Camping at Georgia State Parks

first time camper program Ga

My boys and I love to camp. I’ve been a camper my whole life and I’ve taken my own sons camping since they were babies. It comes quite naturally to us since none of us has never known a life without the thrill of living in a tent, cooking over a fire, and falling asleep in a cozy sleeping bag to the sounds of crickets chirping.

It’s a wonderful adventure for kids and adults alike. We get the benefits of being outdoors non-stop as well as the chance to explore our lovely state without breaking the bank. But for those who aren’t experienced, getting started can be intimidating and costly.

FirstTime-Camper-adjustedThat’s why Georgia State Parks began the First-Time Campers Program in 2012. Now beginning it’s 3rd year, the program has helped almost 200 families discover the joys of camping. Through this program, new campers get a chance to try a new outdoor adventure with the help of a ranger and without making a big investment in equipment.

The First-Time Campers program is available at eight parks throughout the state and for $50, you will be set up to camp for 2 nights with a tent, chairs, stove, sleeping pads, roasting forks, and a lantern. Of course, you’ll need to provide your personal items and bedding but you’ll get a handy checklist to make sure you’ve got everything you need for a great first experience. The best part of this program is that a park ranger will help you set up and provide some Camping 101 tips to get you on your way as a camping family.

This program is a easy way to get started on outdoor adventures, especially since Georgia State Parks campgrounds are quite comfortable. Campsites are equipped with picnic tables, fire rings and grills, as well as electrical and water hook-ups. Plus the campgrounds themselves have bathrooms, showers, and playgrounds, among many other amenities. Most parks even sell some basic supplies, just in case you’ve forgotten something. This includes locally-supplied firewood since transporting firewood is not allowed for the sake of minimizing foreign pest invasions.

Mistletoe State Park in Appling, Georgia.

Mistletoe State Park in Appling, Georgia.

Campsites in Georgia State Parks typically run about $25 per night, give or take a few dollars, so at this price you’re essentially getting your equipment rental for free thanks to some generous program sponsors. The First Time Campers program is a tremendous value in and of itself, but camping in general is one of the most cost-effective ways to travel and vacation.

And beyond the budget-friendly nature of camping, your can’t put a price on the experience itself. Participants of the program so far have been amazed by all of the new adventures they’ve had at our state parks including hiking, geocaching, wildlife viewing, ranger-led programs, cooking over a fire, kayaking, biking, and even wagon rides. The rangers have gotten great compliments on their friendliness, helpfulness, and pre-camping instructions, making first-time campers feel welcome and comfortable.

Cloudland Canyon State Park in Rising Fawn, Georgia.

Cloudland Canyon State Park in Rising Fawn, Georgia.

Many first-time campers loved the family time and meeting new people. Those are certainly two of the perks that have always embraced in my love of camping. But whether you bring friends, make new ones, or simply enjoy the company of your family, camping together creates incredible bonds that will keep you coming back for more.

For more information on the First-Time Campers Program, visit the Georgia State Parks website. Happy camping!



ValJoinerVal Joiner is an outdoor and educational travel blogger based in Roswell, GA. The former geologist turned road-schooling mom chronicles her adventures at Val In Real Life. When Val isn’t on the road with her two boys, she can frequently be found honing her Southern Appalachian Naturalist skills in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Love Stories of Oakland Cemetery

February is a time for love. Candy hearts and boxes of chocolates fill store shelves. Valentine’s dinner reservations are made. You take a trip to the cemetery.

Yes, the cemetery. Atlanta’s Historic Oakland Cemetery is full of love stories. Oakland is the final resting place of nearly 70,000 people, and almost all of them loved — or were loved by — someone. Here are just a couple of the stories.

Clyde and Clara Belle King

Clyde and Clara BelleClyde King owned the Atlanta Plow Company, later known as the King Plow Company, which is now the site of an arts community and performing arts venue. He and his wife Clara Belle lived in a lovely home at 1010 Ponce De Leon Avenue. Clara Belle loved that house so much that she wanted to be buried in the back yard. City ordinances prevented the burial at her home, but Clyde had a plan.

Clyde so loved his wife that he commissioned a monument replicating the house so that she could lie forever in its shadow. Though the street number has changed — it is now 1386 Ponce De Leon Avenue — the house still stands, as does this monument to Clara Belle.

Photo Credit: Bob King

Photo Credit: Bob King

Marion and Sarah Kiser

This love story actually began at Oakland. Marion Kiser was one of Atlanta’s most prosperous businessmen. He is interred in his mausoleum with his three wives. His first wife, Octavia, died in 1873 when she was only 34, and Marion quickly remarried, choosing Hessie Scott, who was not yet 20. Unfortunately, she also passed away in her mid-30s, making Marion a widower for the second time. And that’s when the Oakland romance bloomed. Marion was there, paying his respects to both former wives, when he met Sarah Turner Ivy, a widow who was visiting the grave of her deceased husband, Michael. They began courting, he soon proposed marriage, and she accepted, though she had a request that could have been a deal breaker. Sarah made it quite clear that she would not share the mausoleum with his first two wives unless her first husband was also there!

Marion agreed and had Michael Ivy’s remains moved. The mausoleum walls must hear some interesting conversations!

These people lived, laughed and loved just like we do now. Join us as we share these stories and many more on our “Love Stories of Oakland” tour. Led by our costumed docent, the tours will be offered Sunday, Feb. 9; Friday, Feb. 14; and Saturday, Feb. 15, at 5 p.m. Tours are $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors. No reservations required.

HOF logoHistoric Oakland Foundation, founded in 1976, partners with the City of Atlanta to preserve, restore, enhance, and share Oakland Cemetery with the public as an important cultural resource and an island of tranquility in the heart of the city. For more information on our tours, events, and opportunities to give please visit our website at 

Hidden Heart at Fort Mountain State Park


Just two hours north of Atlanta is a gorgeous state park with a romantic twist.  Fort Mountain State Park may be best known for its mysterious rock wall, but only those with a keen eye will find its heart-shaped stone. It’s the perfect Valentine’s Day destination for active couples.

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps was tasked with building a 38-foot fire tower atop Fort Mountain.  A young stone mason named Arnold Bailey led the team while missing his sweetheart back home.  To show his love, he carved a heart-shaped stone and centered it above a window.  His romantic gesture must have won Margaret Reece’s heart, because they were married 59 years until his death in 1994.

Today, park visitors can hike lush mountain trails to where the fire tower still stands.  Along the way, they’ll pass an ancient stone wall with an unknown origin.  (Be sure to read about the “moon-eyed people” theory!)  Eighty years later, the historic fire tower is still the perfect spot for stealing a kiss.

Fort Mountain State Park is also a popular destination for weekend getaways and longer vacations.  Fully equipped cabins have lake or forest views, while a campground offers hot showers and cozy campfires.  The park features 14 miles of trails, ranging from an easy lake loop to a challenging backcountry trek.  Mountain bikers can show off their skills on some of the top singletrack in Georgia.  During summer, guests can also enjoy a sandy swimming beach and boat rentals at the small lake.

Click here or call 706-422-1932 to learn more about this 3,712-acre park near Chatsworth.  Fort Mountain State Park is open daily and parking is just $5.

Kim HatcherKim Hatcher is the Public Affairs Coordinator for Georgia’s State Parks and Historic Sites.  She works with numerous reporters and travel writers, manages the park system’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and serves as a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.  She and her husband enjoy camping, hiking, paddling and exploring Georgia’s great outdoors.

Fan Photo Friday

Submit your Georgia photos for the chance to be featured:

Snow on the Chattooga River in Rabun County. Photo by Kevin Croom. Submitted via Facebook.

Snow on the Chattooga River in Rabun County. Photo by Kevin Croom. Submitted via Facebook.

Snow on the Stone Mountain grist mill. Photo by Gornton Tulog. Submitted via Flickr.

Snow on the Stone Mountain grist mill. Photo by Gornton Tulog. Submitted via Flickr.

Sunset at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Photo by @suzer1013. Submitted via Instagram.

Sunset at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Photo by @suzer1013. Submitted via Instagram.


Kid-Friendly Restaurants Around Atlanta

15 kid friendly restaurants atlanta

One can only take so many “McLunches” or 24-foot pizza buffets before dining out becomes a listless and unsatisfying experience. If you have kids, or dine with them frequently, then you know what I mean. Guess what? You don’t have to sacrifice any longer! With the help of my boys, I rounded up 15 restaurants where the food is delicious and the whole family is welcome. Better yet, these restaurants are not chains (although a few have multiple locations). They are all Georgia-based, with local owners who believe family-nights out deserve tasty food and a welcoming atmosphere.

Yeah! Burger – When we first ate at Yeah! Burger in Midtown, I had no idea what a great story they told – only that the burger was fabulous, grass-fed, and that there were plenty of gluten-free options for our family. Their commitment to using local ingredients and sustainable practices has made our family “regulars.” I love the Triple B bison burger with a kale salad. Kids can pick burgers, hot dogs, chicken and more with healthy organic sides.

2014-01-16 13.45.52Mary Mac’s Tea Room – Mary Mac’s has been serving “a meat and two sides” Southern style since 1945. The staff serves up genuine Southern hospitality and down-home cooking. Meatloaf, fried chicken, baked fish, and so much more, with over 30 different side choices mean you never have to eat the same thing twice. Grilled cheese, chicken legs, and other Southern staples round out the kids’ menu. Don’t forget to bring home a tin of cinnamon buns for breakfast.

Palookaville – Gourmet corndogs. You heard me! If the taste doesn’t tell you, then the retro toys and circus poster décor give it away: It’s circus food! Palookaville serves up corndogs, hotdogs and pork burgers using creative techniques you won’t find in other places. Try the Corndogolusa or the Midway – Italian sausage with grilled onions, peppers and garlic on French bread. Fries come cheesed, onioned, peppered, poutined, pastramied….or all of the above. While the kids are selecting dessert from the soda fountain (including 1890’s egg cream… mmmmm,) mom and dad can belly up to the bar for an “adult milkshake.”

The Fickle Pickle – Don’t let the charming Victorian house fool you – kids are welcome here. They can even eat free on select weekdays. Come for sandwiches at lunch or burgers I the evening. I’m a sucker for the Reuben, and my boys love the PB&J with oranges. Order your meal at the counter and then head to the patio. The large space with giant trees exudes a picnic atmosphere the kids will enjoy.

Blue Moon PizzaBlue Moon Pizza is about quality pizza, a casual atmosphere and affordable prices. They pride themselves on an excellent dough and fresh ingredients. Aside from the classics, try the Jerk Chicken pizza with cayenne-candied bacon, or the Santa Fe with chicken, spicy ranch, avocado, black beans and red onions. Too tired to eat-in? Try any specialty pizza as “Take-n-Bake,” for cooking at home in the oven or grill. Kids can try pizza or chicken fingers and fries, and the meal comes with a drink and scoop of ice cream.

DakotaBlueDakota BlueThis neighborhood gem is unassuming from the outside. OK, I’ll be honest: It looks a little like a dive bar. But Dakota Blue is exactly the place I want to be on a Friday night with my hubby and the kids, and another family. The kiddos can play in the corner at the toy area, and the adults can unwind with a beer and fish tacos. This is a neighborhood pub that understands “neighborhoods” usually have kids. There is a full kids’ menu, and my boys devoured the burger and fries.

The Varsity – Is it cliche? Maybe. That doesn’t stop it from being delicious and kid-tastic. For 75 years, The Varsity has perfected burgers, hotdogs and fried pies. I always order the same thing: Chili-cheese-slaw dog, rings and an F.O. (that’s Varsity-speak for the Frosted Orange.) You’ll want your fried peach pie with ice cream; there are 16 flavors, all homemade. They might not see your little one over the tall counter, so be sure to tell them you need a cook’s hat. Somehow, these headpieces always made the fries taste better.

Chick a Biddy – In connection with Atlanta’s famous Bantam + Biddy, Chick-a-Biddy serves farm-fresh chicken and sides for families at Atlantic Station. There are chicken sandwiches, chicken and waffles, chicken burgers and more. Personally, I dig the Thai chili and peanut wings with sweet potato fries. Kids can nibble on hefty portions of chicken tenders, chicken sandwich, chicken quesadilla or veggie plate. Each comes with a side and organic juice or milk.

Osteria 832Osteria 832 Pasta and PizzaLocated in the heart of Virginia-Highlands, this neighborhood staple bustles with children during the early dinner hour. Fresh and made-to-order Italian specialties include pastas, parmigianas, pizzas and more. Kids’ options are only $4, which includes a drink. With selections like grilled cheese, spaghetti, or (the much beloved) mac & cheese, you can’t go wrong. Get a Karma card for kids-eat-free opportunities and to help spread the HomeGrown commitment to local neighborhoods.

Verde Taqueria – Hit this place before 7 p.m. and the plethora of strollers out front hints to the family atmosphere. There are salads and quesadillas, but one really comes here for the tacos (and a drink.) Try the pulled pork taco with homemade BBQ sauce or the buffalo shrimp taco with jalapeno ranch. For under $3, kids can try a quesadilla, fish or chicken with tater tots.

Doc Chey’s Noodle House – Doc Chey’s, another HomeGrown Restaurant, serves family-friendly Chinese that is healthy and delicious. Feel good knowing your little one is eating fresh veggies with no MSG. My little man inhaled his stir-fry with a fork in one hand and his kid-friendly chopsticks in the other. Don’t forget your Karma card for kids-eat-free opportunities, but at only $5 a plate for kids’ meals, eating here is always affordable.

AmmazzaEssential Italian imports plus local meat and produce amount to an amazing wood-fired pie in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. There is Margherita and Ammazzare with Italian sausage and three white pizzas, but the Inferno calls my name: spicy sopressata, mozzarella, Calabria peppers and basil. Mmmm. Glitter pizza (yes, I said glitter!) is on the kids’ menu, and while they are waiting, pick up an Etch-A-Sketch from the bucket up front.

Downwind Restaurant and Lounge – Dubbed “Best Kid Friendly Restaurant” in Atlanta by AOL City Guide for six years in a row, Downwind is the perfect place for families. Grab a bite and see the planes fly in and out of DeKalb Peachtree Airport through the large picture windows overlooking the runway. There are hot and cold sandwiches, dinner entrees like blackened chicken or country fried steak, and several Greek specialties.  Friday evening after 7 p.m., the place becomes “adult-only,” but any other time you will find America’s future pilots daydreaming over French fries.

food trucksAtlanta Food Truck Park – Take three acres, which used to be an old hotel site, add about 15 food trucks at any given time, and a series of farm-fresh artisan vendors, and you’ve got an explosion of mouth-watering goodness. Pick BBQ or Mexican, Indian or Irish, and everything in between. The food trucks are serving street grub year-round, but we love to come in summer. Near the free parking area is a greenspace complete with a playground and plenty of picnic room, which matches perfectly with a treat from King of Pops. Come hungry!

Farm Burger –Grass-fed burgers from local farmers using human practices, and it comes through in every bite. The prices are easy to swallow, too, especially for locally raised, hormone-free beef. For lunch, pick a burger, fries and a drink for $8.50 (I fancy the Number 4 with smoked Gouda, sherry-date BBQ, and kale slaw.) Kids meals are $4, which includes a drink, and consist of chicken, grilled cheese, a burger, or mac & cheese. And since you were so good, why not indulge on a milkshake like the salted caramel or pumpkin pie?

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.