Ready for a family-friendly adventure combining a little history, kayaking, biking, great camping and good eating?
At roughly two-and-a-half hours and 126 miles northwest of Savannah, you can rent bikes and kayaks — or bring your own! — paddle and pedal the Augusta Canal and then dream sweetly at Wildwood Park campground.
The excursion begins at Savannah Rapids Park, home of the historic canal’s head gates, and continues south about seven lazy water miles into Lake Olmstead. I invited a small group of friends to share the experience. We paddled roughly three hours, taking in the canal’s stillness, delighting in its sunning turtles and occasional slithering water snake. For much of it, we were the only kayaks on the water.
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The Augusta Canal, designated in 1996 as a National Heritage Area, was built in 1845 as water source, transportation, and industrial power for the city. After its completion, saw and gristmills lined the canal, providing a steady economic base for the region.
During the Civil War, the waterway was crucial in supplying the Confederate Army with ammunition and war materials. Afterwards, textile mills and industry took hold, and by 1892, Augusta, basking in its burgeoning wealth, was the first Southern city to have electric streetcars and street lighting thanks to the canal’s hydropower.
Today, the Augusta Canal continues as municipal water source, and it’s many biking and walking trails offer great mini-outdoor getaways adjacent to the city. Plus it’s an intact reminder of the mark and history of early industry on the Savannah River.
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At Lake Olmstead, we rendezvoused with our outfitter, Savannah Rapids Kayak Rental, and loaded our boats onto their trailer. The outfitter also brought bikes for us to continue into Augusta, but since we embarked on this adventure on what would be the hottest day of the year so far — 100 degrees with 106-degree heat index — my pals were not at all inclined toward the bikes. They opted instead for the air-conditioned van back to the park where they grabbed their vehicles and drove into Augusta to reconvene for lunch.
But I took the bike and rode about three miles into downtown where we met at Whiskey Bar. We were starving. And the food was good, especially the house-made edamame hummus. What’s more, every burger on the menu can be prepared vegetarian.
If you have a hankering for one, definitely try the TCB (veggie or conventional), hunka-hunka burning homage to The King — a burger with peanut butter, banana, bacon and some kind of added maple-honey sweetness. The perfect post-paddle indulgence.
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Afterwards, we parted ways, but I lingered downtown to window-shop before getting back on the bike. If you’re into music and guitars, 440 Instruments is a must-see. It’s across the street and one block over from Whiskey Bar, locally-owned, and sells new and used instruments that cheerful salespeople gladly let you plug in and play.
But as much as I wanted to spend the afternoon playing Gibsons and Fenders in air-conditioned bliss, there was no more delaying the inevitable. I had to get back on the bike and back to Savannah Rapids Park before the outfitter closed at 6 pm
And let’s just say the more than 8 mile ride back was an exercise in being kind to my body. I felt every searing digit of that 106-degree heat index, had to go slowly, and take multiple water breaks. But it was beautiful. At times, I pedaled along an elevated towpath between the languid Augusta Canal and broad and swift-moving Savannah River. Other times, I rode over shaded bridges and through emerald forest thickets.
After returning the bike, I drove about twenty minutes to Wildwood Park campground. Originally, the plan was to reserve a Timberline Glamping Tent for my friends and me to stay in, but these were already booked well in advance of summer.
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The glamping tents are really cool — literally. In addition to fans and air conditioning, they come with different sleeping configurations. Some have a queen-sized bed and bunk beds — great for families with young children — and others are just big enough to accommodate two people.
Each glamping tent also comes with a mini-fridge, coffee maker, a deck and two hammocks all overlooking beautiful Clarks Hill Lake. And they’re reasonably priced: $140 to $160 per night during high season and $130 to $150 in low season.
Primitive camping is only $15 per night, and these sites, near the glamping tents, also offer grand views of the lake and tall pines. As much as I love sleeping in my little red tent, the glamping tents are the way to go in summer. That night, the warm earth released all that heat of the day and kept the humid night air stiflingly hot around me. There was no breeze.
Oh, what I would have given to have had one of those glamping tent fans!
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Paddling the canal, biking, and camping — plus taking in a little of downtown Augusta — offers a little something for everyone in spite of the heat. For Savannah and Coastal Georgia locals, attempting this adventure in the gut of summer is likely not the best timing, especially if you’re camping.
In fact, chatting with other campers and rangers, it seems optimum time for this otherwise super fun undertaking is anytime late September through the end of October.
So, next time, it’ll be a spooky-fun Halloween adventure for my friends and me to beat the heat.