Most weeks these days I drive out to the ARK off Highway 121 in Hilliard to volunteer and I have now explored every possible way to get there and home again. Along the way, I’ve found many interesting sights to share with you. If you too want to spend a day in the countryside check out Google Maps to see the places I am describing.
An interesting route is to drive north on Highway 17, east on Highway 108, and on to Highway 121; all are quiet roads through the countryside usually without much traffic beyond the occasional log truck. This route takes you past the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center, which monitors air traffic that covers parts of five states: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina, and then goes through the small town of Hilliard, with its schools, library and country homes.
Once you are on Highway 121 head south and you will get to Connor’s A-maze-ing Acres a country theme park with farm animals, a corn maze, kids rides and much more all happening at their Fall Festival Sept. 30 to Oct. 28. It’s a fun place for everyone, a real celebration of the autumn season here.
From there I like to go a bit further south then cross the St. Marys River to St. George, Georgia. For a close-up view of the river cross the bridge and take the dirt road to the left and you will find a local swimming and fishing spot, and a boat ramp. But even without these activities, the view is still stunning.
From St. George, it is not far to the eastern entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). There are enough activities available there to spend a day what with the Visitor Center, boat rides, kayaks and canoes available for rent, and trails to hike or bike on. I’ve done all these many times, but these days I am content to just slowly drive the five-mile swamp loop road looking for the birds, gators, butterflies, and wildflowers that are most always evident there. I recently visited right after an afternoon rainstorm that stirred up some of the residents. I happily photographed a box turtle with a strange damaged carapace at the edge of the road and watched a large multi-colored fox squirrel bolt across and up a nearby tree. Another time I cautiously watched a mother gator protecting her two offspring. There’s always something to make this drive worthwhile.
In Folkston if I have time I also stop at the Railroad Park beside the tracks in the center of town. This busy track funnels the train traffic heading to Florida from points north and a cult of people wait at this platform listening to the radio broadcasts of conversations between train engineers and looking to spot new trains and cars for their life lists.
But then comes the dilemma. It’s been a few hours of exploration and I’m hungry. Where do I have lunch? I’m sure there are many choices but mine always alternate between two: the Okefenokee Restaurant in Folkston, where a bountiful buffet of Southern comfort food awaits, or, if I drive home via Kingsland I can feast on country-fried steak, fried chicken and home-made desserts at Steffens Restaurant on Highway 17.
All along this route, there are country sights to ponder. Large expanses of pine forests alternate with pastures of cattle, country homes, many small churches and the occasional field of crops. Depending on the season the roadsides bloom with different varieties of wildflowers and sometimes I’ll just pull over somewhere to photograph the butterflies these attract.
I look forward to these trips to the country—a fine way to spend a day in an air-conditioned car listening to Spotify podcasts and music while I see the sights. It’s a welcome relief from the hubbub that is Fernandina Beach. Give it a try!
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected].