Even fun and funky Athens can sometimes feel like a sprawling grid of stoplights, fast food outlets and endless stretches of asphalt. We had just that feeling when my friend picked me up to go to Watson Mill Bridge State Park, just outside of Comer, and a mere 20 miles away from downtown Athens. Road trip!
Getting There: The fastest route is Highway 72. But then my friend said, “Let’s take the slow way,” and she described a route that goes from Cherokee Road near Winterville by the airport, then east on Beaverdam, a loping, curving, easy drive. Travel past the small farms and the unexpected, banal subdivisions, the acres of green corn and hay, and on past the strangely ornate gates that suggest opulent and out-of-place estates that are invisible from the country road. It’s an unreeling of images that you don’t see every day: the Southern countryside, with all of its vegetative chaos dancing occasionally with pristine agricultural or suburban order, its mailboxes, outbuildings and barking dogs for whom a passing car must be something of a novelty.
But soon, only 20 minutes or so down this brief meditation, and after obeying the well-modulated suggestions of the GPS, we arrived at Watson Mill Bridge State Park. When you park, use the available envelopes to insert your $5 contribution into the box, and place your hangtag on your rear-view mirror.
History: An early owner of the Watson Mill land harnessed the abundant hydroelectric energy of the south fork of the Broad River to power a mill complex, providing electricity for a grain mill, blacksmith shop, community store and even a hotel. These structures are mostly gone or in ruins, but the 229-foot-long bridge is by far the most interesting surviving element, spanning the river at the dam near a series of cataracts now used principally as thrilling water slides by young visitors.
Noted covered-bridge builder Washington King built the bridge in 1885. King’s father, Horace King, a slave who was freed before the Civil War, was also well known for his many covered bridges, and is referred to by the New Georgia Encyclopedia as “the most respected bridge builder in west Georgia, Alabama and Northeast Mississippi from the 1830s until the 1880s.” The bridge features the “town lattice” truss design that fastens wood supports with hefty wooden pins. Engineering types can pause while crossing the bridge to look at the arrangement of pins attaching the hundreds of stout wood lattice slats. The park was commissioned in 1971 after the owners donated the land to the state. Last year, almost 200,000 visitors came to Watson Mill Bridge State Park.
Things to Do: At 1,100 acres, the park is big and offers lots of activities. A map of the park shows a web of 14 miles of trails for hiking, bicycling and riding horses.
The highlight, though, is certainly the wide river tumbling over smooth, slippery rocks just beyond the dam and the bridge. During our trip to the park, virtually every visitor was either splashing around in the cool, fast-moving water or lounging on the shore. While there is no sandy beach, there are lots of warm rocks along the shore to perch on. Nearby picnic areas were busy, but for a very pleasant Saturday afternoon, there was plenty of room for everyone.
We also walked along a trail to see the ruins of the old power station. The trail wanders along what appears to be a fairly stagnant canal that leads up to a sharp drop-off, at which point the water furiously falls at least 20 feet with a good roar.
The park offers numerous nicely wooded campsites as well, including several equestrian “buddy campsites” with horse stalls. For more information, visit gastateparks.org/WatsonMillBridge.
Feed Me: After all that fun, you might want to stop at nearby Maggie’s Café just off Highway 72 in Comer for a very good diner-style lunch. We were dressed about as casually as we ever are, and no one raised an eyebrow.
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