats. Dec. 7 and 14, families can dine with Santa and pose for a keepsake.

Lights of Life at Life University (Nov. 29 – Dec. 31): Families are thrilled that the Light of Life show is back in Marietta after a brief hiatus. Priced by the carload, this light show is an affordable family excursion. Bring cash; no cards accepted. If you are looking for more than lights, visit on the weekend to ride a pony, take a turn on a mini Christmas train or pose with Santa. Concession wagons offer funnel cakes, s’mores platters, fried Snickers and more.

CAllawayFantasy in Lights at Callaway Gardens (Nov. 22 – Dec. 30): Bundle up and snuggle tight for a Jolly Trolley ride, or drive your own car through this award-winning display of more than 8 million lights. Each of the scenes are custom built for Callaway, taking more than 3,900 man-hours to complete. Inside the Christmas Village, visitors can purchase unique gifts from Georgia crafters or nibble on specialty treats. Make it a special time for the family with the Fantasy In Lights overnight packages, which include accommodations, entrance to the gardens, and a special loading area for the trolley.

Holiday in Lights at Centennial Olympic Park (Nov. 23 – Jan. 20): Each evening, visitors to downtown Atlanta can stroll in the 21-acre park, relishing thousands of lights that illuminate the cityscape. While you are there, take a spin on Atlanta’s only outdoor ice skating rink or enjoy a treat from Googie Burger. A tour of Centennial Park is the perfect nightcap to a day at Georgia Aquarium’s Festival of the SEAson.

lesliLesli Peterson is Georgia’s Destination Expert for Trekaroo and founder of 365 Atlanta Family. She is a homeschooling mom to 2 young boys and bonus mom to two teenagers. From her home base of Atlanta, Lesli spends her time life-learning with the kids one road-trip at a time, and sharing her experiences along the way. 


8 Holiday Train Adventures Around Georgia


Remember a train encircling your Christmas tree when you were growing up? My boys spend hours enjoying our steam engine that comes out each year with the mistletoe and stockings. Holiday train adventures around Georgia will help you relive those childhood memories. Hold on to your seat, we’re going for a ride!

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway – A visit with Santa is magical, especially when you’re headed through the mountains alongside the winding Toccoa River. A daytime ride is best for young children, lasting only an hour. It includes storytelling, caroling and a visit from Santa. Older kids (and adults) will enjoy the four-hour nighttime adventure to Santa’s Pavilion. Santa visits each of the vintage train cars, and guests stop in the border town of McCaysville/Copperhill for dining and shopping.

ABGAtlanta Botanical GardenGarden Lights, Holiday Nights is one of my favorite nighttime holiday treats, with millions of lights illuminating the downtown gardenscape. Holiday cheer continues during the day when visitors can enjoy a G-scale train and trolley winding through a mountain village town. The miniature metropolis is not the only train show; kids can enjoy a turn on The Botanical Express.

Stone Mountain ParkStone Mountain Christmas is an event for all your senses. See multiple live plays amidst 2 million sparkling holiday lights. Visit the Snow Angel in her palace or see Polar Express in 4D. End the evening with a parade featuring Santa, the Snow Angel and a fireworks extravaganza. If you ask me, though, the highlight is a ride on the Singalong Train. Carol with the other passengers along this five-mile route around the mountain. There is no extra charge; it’s included with admission!

pink pigMacy’s Pink Pig – This vintage train is enjoying more than 50 years in Atlanta. Once with Rich’s, then at Egleston’s Festival of Trees, it now sits rooftop at Lenox Mall. If you grew up in Atlanta, you probably rode this train as a child. Bring your kiddos to meet Priscilla and carry on this Atlanta tradition benefitting Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

The Southern Museum – Follow the City of Kennesaw’s Christmas celebrations with an evening at The Southern Museum’s Polar Express Adventure. A train conductor and hobo greet families as they enter the museum. Kids can make crafts, write letters to Santa and meet the Big Guy himself. Warm up with hot chocolate and take in the holiday-themed model train layout.

Southeastern Railway Museum – When Santa’s reindeer are taking a breather, you’ll find him at the Southeastern Railway Museum where he can pick from more than 90 pieces of railway equipment, all perfect for delivering presents. Mingle with Santa and his elves, make holiday crafts and take a ride with Santa at the museum. On select days in December, families can dine with Santa for breakfast or lunch and watch a unique showing of Polar Express.

SRMGeorgia State Railway Museum in Savannah – Don your jammies and head to the museum for a special evening with Santa. Ride the city’s steam engine, which is decked for Christmas, and meet a very special conductor. After the 30-minute ride, visit Santa, create holiday crafts and listen to a reading of The Polar Express. Leopold’s Ice Cream is there with hot chocolate and hot cocoa ice cream for sale.

SAM Shortline Excursion Train- Head to southwest Georgia for multiple holiday adventures on the 1949 vintage cars that are part of the Heart of Georgia Railroad. Rudolph’s Favorite is a relaxing ride into Cordele for a short layover. There, kids can play games, listen to music, hear the Polar Express story or hunt for Christmas gifts. The Bells Over Plains ride is longer and includes options for a special Santa lunch or a visit from one of Santa’s elves, complete with hot cocoa to warm your spirits.

lesliLesli Peterson is Georgia’s Destination Expert for Trekaroo and founder of 365 Atlanta Family. She is a homeschooling mom to 2 young boys and bonus mom to two teenagers. From her home base of Atlanta, Lesli spends her time life-learning with the kids one road-trip at a time, and sharing her experiences along the way.