The golden rule of road-tripping is never take the interstate when far more interesting places await along back roads. And with that rule in mind, if the journey matters more than the destination, consider the stretch of U.S. 27 that winds through Georgia.
The four-lane, mostly rural highway is a throwback to the golden days of road travel when no one was in a hurry, seeing the countryside was a pastime and roadside stands selling boiled peanuts, peaches and pumpkins, depending on the season, beckoned frequent stops.
U.S. 27 begins in Fort Wayne, Ind., and meanders southward through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia before crossing through Florida’s heartland to end near Miami’s fabled beaches.
The 350-mile stretch through west Georgia is called Georgia’s Scenic Hometown Highway (a.k.a. Dixie Highway, as are its cousins, U.S. 1 and U.S. 41). In Georgia, U.S. 27 begins just south of Chattanooga in tiny Rossville and ends near Attapulgus.
Traveling north from the Florida line, the land rises higher and higher in elevation as acres of kudzu, scores of country churches and a half-dozen or so town squares pass in and out of view. And then there are the sights along the way, those curious, one-of-a-kind backroad amusements that demand a closer look. Here are a few you’ll find along the way.
Bainbridge is a small town on the banks of the Flint River surrounded by horse and cattle farms, vast pecan plantations and fragrant peach orchards. Oak-shaded Willis Square is among the prettiest town squares along U.S. 27 and is anchored by a venerable statue of an unnamed Confederate soldier. A stroll around the square reveals a mélange of antique shops, historic homes and churches – more than 40 locations are listed on the National Register of Historic Places – and local cafes such as the Bean Cafe and Port City Deli. The rows of brick and pastel buildings are reminiscent of Charleston’s Rainbow Row.
Just north of Bainbridge, a huge 23-foot red oak carving of a Native American welcomes visitors to the town of Colquitt. Carved in 1973 by Hungarian-born artist Peter Wolf Toth, who created similar sculptures in all 50 states, the “Whispering Giant” is a nod to the Seminole and Creek Native Americans who once roamed these lands. Take a driving tour and find the 15 or so hand-painted murals around town based on stories of “Swamp Gravy” (www.SwampGravy.com), Georgia’s official state folk play that depicts the early days of Miller County and southwest Georgia.
Columbus marks the halfway point on U.S. 27, and it’s a great stopping off place for an overnight stay or a bite to eat. For lunch try Minnie’s Uptown Restaurant (104 8th St., 706-322-2766, 10:45 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday-Friday). The simple, nondescript meat-and-three cafe is where the locals eat and is known for its creamy mac-and-cheese and fried chicken. And for a big, carb-loaded breakfast, two words: Ruth Ann’s Restaurant (941 Veteran’s Parkway, 706-221-2154, www.ruthannsrestaurant.net, 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday). This restaurant is all about grits and gravy and all that goes with it.
If you’ve been cramped up in the car too long and need to get some exercise, walk, bike or bird-watch along the 15-mile length of the Chattahoochee River Walk that meanders past the river and downtown. Nearby is the National Infantry Museum (1775 Legacy Way, www.nationalinfantrymuseum.org) and National Civil War Naval Museum (1002 Victory Drive, www.portcolumbus.org) for anyone with an interest in military history.
The Fall Line
North of Columbus, Harris County straddles the Fall Line (a.k.a. Gnat Line) that divides Georgia between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. Several scenic overlooks mark U.S. 27 here, offering expansive views of the landscape where the pines of south Georgia give way to the hardwood trees of middle Georgia.
The must-see of Harris County is Callaway Gardens (17800 U.S. 27, Pine Mountain, www.callawaygardens.com), one of Georgia’s largest and best-known gardens and resorts. Its thousands of acres are crammed with a bazillion flowers, plus golf courses and nature trails.
Plan to stop at the Biblical History Center (130 Gordon Commercial Drive, explorationsinantiquity.net), where you’ll think you’ve stepped into the pages of the New Testament. Or maybe the Old. But it is realistic enough to feel as if you’re visiting Israel of 2,000 years ago, all the while without leaving Georgia or needing a passport.
Carrollton and Cedartown
Carrollton is a small town at heart, but there are loads of big things to do. Visiting downtown Carrollton, with its mix of old and new restaurants and shops, is like going on safari. You just never know what lies around the next corner – like wolves. Not real wolves, but a smattering of vividly painted life-size statues all over town. According to Jonathan Dorsey, executive director of the Carrollton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the wolves represent the University of West Georgia athletic team.
“There are six of them around town, and it’s called the Howl for UWG project,” he said. “The inspiration for them came from the Cows on Parade art project several years ago.”
A few blocks from U.S. 27 is Cedar Town Camp (301 Wissahickon Ave., Cedartown, 770-748-3220, www.nps.gov), a national park and the site of a Cherokee Removal Camp, a sobering reminder of the forced march of the Cherokee from Georgia to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
Like its counterpart in Italy, Rome is surrounded by seven hills. And in this hilly landscape lie the Oostanaula and Etowah rivers, each lacing through downtown, then melding together to form the Coosa River. It’s a good spot for a repast and the options are plenty. Try Harvest Moon (234 Broad St, Rome, 706-292-0099, myharvestmooncafe.com, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday) for fried catfish and Honeymoon Bakery (228 Broad St., (706) 232-0611, honeymoonbakery.com, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday) for cupcakes.
Just north of Rome is the 27,000-acre campus of Berry College (2277 Martha Berry Hwy. NW, Mt. Berry, www.berry.edu). Wildlife thrives undisturbed here, including vast herds of whitetail deer and bald eagles. Visitors are welcome to drive through the campus or go hiking, biking or horseback riding.
If you have a couple hours to spare, pay a visit to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden (200 N. Lewis St., www.ParadiseGardenFoundation.org), a sprawling, environmental art installation and the life’s work of the late, visionary folk artist whose work graced the album covers of artists including R.E.M. and the Talking Heads.
End of the line
Straddling the Georgia-Tennessee state line is Lookout Mountain, and when you see it looming over the horizon you know you’re approaching the end of your journey. But first, a stop is recommended at the Chickamauga Battlefield (3370 LaFayette Road, Fort Oglethorpe, www.NPS.gov/chch) at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. It is a paradox that such a peaceful, pastoral place was once the site of war and bloodshed. Rows of cannons and monument after monument stand as testaments to one of the largest Confederate victories of the Civil War.