Backpacking: Providence Canyon

My husband and I are signed up to go on an REI Adventures backpacking trip in Yosemite in August. It is clearly listed that it is not a beginning backpacking trip. I’ve been backpacking before, but it was probably over 15 years ago. We both own the proper equipment, but we both felt we needed to get a few trips under our belts before embarking on this trip in Yosemite. Thankfully, we both owned backpacks (although mine was from when I was a Girl Scout – about 20 years ago) and his was from 14+ years ago… I lucked out and found a nice, REI pack on their outlet site and snagged it for under $100.

My pack

Even after gathering our basic supplies, we still needed to pick a spot for our first trip, so I began to research our options. In my research process, I found Providence Canyon state park – a place I’d wanted to visit for many years because of the unique geographical features. I figured the backpacking trail would give us cool and unique views of the canyon, so we set our sites on the park and began to plan our trip – we would go on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend – 2011.

Providence Canyon

A few days before the trip, I checked the weather and saw that the temps would range from the upper 60’s (at night) to the mid-90’s during the day. Knowing that my husband does not do well with hot, humid conditions, I offered him the chance to back out. I’m from Louisiana – I was born & raised in hot, humid conditions. I’m wired for that kind of weather – he is not. If the heat is too bad, he will become ill, so keeping him hydrated was very important. I should also mention that there is no water source on this trail, so you must pack in all of your water, which adds a good amount of weight to your pack.

Our campsite reservation was for Saturday evening and it was about a 3 hour drive to the park from Atlanta. We set out mid-morning on Saturday and had a nice, leisurely drive down to South Georgia. Once we reached Columbus, I was surprised to see that we were driving through Fort Benning. It was neat to be driving through an Army base, especially when we passed the area where a bunch of tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers were stored. It was around this point in the trip that I noted that we were running low on fuel. There were a ton of gas stations near Columbus, but after we hit Fort Benning, fueling opportunities dried up pretty quickly. I figured we would find some place between Ft. Benning and the park. Yeah, right. We exited the fort and found ourselves in a very remote area of the state – more remote than I thought Georgia was capable of. I literally did not see 1 gas station in the 40 miles between Fort Benning and Providence Canyon State Park. I was starting to get worried and it was at this point that I told the husband – “We better take good pictures, because I’m surely as hell not coming back out here again. We are in the middle of nowhere.”

I was very thankful that we were in our most fuel efficient car (and not our truck) or we’d have run out of fuel by this point.  We arrived at the park and asked at the check in station where the nearest gas station was located – then immediately made a u-turn and headed in that direction. This is when we stumbled upon the small town of Lumpkin, GA. I will write about our experience in Lumpkin as I have more to share than I can write about right now, but it is clearly a small town struggling to stay alive. It seems to have a rich history and it’s sad to see a town like that die off – it’s all too common these days.

A quick word to the wise if you’re reading this post in preparation for a trip to Providence Canyon, fuel up before you leave Columbus because gas stations are few and far between once you pass that point in the trip.

When we returned to the park, we found a nice, shady spot near a picnic area with overlooks. Knowing that the park is no longer fully staffed and is technically now a State Recreation area, I figured this was the old interpretive center. I should have studied the map more closely. So, we set off from this point in the park – on to the trail – we kept seeing signs saying the trail to the bottom of the canyon began behind the interpretive center. Thinking we parked at the interpretive center, I kept looking for the trail. It was only about 1/2 mile later, that we happened upon the interpretive center – and the trail to the bottom of the canyon. We found the after hours check-in station there and even though we had checked in at the entrance to the park, I picked up the envelope with my name on it and read the instructions. They instructed us where to park our cars – the guy at the check in station was not specific about where we should park, but being the rule follower that I am, I hiked back up to the car and moved it to the designated area, while my husband took a break under a shady tree. It was really hot and I was already worried about him getting dehydrated.

After moving the car, we quickly found the trail to the bottom of the canyon and started our descent to the canyon floor. This isn’t a large canyon – only about 150 feet deep (from what I recall reading in my research before our trip) and the trail was about 1/4 mile down to the bottom  – via various switchbacks. We reached the bottom of the canyon to find a sandy, red creek bed with a small amount of water flow. As we hiked along the creek bed – the beginning of the red blazed “backcountry” trail where the backpacking sites were located – I was surprised to encounter a good deal of tree cover over the trail. It was at this point that my husband uttered “This would be an ideal habitat for wild boar”. Not something to say to put your wife’s mind at ease about hiking out there. So, I started fretting about running in to a wild boar. Thankfully, we avoided any wild boar on this trip, but the thought of seeing one never left my mind.

creek bed

The red, sandy creek bed at the bottom of the canyon

The trail along the creek bed was sandy and mostly wet, but there were dry patches of sand. This continued for the first mile or two. Then the trail crossed the creek via a bridge and the geography changed to woodlands with a dirt surface and the trail began to climb. At the top of the first large hill, we were surprised to arrive at campsite #6 – the first of the backcountry sites – it was complete with a shelter and fire ring. The shelter (and a bridge we’d passed earlier on the trail) were projects completed by a local Boy Scouts.

Eagle Bridge - over the creek bed - when the trail begins to climb back up to the canyon

Shelter at Campsite #6

Shortly after passing Site #6, we encountered the side trail to Site #5 – it’s located a short hike from the main path and it is a large site with a nice sized fire ring. It was still early in the day, so we looked around and decided to check out sites #3 & 4 before making our decision on which site would be best for us. Site #4 had a hollowed out tree that just gave me the creeps and both sites 3 and 4 were located right next to the main trail, so we backtracked and set up camp at site #5 – a nice, large, private site. We weren’t there long when we realized we had some resident pets at the site. A small group of lizards called the rocks around the campfire ring home. There was one who was particularly rotund.

Site #5

The hollowed out tree at Site #4 that gave me the heebie jeebies

One of the lizards living in the fire pit

The husband got to work setting up our hammocks – yes, we packed in our hammocks and we were so glad that we did. The site, especially where we ended up setting up the tent – was overrun with ticks. We found two just on the tent and ground tarp before we were done setting up the entire tent. In addition to the ticks, there was a plethora of flying insects – including some of the stinging variety – a bee and a wasp. I was not amused with the frequency of their visits. Usually, these bugs don’t bother me and if you leave them alone, they will move on to other things, but these guys were particularly persistent and successfully annoyed me all afternoon.  If you’d like to torture someone, I suggest putting their head in a box with flying insects – that will send them over the edge pretty quickly, I am sure.

The husband reading his Kindle in his hammock

Even though we were in an area with good tree cover, it was still very hot and humid. We relaxed in the hammocks – we still had a good 5-6 hours of daylight left and plenty of time to kill. We hung our food bag and I tried to nap in the hammock a bit. We made dinner – freeze dried beef stroganoff. I had astronaut ice cream for dessert. I would describe it as tasting and having the consistency of a butter dinner mint, with some marshmallow added in. It was odd and okay, but not awesome. The stroganoff was surprisingly tasty.

Cooking Dinner (boiling water)

Mint Chocolate Chip Astronaut Ice Cream

Shortly after dinner, I retreated to the tent for relief from the flying bugs. It didn’t take the husband long to join me and we had a relatively peaceful night of sleep until I woke up around 1AM to the sound of what I reasoned must be a critter carrying off some of our gear. It sounded like someone raking leaves or dragging a pack through the forest. Our packs were hung up, out of reach from critters. The food bag was safely up in a tree and our hammocks required dis-assembly that I didn’t think was possible by a critter in the woods. I woke up the husband so he could do the manly thing and defend me against whatever critter was invading our camp. We were both surprised to find the culprits – two nice sized armadillos walking through our site, about 2 feet away from our tent. They stopped briefly when my husband shined the insanely bright flashlight on them, but they just looked at us as if to say “Yeah, so what?” and continued on their merry way through the forest.

Our tent - a Big Agnes Seedhouse that I picked up on REI Outlet

Needless to say, I was surprised to see armadillo out there, if you would have surveyed me to ask what wildlife animal we’d see out on our backpacking adventure, an armadillo would have never made the list. I can honestly say that other than seeing them dead by the road, I’d never seen a live armadillo in the wild up until this trip.

We woke up the next morning, eager to get on the trail. We made coffee and started to break down camp. I had my fancy (and HEAVY) coffee cup/french press combo mug and the husband had his little coffee filter utensil. The french press clearly made better coffee, but I mis-measured the amount of grounds to include, so it was crazy strong. We had trail mix for breakfast, finished packing up and got on the trail by 8:30.

On our way out, we passed another couple packing up at Site #3 and saw another tent on Site #2. The trail had some elevation changes and I was surprised to see a few glimpses of the canyon from the trail as we proceeded back toward the park’s developed areas. The views were nice, but I didn’t feel as though they offered any better of a vantage point than the overlooks near the main picnic area / pavilion of the park. The only difference was that the vantage points from the backcountry trail didn’t have fencing, so you could go right up to the edge of the canyon. This worried my husband as I kept creeping closer to the edge to get a good shot of the canyon and he kept reminding me not to get too close.

One of the views of the canyons from the backcountry trail

If you are planning a trip to the park and plan on hiking the backcountry trail to see views of the canyon that most do not get to see from the 2.5 mile Canyon Loop trail, I would advise you that there are only two or three good vantage points from which to view the canyon from above. Most of the trail is your typical backcountry, heavily wooded trail. Even though the canyon is geographically unique, it is located in a heavily wooded area with dense pines, which obstruct wide-sweeping views of the canyon.

The intersection of the backcountry trail and the Canyon Loop trail

We were surprised to encounter the intersection of the white blaze trail (the canyon loop trail) after about an hour of hiking. The sign estimated that the 7 mile loop should take about 4 hours to hike – we did in a little over 2 hours. I was surprised we were hiking that quickly.

At the trail intersection, we opted to go left vs. right – which is the route indicated to return to the interpretive center. We chose to go left so that we could hike into the canyons from the creek beds and see more of the unique geological features of the park. After hiking into a few canyons, I was disappointed with the views.

View from one of the canyon trails

Providence Canyon can’t really be compared to the Grand Canyon. It was formed as a result of poor land management and farming practices. From what I understand, the property was clear cut of all trees and vegetation and began to quickly erode. The land does still have quite a bit of tree cover, though, so you do not get the same wide-sweeping views of the canyon like you do with the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The individual canyons are reached by following creek beds up into the canyon area – the creek beds are wet, sandy and usually shaded by dense vegetation. I was surprised not to find any snakes while hiking through the creed beds. The creek bed would eventually lead into the canyon and you would get a small glimpse of the canyon formations. Each canyon was different, but we found many of the paths difficult to navigate with a full sized backpack on as they can get quite narrow and hikers frequently encounter low hanging vegetation.

The creek bed leading into one of the canyons

We opted to end our journey into the rest of the canyons and head back to the car. We climbed the 1/4 mile trail back up to the interpretive center and were so happy to drop our packs at the car. After washing up a bit in the bathroom – it felt so good to wash the salt and dirt off of my face – and clean the red sandy mud from my legs. We set off to explore the tiny town of Lumpkin and to take a few pictures. Not knowing where this adventure will lead us…certainly not where we expected it to… (to be continued)…

Here’s a great map of the Providence Canyon park, with more detail than the standard map you’ll get when you check in.

View all photos from our trip here

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