Okefenokee Swamp is like No Other Place in the World

Alligators, otters, and bears abound in this sprawling mass of wetlands

Regarding rich biodiversity and pristine natural beauty, the United States is home to many incredible destinations scattered across all 50 states. While iconic national parks like the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Joshua Tree, and the Grand Canyon have earned worldwide acclaim, one particularly fascinating natural feature has flown largely under the radar. Measuring in at over 400,000 acres of pristine wetlands sprawled across southern Georgia Okefenokee Swamp is one of the last great bastions of wilderness left in the southern U.S.

The name Okefenokee comes from a Creek Indian word meaning trembling earth. During the Seminole Wars, Native Americans hid in the Okefenokee Swamp to escape capture. The leader of these refugees was a chieftain known as Billy Bowlegs. Billy’s Island was one of his refuges and legend says the island was named for him.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over the years, Billy’s Island was home to a tenacious family of squatters, the Lees, who refused to abandon their claimed land until forced by court order. In 1909, Hebard Lumber Company came and began cutting centuries-old cypress trees. 

The Hebard family sold the property to the government in 1937; the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was created that same year.

Despite its massive size, few access points offer visitors a glimpse into the untamed wilderness of North America’s largest blackwater swamp. However, for those wishing to spend a weekend searching for native Southern flora and fauna, Stephen C. Foster State Park offers unrivaled opportunity in the remote reaches of southern Georgia. While this certified Dark Sky Park and Natural Wonder of Georgia is a top destination, the entire region was a much different place in the distant past.

Millions of years ago, the area was under the ocean. It’s possible that, during this time, the saucer-shaped depression the Okefenokee Swamp would later occupy was formed. After the ocean receded, freshwater replaced saltwater and plant life and peat deposits began to fill in the depression. A mosaic of habitats like wet prairies, dense cypress forest, and upland pine forests are found throughout this 438,000-acre wetland.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those planning to explore this diverse array of natural habitats, there’s no shortage of lodging options scattered all across the park grounds. There are over 60 sites available for RVs or anyone brave enough to rough it in their own personal tent while anybody in need of more upscale accommodations can book one of the park’s nine fully-furnished cottages. Equipped with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, and a personal backyard fire pit these spacious dwellings are perfect for immersing oneself in the natural world without having to go totally prehistoric.

Many sites offer scrubs and trees to afford privacy. The wide grassy hiking trail that runs behind the campsites is a natural haven. Birds of various kinds flutter between the moss laden oaks and cypress trees. Saw palmetto and blackberry vines are a large part of the undergrowth. Plaques along the trail tell the story of Spanish moss and the native trees and scrubs. 

It’s not really a swamp. It’s the headwaters of both the Suwannee and the Saint Marys rivers. It’s just easier to say swamp than natural wetlands preserve.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Extensive open areas at the core of the refuge like the Chesser, Grand, and Mizell Prairies branch off the man-made Suwannee Canal accessed via the main entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, 11 miles southwest of Folkston. The prairies are excellent spots for sportfishing and birding and guided boat tours of the area leave from the Okefenokee

Refuge concession Okefenokee Adventures works in partnership with the refuge to provide guided boat trips; rent camping gear, bicycles, motorboats and canoes; operate a gift shop; collect entrance fees; and provide food service.

Truly the best way to get a close look at the swamp inhabitants is to take a boat tour from Okefenokee Adventures. Their regular boat is a 24-foot Carolina skiff and there’s one step down into it from the dock. Additionally, you need to have a good balance in order to maneuver to a seat as the boat rocks a lot. An accessible pontoon boat is also available but it might not be the next boat out.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This boat has level access for wheelchair users and folding seats for able-bodied passengers. Both boats have a canopy for protection from the midday sun. Best bet is to check in the gift shop about the availability of the accessible boat as soon as you arrive then enjoy the visitor center while you wait.

The 90-minute tour goes through the Suwannee Canal as the naturalist points out the flora and fauna and gives passengers a short history of the area. Expect to see turtles, herons, ibis, hawks, and lots of alligators along the way. And if you visit in the fall, you’ll also likely see the migrant Sandhill Cranes.

The concession also has equipment rentals and food is available at the Camp Cornelia Cafe. The visitor center has a film, exhibits, and a mechanized mannequin that tells stories about life in Okefenokee (it sounds hokey, but it’s surprisingly informative). A boardwalk takes you over the water to a 50-foot observation tower. Hikers, bicyclists, and private motor vehicles are welcome on Swamp Island Drive; several interpretive walking trails may be taken along the way.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Save some time to explore the refuge on foot on one of the three accessible trails along the eight-mile-long Swamp Island Drive. It’s easy to find—just follow the signs as you leave the main parking lot.

The Upland Discovery Trail is the first trail you’ll come upon along the drive. There’s a paved parking area with accessible parking on the right with level access to the trail across the street. The quarter-mile trail is made of hard-packed dirt and although there are some exposed roots along the way they are easy to dodge. The worst obstructions are at the beginning of the trail so if you make it past the first ten feet, you’re good to go. Be sure and look for the trees marked with the white bands and they mark either a roosting or nesting spot of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

Our guide steered the pontoon boat to a patch of grasses and peat in the process of forming land to show how the name Land of Trembling Earth came about. When he poked at the small island with his paddle, it trembled. With these little pockets of almost-land dotting the surface of the lake, it’s easy to see how a person could become lost in this place that’s more water than land.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’re likely to see alligators and birds as you travel about 2 miles into the lake from the dock. Although it’s named Billy’s Lake, the path amid the many islands looks more like a creek ranging from 35 to 155 feet wide. We ventured into a narrow offshoot of water called Minnie’s Run. Here, our guide maneuvered between giant cypress trees with branches that often brush the sides and top of our little boat. Throughout the waterway, we encountered several types of water lilies. The most distinctive, the American white water lily has dozens of narrow white petals surrounding a bright yellow center. 

Wood signs with arrows direct us where to turn to reach certain places in the swamp. Five Sisters is another marker that boaters use for navigating the area. It’s a cluster of five cypress trees, three of them living and two dead representing five sisters who once lived deep in the swamp. It’s here that we spot a small alligator swimming with just its eyes and the top of the head visible. 

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I asked about some of the other wildlife found in the park including deer, bears, foxes, snakes, bobcats, and otters. He said the best time to see a bear is when the blackberries are ripe or when there are a lot of acorns on the ground. Bobcats are early morning and late evening prowlers.

Of course, no trip to Okefenokee is complete without venturing into the remote depths of the swamp in search of wildlife—a feat that’s best accomplished on a guided motorboat tour. With a Stephen C. Foster State Park ranger versed in the ins and outs of the swamp as your pilot this is by far the best way to acquaint yourself with the many creatures that call the park home.

There are around 620 species of plants, 39 fish, 37 amphibians, 64 reptiles, 234 birds, and 50 mammal species known in the swamp today. Alligators, white-tailed deer, and turkey are regularly seen around the park during the day. Most nights, barred owls hoot across the campground, and after an evening rain shower many species of frogs will call out.

In spring, swallow-tailed kites arrive from their wintering grounds in South America to nest and are frequently seen acrobatically flying over the park. During the winter, river otters are more commonly seen in the main waterways and sandhill cranes are frequently heard calling from marshy areas throughout the swamp.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While some may be drawn to the park in search of the South’s larger mammal inhabitants including bobcats, black bears, and gray foxes these particular beasts tend to steer clear of any human activity. They’re therefore seldom seen by visitors—though you may be able to catch a glimpse of one if you’re particularly lucky. For avid bird watchers, a particularly prized sight is the red-cockaded woodpecker. These mottled creatures tend to gravitate towards mature pine forests and they’re currently endangered in the state of Georgia.

Okefenokee Swamp may be one of the state’s most iconic natural features but it’s far from the only one worth visiting in the region. For a truly memorable time add a second preserve to the list after you’ve thoroughly explored Stephen C. Foster State Park.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A few minutes’ north of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge boundaries, Laura S. Walker State Park offers visitors the opportunity to spot gopher tortoises, pitcher plants, and all manner of wading birds and it even comes equipped with its own 18-hole golf course. Meanwhile, those who make the journey to Georgia’s idyllic seashore can find Cumberland Island, a pristine coastal getaway that’s rife with sandy beaches.

Georgia might earn most of its acclaim thanks to its world-class cities but the state has far more to offer than simply Atlanta and Savannah. Stephen C. Foster State Park may be a little difficult to get to but there are few things in life more satisfying than sitting still in a kayak in the heart of the swamp surrounded by nothing but the gentle hum of Georgia’s native wildlife.

For more tips on exploring this area, check out these blog posts:

Worth Pondering…

Choose only one master—nature.

—Rembrandt