May 31, 2017

Are We There Yet? Easy and Fun Summer Day Trips for Families

Kiddie Dope

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Babyland General Hospital

The Magic Crystal Tree, where Cabbage Patch Kids are born, is not creepy at all.

One of the ways summer scares me is in its lack of schedule—the sleeping in, the different camps, the late nights because the sun doesn't set until 9 p.m. What's regular about summer is its irregularity.

Which is why, when I was home full-time with my daughter, I enjoyed planning road trips every so often to give us something to look forward to. Luckily, we live within driving distance of several kid-friendly spots that can be educational, good for explorers or simply fun. Knowing you're going to make it a day trip means you can pack a picnic and plan to spend the bulk of the day out of the house—something that becomes a welcome relief when you're sunburned from the pool and tired of looking at your messy living room.

After years of exploring around North Georgia—some for work, some for fun—here are some of my favorite spots to take the kids for the day.

Neighbor Up North: Believe it or not, there are several spots in rural Jackson County that are great for a road trip with the kids. You can start your day at the Shields-Ethridge Farm, a working farm not far off U.S. 129 that shows what life was like in Georgia starting in the 18th Century. (Call ahead to make a tour reservation; the farm is open 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Monday–Thursday; 706-367-2949.) From there, head to Jefferson City Park (1217 Bryanwood Dr., Jefferson) for a picnic and the chance to let your kids run wild/narrowly escape death on a playground that features what might be one of the last spinning "wheels." (I have no idea what it's called; it's a ride where you sit while a friend spins you, and the centrifugal force pulls you out to the edge.) From here, if you're still looking to ramble, head to Hurricane Shoals Park (416 Hurricane Shoals Road, Maysville), where you can explore antebellum buildings and the North Oconee River, and even play some miniature golf.

Speaking of Old-Timey: If you're willing to venture a bit further, another magical part of the state centers around Sautee and Nacoochee. You can get there in a little over an hour from Athens, and when you get to Sautee, head first to Stovall Bridge (12 Rau Road). You can park and walk to the sweet little covered bridge that's over a creek. From there, you can stop at the Old Sautee Store for penny candy and some fun with an old player piano, or check out the pottery at the Sautee Nacoochee Center. Make sure you head down the road to Nacoochee, where you can check out the Nacoochee Indian Mound, one of the oldest archaeological sites in Georgia.

If you have time or are feeling adventurous, you can head north from Nacoochee to Helen, where there are lots of (more expensive) things to do. If it's particularly hot, you can go tubing in the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River (highly recommended, unless it's a weekend, when everyone and their brother from Atlanta turns the river into a natural version of a packed Disney ride). There is also a dollhouse shop and miniature train display, which features lights that turn off and on as the room moves from morning to night. I'm a sucker for model trains.

From the Patch: Another gem of a North Georgia oddity is Babyland General Hospital, located in Cleveland. Known as the birthplace of Cabbage Patch Kids, up until recently the hospital was an actual former hospital—it was located in a small building on the south side of Cleveland. But several years ago, Cabbage Patch founder (farmer?) Xavier Roberts built a new "hospital" on a hill north of the town. It looks more like a white-columned mansion than a hospital, but the effect is the same: elaborate displays of soft-sculpture dolls, rooms where your child completes the "adoption" process and a tree that grows crystals, under which dolls are, uh, born. I've watched the birthing process twice now—once in the original hospital and once in the new one—and I will avoid the spoilers. I will remind you that you would have probably been the envy of your entire elementary school if you had been able to experience this, so if you haven't made the pilgrimage to this place, you should probably do it—even if you have no interest in collecting Cabbage Patch dolls anymore. (As a side note, the Country Bake Shoppe, which you pass on your way to Babyland, is worth the stop.)

Tallulah Gorge: For a day trip that will definitely wear the kids out, head to the northeast part of the state to visit Tallulah Gorge State Park. My daughter has made the hike to the bottom of the gorge twice—once as a baby in a carrier, and once with some friends. So from my own personal experience, this is a great trip for when your kids are old enough to take on some serious hiking or small enough to get carried along and not care—as long as you don't mind the long trek back up.

As a final road trip note, it's also fun to just invest in a Georgia road atlas and sit down with your kids to look at the small towns, and just pick a spot. See what the town looks like from the map's perspective and then visit in person—and compare your thoughts to reality. There are a lot of fun small towns around North Georgia (and some towns that no longer exist, but for some old buildings). With any luck, these rambling trips can help add some structure to your summer.