Where in the world could you go to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s rarest plumleaf azaleas alongside ancient magnolias or even trumpet creepers?
What’s more … turkeys are part of this wild and stunning community in addition to cottontail rabbits and white tailed deer. You may even catch a glimpse of the red fox if your trip occurs in early morning or near day’s end.
More than that, if your timing is precise (and maybe the stars are aligned) you could witness the live birth of identical quadruplet armadillos.
It’s a place not far from your own back yard … nestled into the Chattahoochee River watershed below the fall line where ancient prehistoric oceans once flowed.
Providence Canyon State Park boasts sixteen canyons (some a mile across and up to 150 feet deep), and it’s roughly 40 minutes from Columbus in Lumpkin, Ga.
For the most part, it’s considered a geological wonder and attracts geology and environmental science students from everywhere. Dr. Bill Frazier introduced me to this surprising wonder some 30 years ago in Columbus State University’s Geology of Georgia Class.
Some locals refer to it as the Little Grand Canyon because of the pink, orange, red, and purple hues of its soft soils. Even so, it remains mostly dissimilar to the Grand Canyon, whose gargantuan canyons took millions of years for the Colorado River to chisel out.
It was a different process that would etch the face of Providence Canyon over the past 200 years. Those who “worked the land” in the early 1800s (before plowing had become an art), would encourage and promote the course of action which eventually created the canyon we see today.
Geologists can read a prehistoric history captured in Providence Canyon’s kaleidoscope of sedimentary layers ... some 43 soil shades in pinks, peach, gray, chalky white, salmon, yellows, tan, and lavender … all tell a story of flowing waters, climate changes, weathering, physical changes, abrasion and dissolution of earthy materials
Clues to Earth’s past are found all around the world. In fact, deep within the polar ice caps, scientists drill out core samples from polar ice and read them like log books that tell of Earth’s atmospheric and surface conditions long ago.
Cutting through pieces of time, Providence Canyon exposes gritty deposits from tens of millions of years (give or take a few thousand) belonging to the late Cretaceous and early Tertiary geologic time periods of Georgia’s southwestern coastal plain.
The deepest of the “ditches” is 150 feet.
It wasn’t always this way … the deep canyons are a rather recent phenomenon and to ‘unearth’ how they got here we must journey back in time.
Below Georgia’s fall line, enormous amounts of sediments collect over millions of years as rivers transport eroded sand and clay particles from ancient mountains to river bottoms and shallow seas. Prehistoric oceans recede and layers of sediments are exposed as dry land in what is now called the coastal plain and it covers some 60 percent of Georgia.
Physical conditions changed abruptly in the early 1800s in the Providence Canyon region. Forests are chopped down to cultivate cotton and other cash producing crops. Misguided farming practices initiate the erosion process. Plowing straight down hills (instead of around them …by contour plowing) forms rows which become ditches...then gullies and eventually canyons.
Here’s how it progressed over time.
In the early 1800s, the top layer of soil (called the Clayton Formation) washes away and deep gullies rapidly erode in the softer sands of the underlying soil (called the Providence Formation).
By 1850 gullies reach down vertically some 3 to 5 feet deep and the inevitable erosion is out of control.
Nonetheless, even though vertical erosion between 1955-1968 is some 6 feet per year, this rate slows from 1968-1976 to a rate of 2 feet per year.
What’s going on? What slows the vertical erosion process after some 200 years? Why doesn’t it continue at its same unimpeded rate?
The answer rests in the clays that lie beneath the Providence Formation’s softer, more easily erodible sands.
Taking a little over 200 years to carve the deep canyons of Providence, erosion ultimately reaches the canyon floor’s more erosion-resistant soil layer (called the Perote member, it is fine-grained and not as permeable as the overlying sandy Providence Formation). Renewed vegetation -- pines, laurel bushes and other plant life -- also slows the erosion process.
Like a kitchen sink’s basin, the canyon bottom collects the loosened soil (washed by rain onto the creek bed) where it eventually travels via Grass Creek to the Chattahoochee River and finally into the Gulf of Mexico. This final process is increasing the canyons’ lateral erosion.
Sixteen canyons (up to 150 feet deep) dominate the landscape … some a mile long and 300 feet across.
You can dig deeper into the Providence Canyon story on March 22 with Paul Sutter. He’s a wonderful storyteller and will explain why and how Providence Canyon and its famous soils became a park. Paul is an author (“Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South”) as well as professor of history at University of Colorado, Boulder.
The Coalition for Sound Growth and Columbus State University are co-sponsoring Professor Sutter March 22 at 6:30 PM at the Main Columbus Library on Macon Road in the library auditorium on the 1st floor. The event is free of charge.
At the Spencer Environmental Center in downtown Columbus on 12th St, Coalition for Sound Growth, strives (among many other things), to recognize and preserve regional archaeological, geological and historical resources throughout the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers’ watershed and region.
Carole Rutland, former executive director of Riverway South, is coordinator for the Coalition for Sound Growth; coalitionforsoundgrowth.weebly.com.