Flying high in a Huey helicopter and then walking next to a white Bengal tiger clued in TravelingMom’s Cultural Heritage explorer how very much stands out in Henry County, 20 miles south of Atlanta. Check her tips for outdoor soft adventure suitable for lots of ages, plus indoor culinary delights too.
Spending the weekend outdoors in Georgia’s Henry County involves family fun every which way. For instance, it means you and your family traveling, and me with mine. It also means family-owned businesses creating and operating these soft adventures.
And it means Interstate 75 road trippers figuring out fun at each Henry County exit. Think exits 212 through 228.
Local families already play here, so mixing it up with them is easy.
Maybe you choose only a leg stretch and need to get back on the road.
But, better yet, you can stay the night and choose several truly distinctive adventures. Either way, here are my top recommendations and the reasons why they’re special.
- Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary
- Panola Mountain State Park
- Army Aviation Heritage Foundation and Flying Museum
- Southern Belle Farm
- Heritage Park with Veterans Museum
- Yule Forest
Eating well feeds a separate set of TravelingMom tips – beyond iconic southern foods. Therefore, read on for them.
Don’t despair that America has lost its small-town charm. Not so. Henry County is made up of communities, each with a personality and reason to linger.
TravelingMom Tip: Choose a meal and a stroll in each downtown and renew your admiration for smaller-town America. Discover Locust Grove, Stockbridge, Hampton and McDonough.
Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary Rescues With Love
I knew the Sanctuary meant safe haven for animals neglected, abused, abandoned or simply surrendered. Most noteworthy is the fact you can find a sanctuary in Henry County’s community named Locust Grove.
Walking the groomed paths in 250 acres of Henry County woods and sloping hills, I found sanctuary for myself too. It’s a peaceful place with a sense of purpose.
Every black bear or white Bengal tiger, primate or free ranging fowl has a name and a story. Same’s true for each of the 1,500 animals here.
Signs share the details, but listening to tour guides and feeders, groundskeepers and veterinarians expresses the love more fully.
Spend $75 for a 90-minute guided tour with a docent to walk in the grassy paths between two fences. Why splurge? Well, to hear lots of history and stories about the animals, of course.
TravelingMom Tip: Even if you choose free admission and stroll on your own, keep an eye and an ear out for staff as they interact with the animals. These are loving relationships, and they know the proper sounds to comfort or energize each animal.
Family connection at Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary? Jama Connor Hedgecoth is the visionary founder and director who started noticing needy animals when she was four, moving often with her evangelist parents.
She has four birth children, six adopted children and has fostered more than 400 children. Check out her book “Share The Dream.”
Hike Panola Mountain State Park For Sunset
I tackled a 1.7-mile round trip hike starting in the Henry County’s community of Stockbridge to see the sun set over Atlanta’s skyline.
This is a ranger-led walk, so science and history and deep love of the granite mountain go along too.
Stepping carefully matters bunches so slow-growing lichen can thrive. Consider this: A dot of lichen needs 25 years to grow to the size of a postage stamp.
On Panola is a stone outcropping called a monadnock – one of three in Georgia. I could glimpse the other two from the top of Panola: Stone Mountain and Arabia. Think about all this wondrous space as the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area.
Difference? Panola is pristine, never quarried, a natural National Landmark. So is Georgia State Park.
That means lots of outdoor activities, readily accessible, all day, every day.
Fly In Heritage Aircraft, Only In Henry County GA
Sightseeing is not the point. Claiming the opportunity to connect with history was the driving force for me to fly in a Huey helicopter.
Ten people at a time can fly with two experienced veteran pilots and a safety officer. Had we been injured Vietnam troops we would have been on cots, stacked in tiers of three.
I sat in the gunner’s seat, facing out the open door. Kept my camera in my back pocket because my intention was honoring the men and women for whom the UH-1H Huey transport meant terrifying war, and injury.
Twelve minutes in a Huey, and also an AH-1F Cobra attack helicopter, are possible because of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation and Flying Museum near Henry County’s Atlanta Motor Speedway. Hampton is the community name.
Veterans preserve Vietnam-era aircraft and talk about their history, and the people intimately involved. Because I was a university student in the active years of these helicopters, I know plenty of veterans.
This experience matters.
TravelingMom Tip: Call for clear directions. The Flying Museum is tricky to find. Hope you can time your travel to the Saturday when the public rides happen; only monthly. Private bookings are possible. Go on a race day or air show at the Atlanta Motor Speedway and find the Huey in the parking lot there.
Pick Luscious Fruits, and Play Outdoors at Southern Belle Farm
Four seasons of agriculture and five generations of family deliver agritourism at Southern Belle Farm in Henry County’s community named McDonough.
Autumn’s really robust with pig races, hay rides, zinnia cut-yourself-a-bouquet meadows, a corn maze and more.
Fifth generation owner Jake Carter was 6 when his Daddy sold the last of the dairy cows. He’s hands on with the Southern Belle tradition of welcoming visitors.
“We want families to come to see how a farm works, and pick strawberries in the spring, peaches in the summer, pumpkins in the fall and pre-cut Frazier firs in winter,” Carter says.
“Families experience all this together in fun activities. They wouldn’t come here just to let us tell them how corn grows!”
TravelingMom Tip: Eat ice cream. This used to be a dairy, right? Plenty of fresh jams and jellies and local goods are also available, and the kitchen is glass-walled. That way, visitors can watch the produce-prepping.
Kids Can Really Get Involved in Heritage Park Veterans Museum
People-stories create the energy in the veteran-run museum at Heritage Park in Henry County’s McDonough community. Road tripping visitors can work out some kinks in the park surrounding the Heritage Park Veterans Museum.
Make this personal. This is a place to feel the history, not to memorize the facts.
Veteran volunteers tell the stories about the people who wore the uniforms on display, or drove the 1940 Harley with its leather machine gun holder or met the chaplain or knitted the sweater sent to a soldier.
Their stories about gathering the stories are fascinating too, and personal. Storytelling is an art perfected here.
They let me touch most everything! Holding a grenade meant more than just looking. Sitting in the military vehicles can connect little kids to the soldiers.
TravelingMom Tip: Ask the volunteer veterans about their stories. I found them skilled and sincere telling the tales of others, but humble about their own.
Choose Yule Forest For Seasonal Family Outdoor Events in Henry County
Three generations of the Grant family honed the art of Christmas tree growing. In addition, visiting their farm in October adds a new dimension to Halloween spooking.
This family is dead serious about hauntings, and they turn the farm’s woods into a fearful autumn experience.
The Grant family also perfects the art of pumpkin growing, with invitations to stroll the pumpkin patch and choose your own.
Anticipate a little gentle teaching along the way because art and information pop up everywhere. For instance, this farm and forest takes to heart the STEAM mantra: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics.
Where To Stay in Henry County
Stockbridge Lakes Bed & Breakfast wraps up comfy beds and fine linens with outdoor experiences.
The two-acre lake is fine for fishing, and for daydreaming too – from the banks or pergola with firepit.
Choose a long slender front porch for rocking, swinging, napping or conversation.
Inside find three first floor bedrooms with the kitchen, dining rooms and sitting areas. The lower level is apartment size with bedroom, sofa bed, pool table, full kitchen and bath. Separate entrance faces out to the lake.
Innkeepers Anita and Marvin Johnson spent decades in the hospitality, travel and event-planning industries. Besides anticipating my needs, they responded to new desires.
Ask them for day-trip ideas or assistance. Borrow their golf cart for a short jaunt to the spa. Rejuvenation and romance packages also happen here.
TravelingMom Tip: Stay here if the kids are age nine or older. Little ones don’t fit the plan.
Breakfast is a deal maker for B&B stays, right? This one has a chef.
Chef Connie Baptiste involves her culinary arts students from Southern Crescent Technical School in the cooking, presentation and serving.
Perhaps most importantly, fresh and local is their mantra.
What To Eat In Henry County
I hunted up highlights for fine and fun dining in each of the Henry County communities. Here’s a sampling.
- The Original Shane’s Rib Shack – This Shane’s is the first of 70 around the southeast. Cooks and managers train here. Eat iconic ribs and sides on casual tables, or take with you for a picnic. Find Shane’s in McDonough.
- French Market & Tavern – Drop into charming downtown Locust Grove to eat in a 1902 former hardware store. Smoked chicken salad is distinctive, and Cajun is the twist for most dishes. I recommend the Verde Sandwich: fried green tomatoes on ciabatta with remoulade.
- Crumbles Bakery and Café – sweets as luscious as you’d expect. Cookie baking classes and summer cooking camps too with Nicole Silva. Trust me but also know this: Silva won the top prize of $10K in 2017 from the Food Network Christmas Cookie Challenge.
- Heaven Café – Southern fusion is the menu description, fancy in a modest setting.
Chef Paul Lewis miraculously transferred a 20-year Army career as a hand grenade instructor to executive chef. Serious training for both careers, he says. His sublime cinnamon roll called the Colossal is big enough to share. Pepper jack grits surpassed any I’ve tasted.
- 15th Street Pizza and Pub – I tried my first wine and provolone cheese pizza, remarkably tasty from the kitchen of husband-wife duo Katie and Patrick McHugh. Same reaction for their pepperoni rolls and fried banana peppers. The patio’s welcoming and the inside bar includes 65 beers and an extensive wine list.
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