By Bob Difley
Instead of taking the more direct route from the Savannah River border with South Carolina to the St. Marys River on its border with Florida, you can choose a more leisurely 112-mile road tour down Georgia’s low-lying coast, enjoying the state’s natural beauty, its wild and scenic spots, as well as its colorful past spanning almost 500 years of American history.
Explore the historic Civil War forts of Pulaski, McAllister, and Jackson, or follow the Georgia Birding Trail to the best birdwatching sites. Hike nature trails at Ft. McAllister and Skidaway Island State Park, and view wildlife at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Climb to the top of the Tybee Island lighthouse, or squeeze into the smallest church in America that seats only 12 people.
But first, you have to exit Interstate 95, the main north-south route along the coast, and where better to turn off the Interstate than at the queen of the south, the elegant and gracious Savannah.
But tarry here only if you wish to be seduced by beguiling Savannah’s southern hospitality and charm, for she requires a story of her own. Instead, turn east from I-95 onto I-16, then take exit 35 and follow US 80, east through the center of Savannah and 18 miles out the other side toward Tybee Island and Fort Pulaski.
Though just a small barrier island, a three-mile-long beach backed by sea oat-blanketed dunes spreads out before you like a welcoming mat to the Atlantic Ocean. The imposing and dominant black-and-white Tybee Island Lighthouse, built in 1773, stretches dramatically into the sky – and 178 steps!
Nearby Fort Pulaski (on Hwy. 80 just west of the island) draws military history buffs as well as naturalists to its uplands and marshes that support a variety of wildlife typical of barrier islands. The Union Army’s use of the new rifled cannon against Fort Pulaski in April of 1862 during the Civil War proved its range, accuracy, and destruction would doom the traditional brick fortifications. Such forts became instantly obsolete.
At Skidaway Island State Park you could spend hours exploring its miles of nature trails, and the campground provides an excuse to stay longer, as does the campground at Fort McAllister State Historic Park just east of Richmond Hill. Here you can explore the old Civil War earthen fort, that successfully protected Savannah from Yankee incursions up the Ogeechee River until General Sherman showed up on his last stop on his March-To-The-Sea from Atlanta. If your timing is right, you can be a part of a re-enactment of life during the war. Nature trails wind through the forest and along lowland waterways providing good birding and wildlife watching.
Colonial Coast Birding Trail
Three-quarters of all the species of birds found in Georgia – more than 300 species – have been seen at the 18 designated sites along the birding trail. Drifting south again, follow I-95’s parallel route, scenic Highway 17, or turn off at Exit 76 where a kiosk provides information to the Historic Liberty Trail, a driving tour linking historic sites and natural areas.
Giant live oaks shade the graves of 1200 fallen war heroes in the cemetery at Midway Church, built in 1756 and rebuilt in 1792 after being burned during the Revolutionary War. In nearby South Newport (just south of I-95 exit 12 on Hwy. 17) watch for the smallest church in America (when it was built in 1950). This still active chapel measures 10×15 feet and has a tiny pulpit and pews that will hold 12 people.
Just after Hwy. 17 crosses I-95, turn west to Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge for a look at Georgia’s wildlife where you will find alligators basking in the sun, wading birds searching the shallows for a tasty meal, and nesting platforms that have attracted wood storks back to the Georgia coast.
The Georgia lowlands are perfect for paddling — canoes or kayaks — which can be rented to explore the area’s rivers and tidal creeks, as well as the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve natural area.
The Golden Isles
Lying just east of Brunswick along the Intracoastal Waterway lie four barrier islands — St. Simons, Sea, Little St. Simons, and Jekyll — known as the Golden Isles for their mild weather and natural beauty. Separating the Atlantic Ocean from the mainland, the labyrinth of marshlands, meandering rivers and small islands teem with fish, birds and wildlife.
This virtual tour is far from complete, but will give you an idea of what you can find along the historic, scenic and hospitable Georgia Coast.
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