You don’t have to own a canoe “” or even travel in one “” to experience the wilds of Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
By Max and Bea Hunn
One normally wouldn’t expect to explore a swamp without a canoe or a boat, but the fascinating facets of the mysterious Okefenokee can be sampled during a daylong circle tour of Georgia’s gigantic, nationally famous swampland.
Good roads, major entry points, and nearby campgrounds promise a pleasant journey for motorhomers. It’s a moving armchair exploration, certainly not difficult, and yields an interesting view of what the area’s first inhabitants called the “land of the trembling earth.”
The entire Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge sprawls across approximately 396,000 acres of southeastern Georgia and is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuge was established in 1937.
The refuge’s North Entrance, near Waycross, Georgia, is the logical starting point for such a driving tour if you’re approaching from the north. Obviously, you can start from other points on the irregular circle if you’re arriving from other directions. But let’s start from Waycross.
After heading south for eight miles on U.S. 1/23 along a four-lane highway, you encounter two-lane State Route 177, which travels into the swamp and terminates on Cowhouse Island, site of the 1,200-acre nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permits the park to operate under a lease agreement. It was founded in the 1940s to help preserve the picturesque swampland and make it accessible to wilderness lovers who were not expert swampers (or canoeists).
The park provides a fascinating glimpse of the “land of the trembling earth,” as the Seminole Indians called the swamp. The reason for this still exists: The vegetation that grows atop the bogs actually will shake when someone stomps the ground nearby. You can view the strange terrain from an 80-foot observation tower, or wander the swamp via the meandering 1/2-mile boardwalk.
Park admission also includes a ride on the Okefenokee Swamp Railroad, a 1½-mile railroad system that circles part of the swamp. The train is powered by a 36-gauge replica steam engine. During the ride you’ll make a 30-minute stop at Pioneer Island, a spot rich in history.
For an added fee, guided boat tours of various lengths are available, during which you can explore the dark waterways and learn the many interesting facets via the running commentary of your guide.
The park also has learning programs that teach about snakes and alligators; a nature center; and an excellent collection of swamp wildlife housed in a natural park zoo that includes, of course, plenty of alligators.
Admission to the park is $12 for adults and $11 for seniors and children ages 5 to 11. It’s open daily year-round from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more information, phone (912) 283-0583 or visit www.okeswamp.com.
Returning to U.S. 1/23, proceed southeast to the little town of Folkston to another of the swamp gateways, the East Entrance. From Folkston, travel on State Route 121 south to old Camp Cornelia, now called the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area. The “canal” refers to an ill-fated attempt to drain the swamp in the 1890s. Today this location features a boat basin, picnic grounds, a boat ramp, and a shop with fishing tackle and picnic supplies.
Sight-seeing boat trips of various lengths are offered, ranging from 30-minute tours to all-day excursions. Or if you choose, take out a rental boat and follow the old canal or various boat trails to some of the lakes that make up the refuge, which sport colorful names such as Cooter, Little Cooter, Gannet, Monkey, and Buzzards Roost. A visitors center has a small museum featuring displays that depict the swamp’s many unusual facets.
The 4½-mile road leading to Chesser Island, site of a pioneer homestead, provides access to unusual hiking trails. Canal Diggers Trail, only ½-mile in length, winds around the historic Suwannee Canal, dug in 1891 during a futile attempt to drain the swamp. The upland Discovery Trail passes through trees where rare red-cockaded woodpeckers are found. Another trail leads to the Chesser Island homestead, which depicts the hard life of a swamp family.
The main house was built in 1927. In addition to the house and typical clean-swept yard, the homestead includes a hollow log well, a smokehouse and storage shed, a corncrib and hog pen, and a sugarcane mill.
The most spectacular trail on the island is the ¾-mile Swamp Walk, a boardwalk that leads to a 50-foot observation tower overlooking Seagrove Lake and Chesser Prairie. It’s a dramatic introduction to the mysterious land of the “trembling earth.” Winding through a small cypress head, the trail twists across a typical swamp prairie. From the 50-foot lookout, you can see the damage caused by wildfires, now disappearing as nature reclaims the land. Alligators frequently swim in the waters, and the birds put on an ever-changing show.
At times you may see bear tracks on the boardwalk. The bruins have discovered it’s easier to amble across the swamp via the walkway than to plow across the soggy land and through the thick marsh grass. Raccoons, too, have found the walkway useful.
Speaking of critters, if you have a pet dog, be sure to keep it safe on a leash, and do not take it anywhere at the refuge where pets are not permitted. Alligators prey on dogs and can be aggressive.
A fee of $5 per vehicle is charged at this east entrance to the refuge. Phone (912) 496-3331 or (912) 496-7836 for more information.
The final entry point to Okefenokee Swamp that we’ll mention, the West Entrance, is the only one with overnight RV accommodations: Stephen Foster State Park. Return to State Route 121 and travel south to the little hamlet of St. George. Turn onto State Route 94 and follow it westward (dipping for a few miles into Florida) to the hamlet of Edith, just east of Fargo. Here, turn onto State Route 177 and travel 18 miles into the park.
Stephen Foster, who wrote the song “Way Down Upon The Suwannee River,” is the namesake for this preserve. Make sure to stop by the new Suwannee River Visitor Center, where you can learn about the area wildlife and environmental stewardship.
To really understand the swamp, taking a boat into it at some point is recommended. At Stephen Foster State Park you can take a guided tour of the swamp or rent a powered johnboat to see Billy’s Island, once the site of the Okefenokee’s largest settlement during the cypress-logging era. It is estimated that more than 431 million board feet of timber was taken from the area between 1909 and 1927. The only remnants of the logging today are rusted and ruined equipment. But the swamp is still alive.
The park offers overnight cabins for your non-RVing friends, as well as a marina with rental boats and a trading post that supplies fishing and picnic paraphernalia. A water trail leads from the park boat docks to Billy’s Lake, a popular fishing spot. You also can visit Minnie’s Lake, another popular fishing area amid the towering cypress trees adorned with Spanish moss.
The campground at Stephen Foster State Park has water, electrical, and cable TV hookups. You can reserve a campsite up to 90 days in advance by calling (800) 864-7275 or (912) 637-5274. Amenities include rest rooms with hot showers, fire rings, picnic tables, and a small store. You might as well stay here for the night after your daylong journey around the swamp.
You’ll never forget exploring the Okefenokee, and you may decide to come back and take more time. A simple trip around the swamp is not enough.
If You Go
It’s best to visit the Okefenokee Swamp in spring, autumn, or winter; insects are more abundant in summer, as are human visitors. A copy of the official government brochure describing Okefenokee is available online at http://library.fws.gov/refuges/okefenokee02.pdf.
For more information, contact:
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Route 2, Box 3330
Folkston, GA 31537