Paddle Marshes, Estuaries, and Tidal Creeks on Georgia’s Barrier Island Coast

georgia coast paddling
Sea kayaking on Georgia's coast. Photo by StSimonsIsland.com

No paddling guide for Georgia would be complete without mention of the Georgia Coast paddling. Ranging from the mouth of the Savannah River at the South Carolina border south to the mouth of the St. Marys River at the Florida state line, the Georgia coast remains one of the largest undeveloped wilderness areas east of the Mississippi River.

A chain of 13 barrier islands anchors the outer edge of the coastal region, shielding the expansive marshes, smaller islands, and hammocks that stretch from the interior sides of the barrier islands to the mainland. Within this marshy coastal zone, thousands of miles of potential Georgia Coast paddling trips wind through a labyrinth of rivers, sounds, and convoluted tidal creeks. Though access points are somewhat sparse, the number and type of trips available are limited only by the paddler’s imagination-one access point can be the debarkation point for many different routes. Trip styles range from the serene exploration of smaller sloughs and creeks to a wild ride in the surf Wide expanses of undeveloped terrain make for excellent camping trips.

Wildlife abounds in the coastal ecosystem. Acres and acres of lime-green grasses form on the lowest lying land, providing habitat for raccoons, mink, and rice rats. Birds, including the willet, great blue heron, and snowy egret, feed in the marshes. Shrubs and trees grow on the higher land of the islands and hammocks. Here, laurel oak, redbay, and sprawling live oak trees draped with Spanish moss canopy an understory of palmettos. Larger islands are home to feral pigs, deer, and wild horses in addition to the more recent imports of armadillos.

Marine life is diverse and abundant. Tidal creeks and sloughs provide sheltered nurseries for young fish, shrimp, and crabs. Oyster beds cluster in the muddy zone between the high and low tide. Gregarious dolphins swim beside paddlers, announcing their arrival with a blast of air. Surfacing sea turtles, river otters, and jumping fish all make appearances above the plane of the water, seemingly with little regard for the paddler who has ventured onto the topside of their turf

While much of the terrain is wilderness, many of the waterways are not. Powerboats and sailboats are common, but typically avoid the smaller sloughs and creeks. Large intracoastal barges can be encountered in the InterCoastal Waterway, which winds through the coastal region.

Compared with traditional river trips, Georgia Coast paddling among the tidal islands and marshes demands comprehensive planning and research-do your homework before heading out. Tidal currents, feasible routes, high land access points, and the available freshwater options all require consideration in trip planning. Coastal outfitters and experienced paddlers will happily provide you with advice on all of these counts.

Gathering local knowledge of tides and suggested routes is a highly recommended starting point. The timing and strength of tides vary by area; working with the local tidal pattern can make the difference between a pleasant trip paddling with the flow or an arduous slog with potentially dangerous consequences when working against it. As such, tidal patterns dictate the best launch and return times. Local information can also help you avoid getting stranded in the tide-dependent channels that are transformed at low tide into impassable muddy channels laced with oyster beds full of sharp cutting shells.

NOAA charts and USGS quadrangle maps are useful in planning a trip. NOAA chart numbers 11,506 through 11,512 encompass Georgia coast paddling, and a free online index is available to help determine which charts you’ll need to order. These charts are also available in marine stores. USGS maps can be found at some outfitters, most surveying supply stores, and also online. Again, use the index map to locate the quadrangle(s) needed for your trip.

Trace your route on paper before getting on the water. Navigation while Georgia coast paddling is sometimes complicated by the lack of differentiating vertical landmarks. You may be looking for the entrance to a creek a half mile away and all you can see is a solid green line of marsh. Having important bearings, distances, and landmarks noted in advance on your chart will expedite your trip.

High land access points are limited-again, local knowledge is invaluable in planning where to land and where to camp. Island access (for camping or day visits) is actively controlled by a variety of different jurisdictions; some islands are restricted wildlife preserves, some are private. Camping, where available, is excellent, but requires that you plan in advance and secure the required permissions before leaving. Simply showing up can jeopardize future access for all paddlers. Four of the thirteen barrier islands (Tybee, Sea Island, St. Simons, and Jekyll) are accessible by car and highly developed. Of these, Jekyll and St. Simons Islands offer traditional hotel lodging; Jekyll also hosts a campground. The family who owns Little St. Simons Island operates an upscale lodge there.

Camping Options for Georgia Coast Paddling

Little Tybee is one of the least disturbed of the barrier islands and home to rare and endangered migrating birds. The island is owned by the state and managed by the Department of Natural Resources. Permits are not required for camping, but make sure you obey the rules established to regulate and minimize human impact on the island. For more information, call the DNR at (912) 264-7218.

Ossabaw is the third largest barrier island and home to rare and biologically diverse native plant and animal communities. The island was acquired by the State of Georgia under very specific guidelines. Designated a Georgia Heritage Preserve, the island has been set aside for scientific and cultural study; trips to the island should meet this criteria-that is, have specific research or educational goals related to the unique natural history of the island. Camping permits, visits, and tours are provided; groups should contain at least six people. For more information and applications for day-use and camping permits, contact the Ossabaw Island Foundation at (912) 233-5104.

The State of Georgia also owns Sapelo Island, the fourth largest of Georgia’s barrier islands. Pioneer camping for groups of 15-25 people (for a minimum of two nights) is available at the Cabretta Beach facility. Reservations and more information are available by calling (912) 485-2299. Hog Hammock, a small community located on the south side of the island, is home to African Americans who have maintained the customs and Gullah language of their Mrican ancestors, who worked the plantations formerly located on the island. Bed-and-breakfast-type lodging is available from Lula (912) 485-2270 and the Wallow (912) 485-2206. Primitive camping with a view of the marsh is available in Hog Hammock at Sapelo Sanctuary at (912) 485-2273, or the Weekender at (912) 485-2277.

At 17.5 miles in length, Cumberland is the largest barrier island. The island features maritime forests, dune fields, marshes, mud flats, and tidal creeks in addition to past and present human developments. The National Park Service administers access to the patchwork of public lands spread throughout the island. Camping options include developed campgrounds and remote backcountry sites in the wilderness areas. Competition for permits is fierce; call up to six months in advance. Contact the Cumberland Island National Seashore at (888) 817-3421 or (912) 882-4335.

To say that the maritime forests and marshes of the Georgia coast are merely special would be misleading. They are in fact a magical, fragile ecosystem that shields the inner coast from the brutal vagaries of the sea. Deference to the natural environment and the regulations that preserve it is not just recommended but necessary to ensure the continued health of this unique environment. That so much of this region remains undeveloped is truly remarkable-no other eastern state can boast a similar expanse of wild coastal lands.

See more Georgia Rivers

This Georgia Coast paddling guide is adapted from Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia by Suzanne Welander and Bob Sehlinger and published here in cooperation with Menasha Ridge Press. Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia covers thousands of miles of Georgia waterways from whitewater to wilderness swamps and everything in between. It’s an indispensable guide to anyone interested in paddling Georgia’s rivers and streams. Order directly from Menasha Ridge Press. See a comprehensive list of other Menasha outdoor publications indexed by title, author, category, and region.

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