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Geology Day Hike at Providence Canyon in Lumpkin
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From the Feb. 26, 2014 issue of The Journal
By Richard Harris
Providence Canyon State Recreation Area in Stewart County is open to visitors year round, but a couple of times per year the site offers a special Geology Day Hike, which is guided by Rich McWilliams, a retired geology professor who has studied the “Little Grand Canyon” extensively through the years.
McWilliams leads hikers down into the canyon while giving them a walking geology lesson, which allows them to not only experience the beauty of the 150-foot tall walls, but also to learn about how they formed.
“The hike was extremely informative and simplified for someone who doesn’t know a lot about canyons and how they are formed,” said Kim Long of Buena Vista, who was one of the hikers.
Fellow hiker Bethany Howard, also of Buena Vista, was there with her 10-year-old son Colby and she said they both learned a lot.
“Professor McWilliams provided a lot of information in an interesting, laid-back way,” she said. “As a teacher, I personally feel it would be beneficial for kids, especially in elementary school and sixth grade to visit the canyon, as it reinforces and allows them to experience and explore various stages of the rock cycle, weathering, and other earth science standards.”
While the hike can be a bit tough in places, Long and Howard both said it wasn’t too bad and was well worth the effort.
“I never felt overwhelmed by the hike and the park was beautifully maintained,” said Howard.
According to Professor McWilliams, the “groundwork” for the unique canyon was laid millions of years ago, but the canyon itself is relatively young.
“The canyon started forming about 150 years ago, so they are a remarkably new geological feature,” he said, adding that they are “growing very rapidly” – about six feet per year.
“Six feet a year doesn’t sound like much, but in the normal human lifetime of 65 to 70 years, that’s over 400 feet,” he said, adding that it will make for some very interesting work for Department of Transportation engineers when it eventually encroaches on the highway.
In his mini lecture to hikers, the professor speaks in terms of millions of years, always taking care to not offend people who believe the earth isn’t that old.
“I tell everybody that if the ages I talk about don’t fit with your
belief system, just ignore them,” he said. “It’s a great tale anyway. I think I’m right, but others don’t and that’s fine.”
McWilliams believes the area was under the ocean around 70 million years ago, in the Cretaceous Period, which was the last “hurrah” of the dinosaurs. Global temperatures then dropped significantly, causing northern portions of the earth to accumulate ice, which in turn caused sea levels to fall. At some point during all of that, Lumpkin, Georgia was beachfront property.
“As the shoreline receded, it left a tremendous thickness of basically beach sand and that makes up a majority of what you see in the canyon – it’s called the Providence Sand,” he said.
He believes the sea level then rose again and covered the area, with different types of sediments – basically the Clayton Formation – falling on top of the sand. He also thinks this process may have occurred a number of times.
“Later on, the sea level retreated and came back a number of times and each time it would lay down another layer of sediment,” said McWilliams, noting that the result is some beautiful canyon walls.
“It’s red, but with a lot of other colors – some beautiful combinations of colors,” he said.
McWilliams said the canyons began to form about 150 years ago after European settlers clear cut the trees and began to farm without using any conservation plowing techniques. There was so much land, he said they would just farm an area until it “gave out” and then move on to another spot.
“The land was left completely barren to the ravages of rain and erosion,” he said. “It didn’t take too long for erosion to cut through the Clayton Formation and get down to the Providence Sand below it.”
Long and Howard both said the hike was very enjoyable and something they would definitely recommend to others.
“The guide (Prof. McWilliams) only took us in about 1.5 miles and then let us go explore on our own,” said Long. “We came across abandoned cars and interesting landscapes that made it all a worthwhile experience.”
She added that going to the canyon is an excellent “day trip” option for area residents, as the only cost is a $5 parking fee, plus whatever you spend on a packed lunch and some bottles of water to take along. In addition to trails that lead down into the canyon, there are “overlook” areas up top, too. For the more adventurous, there are also primitive campsites, including “backcountry sites” accessible only on foot.
For more information about Providence Canyon State Recreation Area, dial 229-838-6870. Columbus State University also often hosts “Astronomy Night” events at the canyon and provides telescopes. For more information about those events dial 229-838-4706.