Georgia Family Road Trip

Two parents and two kids. Three days and nearly 600 miles. One big adventure.

The journey begins

My husband Wilson and I grew up in Georgia. It’s where we met and where we bought our first home. We now live a state away with our daughters Lydie, four, and Ellis, seven months, and we want to take them back for a vacation. But getting ready for a road trip with children feels like preparing for battle -- pack light, be prepared for anything. Still, some things are worth fighting for, like instilling a sense of adventure in our children.

And so we go. We’ll begin in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains and end with our toes in the Atlantic Ocean. There will be horseback rides, zip lines, and water parks. We’ll touch snakes, dig for crabs, talk about the Civil War, and read maps (the paper kind). We’ll celebrate the natural wonders and rich history of Georgia, and in the end, our memories will be as packed as our Volvo station wagon. And … we’re off. 

Merrell McGinness is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga. When she’s not burning up the asphalt, she’s penning food, travel, and local-interest articles for regional and local publications. Follow her craziest odyssey to date (motherhood) at her personal blog,

  • Day 1
  • Day 2
  • Day 3
  • Northeast Georgia Mountains to Lake Lanier

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  • Lake Lanier to Augusta

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  • Augusta to Tybee Island

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Northeast Georgia Mountains to Lake Lanier

We begin at the Dillard House Inn & Restaurant in the north Georgia mountains, a sprawling destination that has hosted road-weary travelers such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Walt Disney since 1917. It has waterfalls, vineyards, mountain biking, and rafting, but we’ve come for the horseback riding. The trail winds through thick forests and rolling green meadows; for more than half the ride, my horse is knee-deep in the river. Afterward we take the horse-drawn carriage to lunch, where our table is piled high with fried chicken, collards, and divinely smoked chicken and ribs. We adore the strawberry preserves, which Lydie licks from the bowl with her fingers. “The strawberries here are like grapes to California … they’re unlike anything you’ve tasted,” fourth-generation operator John Dillard tells us.

Our bellies full, we head south to Lula to check out North Georgia Canopy Tours - Georgia's Ultimate Zip Line. We meet owner Kirk Watkins at Canopy Command Center, a converted chicken coop that once housed 80,000 birds. Today it’s humans who fly through the air here. While I zip nearly 700 feet above Hilltop Pond, my children and husband hang back to tour the 100-acre property, which has a championship disc golf course, teepees with bunk beds and air conditioning, and even a box turtle named Chippy.

We end our day at Lanier Islands. Against a backdrop of cotton-ball clouds, sparkling water, and manicured lawns, the amenities call to us (golf! fishing! massage!) but the loudest one says, water park! We cool our heels at LanierWorld at Lake Lanier Islands’ Kiddie Lagoon, where our children’s smiles are as broad as the white-sand beach in the distance. That night, as we indulge in prime rib and crab legs at the resort’s land-and-sea buffet, we look over the balcony at people lounging in Adirondack chairs around a fire pit and have to remind ourselves we’re only 45 minutes from Atlanta. 

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Lake Lanier to Augusta

Our morning starts on the back patio of our villa watching pine trees sway around a sparkling lake. After a few moments of serenity, we pack our kiddie accoutrements and head for a hearty breakfast at the LanierWorld at Lake Lanier Islands’ Windows Restaurant.

State Road 20 takes us to Covington, where more than 60 movies and TV series are filmed, many commemorated in the sidewalk around its Little Hollywood Square. A wine tasting at the upscale Cork Boutique beckons, but the town’s Willy Wonka-esque shop, Scoops, wins us over with walls of candy, ice cream, and gourmet coffee. With eyes as wide as saucers, Lydie opts for the double chocolate chip cone. Wilson and I stick to coffee and tea. Ellis is just happy to escape her car seat.

Sweet tooths sated, we venture east to charming Madison. After soaking in the antebellum architecture of South Main, we peruse the modern designs at downtown’s Laughing Moon boutique and Barkin’ Dogs Shoe Co. 

Highway 441 takes us deeper into Georgia’s past. Among the pecan groves and rolling farmland of Putnam County rests Rock Eagle Effigy, an archeological site estimated to be 2,000 years old. The county is also home to the Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton, a tribute to local author Joel Chandler Harris and his 185 stories about “de critters” like Brer Rabbit. Appropriately, our docent’s name is Georgia, and she animatedly brings each display to life.

Of course, we can’t be near Greensboro’s The Yesterday Cafe and not sample their famous buttermilk pie. One bite and I know why country star Carrie Underwood ordered 300 for her wedding.

We end our day in Augusta, passing the historic mansions of Walton Way en route to The Partridge Inn. The “Grand Hotel of the Classic South” boasts more than a quarter mile of verandahs and balconies wrapping its bright yellow facade. We wash off the road with a dip in their courtyard pool, then head downtown to The Bee’s Knees. A tapas restaurant with global influences, it serves swoon-worthy sweet potato hummus, pad thai, and Avocado Chop Chop (an oven-baked avocado topped with Japanese aioli). Afterward, we settle our supper with a stroll down Broad Street, America’s second-widest main street.

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Augusta to Tybee Island

Thirsty for a caffeine infusion, we start the day at Augusta’s offbeat New Moon Cafe, sampling their made-from-scratch bagels and craft-roasted coffee. Next up is Enterprise Mill, a revitalized 19th-century textile mill that is now headquarters for the Augusta Canal Petersburg Boat Tours. We climb aboard the largest electric boat in the country just as the morning breeze lifts the blanket of summer air. Our guide points out swamp rose mallows, stinkpot turtles, a Civil War ammunition factory, and a unique spillway (the canal still provides hydroelectric power to several businesses, including the canal office).

We drift back to the dock, then point our car south for Statesboro. Lunch is at The Clubhouse, a 42,000-square-foot bowling alley, arcade, and restaurant. After eating and exploring, it takes every trick in the parenting playbook to pry our children away, but Statesboro has one more treat in store: Georgia Southern’s Center for Wildlife Education. The Wildlife Center, helmed by Master Falconer Steve Hein, welcomes nearly 18,000 visitors a year. “No one had any idea what this would become, least of all me,” says Hein as he holds up a king snake. When he graduates to the eight-foot red-tailed boa, my daughter pulls its tail as if it’s our Yellow Lab. Then she fearlessly pokes the three-inch Madagascar hissing cockroaches. I’m infinitely more comfortable with the birds of prey, marveling as a Eurasian owl flaunts its six-foot wingspan.

We venture farther down I-16, sandy plains giving way to palmettos as we near our final destination: Tybee Island. At the island’s northernmost beach, we meet Dr. Joe Richardson for a Tybee Beach Ecology Trip. He explains that Tybee is located in an overlap between cold-water and tropical species, making it a marine-biology hot spot. “I don’t know any other East Coast beach that can compare,” he says. A retired marine science professor, he describes in detail each sea creature we discover with our trowels and nets. By the end, our buckets are full of coastal treasures — and we’re hungry for some seafood.

At Tybee’s The Crab Shack, we’re greeted with totem poles, taxidermied fish, and tourists tossing food into the live gator lagoon. We sit on the expansive back deck, live oaks popping through the floor to form a leafy ceiling, basket lights swaying from their branches. As we feast on crab legs and crawfish, I reflect on the past three days. I’m grateful my family decided to take this trip and that we survived the crucible of station-wagon travel. I’m thankful we gave our children an experience no classroom or iPad could ever touch. Family trips will always bring out the best and worst in us. But I’ve learned that traveling with children is a lot like having them -- if you wait for the perfect time, it may never happen.

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