21 things to see in Georgia in 2021. Bucket-list suggestions from around the state

Photo of Driftwood Beach: Explore Georgia

Travel bucket lists, by their nature, are arbitrary in number and subjective in content. That’s part of the fun, comparing differences and likenesses. With that in mind, here are 21 special places and annual events to consider for your travels through Georgia beyond the Atlanta metro area, with an eye toward warm-weather outdoor-based attractions and cultural activities during these extraordinary times. 

1. Alpine Helen 

Fifty-two years ago the town of Helen reimagined itself as a Bavarian village called Alpine Helen to draw more tourists to the North Georgia mountain town. The plan worked. Over the last half-century, the town has become an iconic tourism spot in the state. In warm weather months, visitors go tubing on the cool waters and gentle rapids of the Chattahoochee River flowing through the heart of the village. A newer attraction is the Georgia Mountain Coaster, an alpine coaster where riders control their own speed in individual cars. (Alpine Helen/White County Visitor Center, 726 Brucken Strasse, Helen. 800-858-8027, www.helenga.org) 

2. Amicalola Falls 

Pictures never do Amicalola Falls justice. It’s impossible to capture all 729 feet of the tumbling cascade ― Georgia’s highest waterfall ― in one shot. Even in person, you have to visit two different observation platforms at the top and bottom of the falls to see it all. A steep 604-step staircase runs alongside the falls providing even better views for those willing to make the climb. The easy .3-mile access trail leading to the lower observation platform is ADA accessible. (Amicalola Falls State Park, $5, 418 Amicalola Falls Road, Dawsonville. 706-344-1500, www.amicalolafallslodge.com) 

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3. Andalusia Farm 

In Milledgeville off a four-lane highway lined with car dealerships, chain hotels and big box stores, author Flannery O’Connor’s former home, Andalusia Farm, still stands as if gloriously stuck in time, untouched by nearby development. O’Connor called Andalusia home during her most fertile creative period between 1951 and her death in 1964. She penned many of her literary masterpieces here, including “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Wise Blood.” The house is open for limited-capacity guided tours, masks required. ($7, 2628 N. Columbia St., Milledgeville. 478-445-8722, www.gcsu.edu/andalusia) 

4. Barnsley Resort 

Visitors to this North Georgia countryside retreat on 3,000 acres come for outdoor recreation and luxurious accommodations set in an English manor-style village. The resort has upped its culinary program of late, an effort overseen by Executive Chef Nicolas Lebas, who has put his refined French spin on classic, locally sourced Southern fare at the Rice House, the resort’s fine-dining restaurant in a restored 19th-century farmhouse that reopens March 18. Lebas also oversees offerings at the newly renovated Woodland Grill and the open-air Beer Garden on the village green. While you’re there, check out the ruins of the circa 1840 manor house and restored formal gardens. (Lodging $219 and up. 597 Barnsley Gardens Road, Adairsville. 877-773-2447, www.barnsleyresort.com) 

5. Blue Ridge Scenic Railway 

Spring is a great time to ride the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway with its open-air, limited-capacity rail cars on a trip that follows the pastoral path of the northward-flowing Toccoa River to the Tennessee state line. The four-hour round-trip journey includes a two-hour layover to shop and dine in the sister towns of McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee, that straddle the state line. ($45, 241 Depot St., Blue Ridge. 877-413-8724, brscenic.com) 

6. Brasstown Bald 

A two-hour drive north of Atlanta, Brasstown Bald is Georgia’s highest point at 4,784-foot above sea level. Park at the visitor center below the summit and walk the steep but paved half-mile trail to the observation tower for 360-degree mountain views that include four states. On the southern horizon, you might even spot the Atlanta skyline on a clear day. In lieu of hiking the summit trail, a shuttle service operates when the visitor center is open from mid-March to December. But the trail and the observation tower are accessible year-round. Pack a lunch and enjoy the views while sitting at the picnic area. (Brasstown Bald Visitor Center, $3-$5, 2941 GA 180 Spur, Hiawassee. 706-896-2556, gofindoutdoors.org/brasstown-bald) 

7. Callaway Resort and Gardens 

Each spring, Callaway Resort and Gardens bursts with color. More than 20,000 azaleas play a starring role in this dazzling floral backdrop between early March and late April. Seven-hundred different varieties of the brightly hued plant grow throughout the 2,500-acre grounds. Don’t miss the trails leading through the Callaway Brothers Azalea Bowl, the Overlook Azalea Garden and the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center. Recreation opportunities abound at the resort, including hiking, biking, golf, tennis, a zipline course and water sports on small lakes. ($19.95, 17800 US 27, Pine Mountain. 844-512-3826, www.callawaygardens.com) 

8. Cumberland Island 

Cumberland Island National Seashore is the only designated national seashore along Georgia’s 110-mile stretch of Sea Island coast. Cumberland Island makes up 17 of those miles as the southernmost barrier island in the state. Home to a feral band of horses and the ruins of a Gilded Age mansion known as Dungeness that was once home to the Carnegies, the nearly 10,000-acre wilderness area on the island is a study in contrasts showing how a once inhabited place can become wild over a short period of time. Access is via ferry departing from St. Marys. (Ferry $30, departing from 113 St. Marys St. $10 park entry, 877-860-6787, www.cumberlandislandferry.com) 

9. Driftwood Beach 

A stretch of sand scattered with driftwood trees and limbs makes this primitive beach one of Georgia’s more unique and photogenic spots. Travelers come to this undeveloped strand at the northern end of Jekyll Island to gawk and stroll among the ancient weathered tree trunks and gnarled branches that look like works of environmental art. The best time to visit is at low tide when the beach is wide enough for a stroll. Even at high tide, it’s a surreal sight to see all that driftwood sticking out above the waterline. ($6 entry fee for Jekyll Island, free parking at beach access points on North Beachview Drive. Jekyll Island Information Center, 901 Downing Musgrove Causeway. 912-635-3636, www.jekyllisland.com) 

10. Georgia Mountain Fair 

Now in its 70th year, the Georgia Mountain Fair (Aug. 13-21) is a celebration of Southern Appalachian culture that includes a carnival midway, an arts and crafts village, and country, bluegrass and gospel musical acts. Highlights include the Pioneer Village, featuring a log cabin, smokehouse, one-room schoolhouse, barn and corn crib. There are also live demonstrations of corn milling, moonshine making, quilting and soap making. Performers this year include the Gatlin Brothers, Ronnie McDowell and T. Graham Brown. Two lakeside campgrounds are adjacent to the fairgrounds. ($12 and up, 1311 Music Hall Road, Hiawassee. 706-896-4191, georgiamountainfairgrounds.com) 

11. International Cherry Blossom Festival 

Celebrate the radiant arrival of spring among the pink and white blossoms of Macon’s 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees at the International Cherry Blossom Festival March 19-28. The city’s signature annual event is back after being sidelined by the pandemic last spring. Centered in and around Carolyn Crayton Park, all events and activities will occur outside with safety protocols in place. Enjoy music, amusement rides and food vendors. The March 21 parade will be live-streamed this year. ($5, 115 Willie Smokie Glover Drive, Macon. 478-330-7050, cherryblossom.com) 

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12. Jimmy Carter National Historical Park 

Visit sites associated with the 39th president of the United States, starting at Plains High School, which serves as the welcome center. Highlights include the Plains Depot, which served as Carter’s presidential campaign headquarters in 1976, and the Jimmy Carter Boyhood Farm in Archery, where he grew up. The farm is a fascinating site depicting what rural farm life was like in 1920s Georgia. (300 N. Bond St., Plains. 229-824-4104, www.nps.gov/jica) 

13. Okefenokee Swamp 

Stephen C. Foster State Park serves as an entry point into the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest intact freshwater ecosystems in the world. Paddle the wilderness canoe trails of the swamp by day and keep your eyes peeled for alligators, snakes, turtles, otters and ospreys. But keep your eyes peeled to the sky at night. The state park, one of Georgia’s most remote spots, has been certified as a gold-tier International Dark Sky Park, so expect sublime stargazing opportunities on clear nights. ($5, 17515 GA 177, Fargo. 912-637-5274, gastateparks.org/StephenCFoster) 

14. Paradise Garden 

The late visionary folk artist Howard Finster created one of Georgia’s more curious and impressionable roadside attractions at his home in Summerville known as Paradise Garden. Today his art environment, which encompasses intricately decorated structures and elaborate outdoor installations, is preserved by the Paradise Garden Foundation and open daily for self-guided tours. Better yet, stay overnight at one of the foundation’s Airbnb properties to enjoy unlimited access to the garden even at night. ($15, 200 N. Lewis St., Summerville. 706-808-0800, paradisegardenfoundation.org) 

15. Providence Canyon 

Known as “Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon,” Providence Canyon was formed due to poor farming practices by settlers in the 1800s. Over time the erosion caused by human folly turned into one of the state’s more eye-catching natural attractions. The canyon walls sport layers of orange, red, pinkish-purple and whitewashed sediment capped by a verdant forest. Providence Canyon State Park has trails leading from the visitor center to rim overlooks and the canyon floor. ($5, 8930 Canyon Road, Lumpkin. 229-838-6202, gastateparks.org/ProvidenceCanyon) 

16. Roosevelt’s Little White House 

Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II while spending a lot of time at his personal retreat in Warm Springs where he went to treat his polio condition in the natural hot springs. The small house he built of Georgia pine came to be known as “The Little White House.” It’s where the 32nd president died in 1945. Now a state historic site, the house has been preserved to look as it did on the day FDR passed. The Historic Pools Museum where polio suffers swam in the 88-degree water is currently closed for renovation and expected to reopen later this year. ($12, 401 Little White House Road, Warm Springs. 706-655-5870, gastateparks.org/LittleWhiteHouse) 

17. Savannah Music Festival 

Like most major festivals during the pandemic, the multi-genre Savannah Music Festival has been re-envisioned for 2021. Instead of early spring, it will take place May 18-30 mostly outdoors with some indoor performances, all with limited capacity and contact-free entry. Headline acts include Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. The event takes place at Trustee’s Garden. (660 E. Broughton St., Savannah 912-234-3378, www.savannahmusicfestival.org) 

18. The Serene 18 Paddle Trail 

Explore the wooded waterways of Columbia County’s new paddling trail that explores Clarks Hill Lake, the Savannah River and the Augusta Canal on four separate routes within a few miles of each other. The Augusta Canal route is the longest, running for seven miles through the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area. The shortest route, a 2.7-mile loop on the Savannah River, circles Stallings Island, home to free-roaming goats and donkeys that like to interact with the paddlers. (Columbia County Visitor Center. 3300 Evans-to-Locks Rd. Martinez. 866-391-7677, www.visitcolumbiacountyga.com/serene18-paddle-trail) 

19. Springer Opera House 

Columbus’ 150-year-old Springer Opera House stopped performances when the pandemic hit last spring, but this year it’s gearing back up in a newly configured, socially distanced outdoor amphitheater adjacent to the historic performing arts venue. “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Cotton Patch Gospel” kick off the Springer Outdoor Theatre Festival in March with five more productions, mostly musicals, planned throughout the season. Two new hotels ― AC Columbus Downtown and Hotel Indigo Columbus at Riverfront Place ― are within walking distance. Other attractions include the 22-mile Chattahoochee Riverwalk overlooking the world’s longest urban whitewater rafting course. (Springer Opera House, 103 10th St., Columbus. 706-327-3688, www.springeroperahouse.org) 

20. Tallulah Gorge 

At this North Georgia destination, instead of going up a mountain you descend into a deep river gorge. At Tallulah Gorge State Park, the gorge floor is accessed via a steep staircase leading nearly 1,000 feet down to the tumbling whitewater of the Tallulah River and includes a suspension bridge swinging 80 feet above the water. If you don’t want to make all that effort, easier rim trails lead to overlooks with views of one of the more spectacular canyons in the eastern United States. ($5, 338 Jane Hurt Yarn Drive, Tallulah Falls. 706-754-7981, gastateparks.org/TallulahGorge) 

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21. Wormsloe State Historic Site 

You’ve likely seen the entryway to Wormsloe State Historic Site in Savannah without realizing it. This oft-photographed avenue sheltered by the long limbs of overarching live oaks dripping Spanish moss has been featured in Hollywood movies, magazine ads and perhaps even the wedding photos of someone you know. The unpaved lane guides visitors to the tabby ruins of a colonial estate, the oldest standing remnants of Georgia’s first settlement. Stroll along a nature trail through the marsh, view artifacts found onsite in the museum and enjoy demonstrations by costumed interpreters. ($10, 7601 Skidaway Road, 912-353-3023, gastateparks.org/Wormsloe)

Blake Guthrie