Trekking the Southwest: Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon

Written By: Brian Cooke

Georgia’s landscapes have a way of surprising us: the ice-covered slopes of Brasstown Bald in winter, the pitch-black skies above Okefenokee Swamp, the windblown dunes stacked on barrier islands. Maybe the most surprising of all are the white, orange, red and even purple-hued walls that drop 150 feet below your feet in the pine forests of Providence Canyon. Outside of the desert Southwest, this is the only place you’ll find it: Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon. These painted walls make Providence Canyon one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders. 

The publicity that those appellations bring has been a boon to visitation. Public Affairs Coordinator Kim Hatcher and Assistant Park Manager Alison Powell also see social media as a driving force behind the growth in visitation at Providence Canyon. Millennials especially, they say, are making the trek to the photogenic 1,000-plus-acre park in rural Stewart County near Columbus. 

“People are seeing their friends’ photos [of Providence Canyon] online, and they want to visit to see it for themselves,” explains Hatcher. 

The truth is that the area wasn’t always so popular. 

The southwestern portion of Georgia has been largely agricultural since the 1800s, when settlers were ceded land from the Creek inhabitants. Across much of Georgia during that period, poor, unregulated and intensive farming practices led to soil erosion. Providence Canyon underwent deforestation coupled with acute human use, intensifying erosion and turning natural gullies into steep-walled canyons. Amplifying erosion’s impact at Providence Canyon is the soft sediment underlying the entire Coastal Plain region of Georgia. Some erosion, Powell likes to remind visitors, is natural and still occurs today, albeit on a smaller scale than when heedless human exploits formed the canyon. Protection within the Georgia state parks system ensures that erosion in the canyon will now be limited to natural forces and hiking boots.

First-timers visiting the park should start at the newly remodeled visitor center, where interpretive displays highlight the geology, human history, flora and fauna of the park. A new sitting area incorporated into the building encourages visitors to stay and relax and even have a picnic as they enjoy the views. 

Peering out from the canyon rim is a must. Good vantage points can be reached by heading clockwise from the visitor center on the white-blazed 2.5-mile Canyon Loop Trail. It can be tempting to edge closer and closer to the canyon rim for the perfect photograph, but Hatcher likes to “encourage people to respect the trails and … stay behind the barriers.” 

For the full effect of the landscape, continue below the canyon rim and add a couple of miles to your trek by exploring the side trails into nine of the 16 canyons. As the canyons narrow, hikers get an up-close view of the colorful walls and all the history they hold. But don’t climb the walls, says Powell. They aren’t solid rock like other canyons, so they can crumble under too much pressure. Rather than climb the walls, gain a unique understanding of their geology by visiting Providence Canyon during “Geology Days” events.

For a full-day hike more akin to strenuous north Georgia treks, tack 7 miles on via the Backcountry Trail. The path circles the creeks, which collect and wash sediment from Providence Canyon out to sea. It’s on this trail that you’ll find peace and quiet on busy weekends at the park, and in summer you may find the rare native plumleaf azalea. Don’t underestimate the hiking conditions. It’s sandy, sometimes wet and often hot.

Once you’re back at the trailhead, you’re a quarter of the way closer to being a part of the popular Canyon Climbers Club. This Georgia State Parks program provides an incentive to be active, personal satisfaction and bragging rights. 

Extend your stay into the night by planning your trip when the park is offering the “Astronomy Nights” event, which is hosted by Columbus State University’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center. Being “in the middle of nowhere,” says Powell, means that Providence Canyon is a “very dark area.” The stargazing opportunities are so good that Powell hopes to have the park dark-sky certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. 

While Northeast Georgia may call you back to a favorite trail, secret waterfall or local mountaintop, a quick trip to Providence Canyon is a reminder of the surprises scattered across the whole state.  

Providence Canyon Outdoor Recreation Area

8930 Canyon Road

Lumpkin

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