In Habersham and Banks County, at the transition between the Georgia Mountains and the Piedmont, the sharp drop-offs and steep rises of Historic U.S. 441 provide part of the area’s natural charm. Farther south, the highway travels through the third landscape unit of the U.S. Southeast: The Coastal Plain. In Florida, some sections of Highway 441 are reminiscent of I-40 going through parts of Oklahoma and Texas, far away from the coast and 1,500 feet higher up. Grasslands and fields stretch endlessly across the horizon, the silhouettes of feed mills in the distance. “Driving west across Palm Beach County on Highway 441 is like crossing the Great Plains,” Times reader Oscar Wiltse says. “You can see the curvature of the earth as the utility poles along the highway sink into the horizon.”
The main difference between the Southern Coastal Plain and the Great Plains out west are groundwater levels. In the dense forests of southern Georgia, water shows up everywhere. Drainage ditches line the roadway of both sides, usually filled with runoff. Wetlands are filled with pine trees and low, sharp-teethed palmetto plants.
Careful observers crossing the coastal plain notice that there are four significant changes in elevation. Traveling on U.S. 82 from the seashore towards Waycross resembles driving up a succession of ping-pong tables, all of them slightly inclined. Each time the road climbs a few feet up a slope, it reaches the next of four so-called marine terraces. They represent ancient ocean levels and old shorelines that mark the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Its level bounced up and down several times as the huge continental ice sheets melted away and accumulated again. In Waycross, at 200 feet altitude, we’re on the highest and oldest of so-called marine terraces. More miles and wetlands later, U.S. 441 intersects the route, going north through Arabia Swamp and Sweetgum Bay. Near Pearson, the landscape changes from the Lower Coastal Plain to the less waterlogged Upper Plain. Elevations remain between 200 and 300 feet until we reach the outskirts of Milledgeville. There, the Coastal Plain comes to an end at the Fall line. Streams coming from the higher Piedmont form waterfalls, shoals and cataracts as they plunge down toward the coast. West of Milledgeville, near Jackson, High Falls State Park shows spectacular examples of the Fall Line rapids on the Towaliga River.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.