Fort Benning, Ga. - If you think Auburn, Ala., only means football, think again. Saturday, I discovered a hidden waterfall, garden sculptures and miles of trails - all well worth an hour drive. For the nature-lover in all of us, there are at least four environmental havens within 10-miles of the city and you can visit all of them in a day.

My first stop was the 696-acre Chewacla State Park, which includes waterfalls, hiking trails, a 26-acre lake, fishing, swimming, playgrounds and camping facilities. The most popular site in the park is a man-made waterfall at the bottom of a steep hill.

To visit the falls, you can park in the lot at the top of the hill and take a short walk to the creek. For a better view, you may want to step into the creek bed or on top of some of the larger rocks.

The smaller falls are scalable and a veritable playground for the brave of heart and sure of foot. Other trails of note are the mountain biking trail, a short hike along the Boy Scout trail to the Civilian Conservation Corps stone bridge and a longer trip to a natural waterfall located closer to the entrance of the park.

Admission to the park, open from 7 a.m. to sundown, is $2 for adults on the weekdays and $3 on the weekend. For kids 6 to 11 and adults 62 or older, admission is $1. The park is 10 minutes south of Auburn and less than two miles from I-85. For more information, call 334-887-5621 or visit www.alapark.com and click on Chewacla State Park.

After the park, head north to Auburn University. On South College Street, you can visit the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Arts and the Donald E. Davis Arboretum. The museum has manicured grounds, a pond, memorial garden and outdoor sculptures that dot the landscape. Inside, you will find nature captured in art, particularly paintings of birds.

The most moving exhibit for me, Dale Kennington's Subjective Mythologies, on display through Sept. 26, consisted of several folding screens painted with contrasting yet linked scenes. Each panel contains a hidden box with a written note inside. Cleverly concealed, the compartments blend with the painting. I couldn't find a single one.

Admission to the museum is $5 for adults and $4 for seniors. It is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Saturday. For details, go to http://jcsm.auburn.edu or call 334-844-1484.

Like the hidden boxes, the arboretum can also be a challenge to find. Look for a gate entering a green space located off Garden Drive, which intersects South College Street. Although it took some investigative driving after both GPS and Google Maps failed me, I eventually found the place.

Encompassing a variety of habitats, from wetlands to a vinery, the arboretum is devoted to cultivating native trees, shrubs and plants. The site is also home to more than 30 species of reptiles and amphibians along with several birds, fish and mammals.

My favorite species, however, was none of these. Rather it was some insects - the pretty ones with wings - butterflies. I have never been able to be so close to so many without a crowd of people around.

Near a covered bench and miniature fountain in a secluded spot, a small gathering of flowers attracts dozens of butterflies that apparently have a limited fear of humans.
The 13 acres and two miles of trails at the arboretum allow plenty of space for picnicking, reading, walking or relaxing.

There's no charge, and it's open daily from dawn to dusk.

For more information, call 334-844-5770 or visit www.auburn.edu/arboretum.

Less than five miles from the campus, another free excursion, the Louise Kreher Forest Ecology Preserve offers more space to wander with 100-plus acres and more than 20 trails.

The preserve features a "hidden" waterfall, pond, butterfly garden, reptile viewing area and an old homestead. It also offers several programs throughout the year. During the summer, discovery hikes on Thursday afternoons and summer walks on Tuesday and Thursday mornings are free and open to the public. No registration is needed, and the walks are canceled only if it rains.

For more information, visit https://fp.auburn.edu/preserve or call 334-707-6512.

All in all, Auburn offers a busy, healthy, nature-packed day for less than $10 per person.

And football team preferences aside, you can't beat that.

Page last updated Fri July 24th, 2009 at 12:33