If Georgia consisted only of the Chattooga River and the Okefenokee Swamp it would still be a water wonderland, beautiful and exciting beyond all expectation. As it is, of course, Georgia is rich in watercourses from top to bottom, and offers paddlers an almost inexhaustible opportunity for exploration. Even so, the Chattooga and the Okefenokee occupy positions of exalted prominence not only in Georgia, but among the natural treasures of the entire United States. The Okefenokee Swamp tours are particularly special. It is unique: a self contained microcosm of ongoing evolution, an incredible miniature ecosystem in which the drama of the survival of the fittest is performed countless times each day. But more than an ordeal in survival, the Okefenokee is a joyous celebration of everything right and beautiful in nature, and a living testimony to the ability of the citizenry to preserve rather than destroy nature when stirred out of their complacency.
USGA and County Maps for Okefenokee Swamp Tours
Waycross Southeast, Dinner Pond, Fort Mudge, Double Lakes, Chase Prairie, Chesser Island, Moniac, Eddy, Sargent, Strange Island, Blackjack Island, The Pocket, Billys Island, Cravens Island (USGS); Ware, Charlton, Clinch (County)
All Okefenokee Swamp Tours
Class: Smooth water; Length: Varies by trail; Time: 2-6 days. Permits required for overnights; Gauge: None; Level: N/A; Gradient: N/A; Scenery: A+
Dark and mysterious, bright and colorful, quiet and expectant, shrill and cacophonous, Okefenokee Swamp tours are a study in contrasts. They epitomize the swamps of Hollywood and your imagination while revealing environments and wonders that transcend all expectations. The Okefenokee, says nature writer Franklin Russell, “is a fascinating realm that both confirms and contradicts popular notions of a swamp. Along with stately cypresses, peat quagmires, and dim waterways, the Okefenokee has sandy pine islands, sunlit prairies, and clear lakes.”
The swamp is situated in southeastern Georgia, near the Florida border. It extends about 38 miles from north to south, and approximately 25 miles from east to west at its widest part. Covering some 430,000 acres, the Okefenokee is one of the largest, oldest, and most primitive swamps in America. Most of Okefenokee Swamp tours are under the protection of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1937, which occupies 90 percent of the swamp’s area. Actually a vast peat bog, the Okefenokee was formed more than 250,000 years ago when the Atlantic Ocean covered an area 75 miles inland from its present coastline. The pounding surf and continuous currents created an elongated sandbar with a large lagoon on its landward side. When the ocean receded, the sandbar became a ridge. The lagoon drained, leaving a sandy basin that became the bed of the Okefenokee, which is now more than 100 feet above sea level. Today, the entire swamp, except for the islands, is covered with a bed of peat underlain by a huge, saucer-shaped, sand-floored depression. The peat bed exceeds 20 feet in depth in some places and is a mere 6 inches deep in others.
Being higher than much of the surrounding area, Okefenokee Swamp tours depend on local rainfall to maintain its water level. Draining away from a series of ridges in the center of the swamp, the waters of the Okefenokee are in constant circulation. Moving slowly through the prairies and around the hammocks and islands, the waters of the swamp are colored a burgundy red by tannic acid released into the water as swamp vegetation decomposes. Both the fabled Suwannee and the beautiful but less celebrated St. Marys Rivers originate in the Okefenokee.
Much of the swamp consists of “prairies,” expansive shallow lakes clogged with aquatic plant life. Open water in the Okefenokee is surprisingly scarce. All of the lakes (about 60), gator holes, and waterways combined cover less than 1,000 acres.
Known throughout the world for its unusual and diverse wildlife, the swamp is home to 225 species of birds, 43 species of mammals, 58 species of reptiles, 32 species of amphibians, and 34 species of fish. The shrill cries of wood ducks and the hoarse squawks of egrets and herons can be heard resounding everywhere. Turkey vultures ride the hot air currents high overhead, while flocks of white ibis glide along just above the treetops. Old bull alligators bellow their challenges, undisturbed by the beat of woodpeckers hammering on dead trees, while choruses of frogs turn the night into a guttural symphony. In the tangled jungle, raccoon, otter, bobcat, opossum, and whitetailed deer hold court among the pond cypress, bay, black gum, and swamp cyrilla.
Okefenokee Swamp tours defy summary; no description can do justice to what even unbelieving eyes can scarcely comprehend. Says Russell:
It is possible to describe the Okefenokee as a peat-filled bog … but this reduces the swamp to an unpleasant image of immense dreariness. It is possible to count the islands, about 70, and say that they cover 25, 000 acres, but this says nothing of their having been the sites of bitter battles between bears and cougars, of their having sprouted crops of corn and vegetables and great whispering plantations of slash pines surrounded by the stark grandeur of water-loving cypresses.
It is possible to talk about 60, 000 acres of prairies, the flooded open areas choked with water lilies and neverwets, pipeworts, and ferns, with maiden canes and sedges and moss, but this is only one facet of the great swamp. This is to say nothing of the wildlife, the reptiles, the waterfowl, or even the hammocks, those dense labyrinths of twisted growth, odd collections of hardwoods, water oaks, live oaks, and magnolias clustered together.
In the late 1990s, Trail Ridge, on the eastern edge of the swamp, was the proposed site of a DuPont titanium mine. This was met with significant public and government objection. Fears included that the swamp might be drained or flooded due the proximity of the mine to the swamp. Following extensive negotiations, DuPont retired their mineral rights and donated the 16,000 acres on Trail Ridge to the Conservation Fund, which will disburse the land in consultation with the state and local community. Already 5,000 acres have been earmarked for donation to the National Wildlife Refuge.
To reach Stephen Foster State Park, take GA 177 north from Fargo. The Suwannee Canal trails are reached by taking GA 121/23 south from Folkston, turning right onto the Okefenokee Parkway. The Kingfisher access point is reached via US 1 south of Waycross.
There is no gauge in the swamp and is virtually always floatable. The only exception is after multiple-year droughts. Call Stephen Foster State Park at (912) 637-5274 for more information.
The Okefenokee Swamp Tour Experience
Though the natural panorama of Okefenokee Swamp tours defies verbal description, first-hand physical exploration of the swamp can be undertaken with a modicum of preparation. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge wilderness offers designated trails that provide the opportunity to spend from 2 to 6 days in the swamp. The trails are well marked. Guides are neither required nor needed, but a permit must be obtained well in advance for the use of these trails. For paddlers interested in an I-day (or shorter) outing, circuit trips are available in specified areas that depart from and return to the same access point. Permits are not required for I-day outings.
Partially covered overnight camping shelters for Okefenokee Swamp tours are provided at Maul Hammock, Big Water, Bluff Lake, Canal Run, and Round Top. These consist of 20-by-28-foot platforms built above the water. While the maximum allowable group size is 20, this would require sleeping shoulder to shoulder and is not recommended. A group of 10 or fewer is much more realistic. Because these shelters are only partially covered and wind often accompanies any rain, free-standing tents are recommended. They also serve as insect protection. Other campsites are located on dry islands within the swamp at Floyd’s Island and Craven’s Hammock.
Because of sanitation problems, each group is required to carry a portable toilet with disposable plastic bags. Human waste must be carried out of the swamp and disposed of at the end of the trip. This regulation essentially applies to waste generated en route, since porta-potties are available at each overnight stop. Portable toilets and associated gear are the responsibility of the paddler and are not provided by the refuge management.
Portions of all the canoe trails for Okefenokee Swamp tours are open to the general public (paddlers on I-day trips, tour boats, etc.), and trippers staying longer can expect to encounter other refuge visitors on these sections of the trails. On those parts of the trails requiring a permit, however, only other paddle groups in transit will normally be encountered. The existing system of scheduling allows only one group at each campsite on any given night.
Fluctuating water levels affect the difficulty of Okefenokee Swamp tours. Some trails may be closed or difficult to travel during certain times of the year because of low water. These difficulties, according to the refuge management, should be viewed “as an integral part of the wilderness experience.” Paddlers should read all regulations carefully and not be reluctant to ask questions before departing. This simple precaution may eliminate considerable discomfort and unnecessary problems.
The spring months (March through early May) with their mild temperatures, high water levels, and the profusion of wildflowers, are the most popular period for canoeing in the Okefenokee. In fact, March and April trips are limited to two-night stays.
Reservations can be made only within two months to the day before your trip begins. To make a reservation, call (912) 496-3331 between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., Monday through Friday (excluding federal holidays). On receipt of an inquiry or permit application, the refuge management will forward a packet containing information on the history, geology, wildlife, and management of the refuge, as well as paddling trip regulations and suggestions for a more pleasant and successful outing. Refuge management advises that first-time visitors carefully digest this information before making their reservations.
All paddlers should remember that temperatures and biting insects can be very harsh in the Okefenokee, particularly during the summer months. Temperatures can fall into the teens during January and February. Most of the swamp is bathed in direct sunlight and shade is often at a premium. In stormy weather, this same lack of cover creates uncomfortable moments when heavy rain, high wind, and lightning may assault you. The bottom line is that Okefenokee Swamp tours offer a true wilderness experience. Careful planning and preparation are key elements of a successful trip.
DESIGNATED CANOE TRAILS
There are a dozen designated canoe trails that can be used, each leaving from one of three access points: Kingfisher Landing, Suwannee Canal, and Stephen Foster State Park. The trips range from overnight to a five-night excursion. All follow the color-coded trails listed below, with descriptions from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Contact the Refuge for the latest trip options.
Orange Trail: Follows the historic Suwannee Canal, which was dug in the late 1800s in an attempt to drain the swamp. Canal Run Shelter is 10 straight miles from the east entrance, on the berm of the canal. Past Canal Run Shelter are 5 miles of narrow, winding trail that lead to Billy’s Island. Follow Billy’s Lake 2 miles to Stephen Foster State Park. Low water levels between Canal Run and Billy’s Island often mean navigating stumps, peat blow-ups, and encroaching side vegetation.
Red Trail: Kingfisher Landing to Maul Hammock is a long day of paddling, 12 miles through scrub-shrub, prairie, and small lakes. The 11 miles between Maul Hammock and Big Water go through prairie, narrowly closed channels, and into a wider river channel surrounded by cypress. Both days are long and difficult. The Big Water Shelter is at the north end of Floyd’s Prairie. The last 9 miles go through prairie, cypress forest, and Billy’s Lake.
Green Trail: Kingfisher Landing to Bluff Lake is 8 miles along a channel originally cut for peat mining and across open prairies full of pitcher plants. The next 9 miles to Floyd’s Island take you from Durdin Prairie to Territory and Chase Prairies. Between are narrow closed-sided channels that may be difficult to paddle during low water levels. The overnight shelter on Floyd’s Island is a hunting cabin built in the 1920s for the Hebard family, which at the time owned most of the swamp. There is a short portage across the island. Floyd’s Island to Stephen Foster State Park is 8 miles of prairies and cypress forests, ending in Billy’s Lake.
Brown Trail: To reach Cravens Hammock, you paddle 5 miles through the Narrows to the Suwannee River Sill. Follow the trail through 5 more miles of cypress, bay, and gum swamp to an oak-covered hammock. The trail condition varies with water levels-there can be a strong current through The Narrows, which may make the return trip difficult.
Purple Trail: The Purple Trail winds through Chase Prairie leading to Round Top Shelter, which boasts a 360-degree view of the prairie. Windy days can make paddling unpleasant, but the shelter is worth the trip, especially when the moon is full.
Blue Trail: The Blue Trail connects the Orange Trail with the Green Trail and skirts the edge of Chase Prairie through deeper holes, which are good fishing areas. It is used mainly as a route from the Orange Trail to Floyds Island.
Note: A short portage across Floyds Island is required on all trips crossing this island. The state charges a camping fee at Stephen Foster State Park.
PADDLING TRIP INFORMATION
Permits: Okefenokee Swamp tours kayak and canoe trips may be arranged in advance or on a first-come, first served basis. For current reservation procedures and policies, see the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge at http://okefenokee.fws.gov or call (912) 496-7836.
Physical Conditions: The swamp terrain is flat; there is no fast water and very little dry land. Your paddle will be used every inch of the way as you wind through cypress forests or across open “prairies” exposed to the sun and wind. You may have to get out of your canoe and push across peat blowups or shallow water. Water levels in the Okefenokee Swamp sometimes become too low to permit use of certain trails; when this occurs, parties holding reservations in these areas will be notified.
Weather: Daytime temperatures are mostly mild. However, during June, July, August, and September, the swamp can be hot and humid, with temperatures ranging above 90 OF. Winter days range from below 40º to 80º, but much of the time temperatures are in the 50s and 60s. Summer nights are warm, and winter nighttime temperatures can be near or below freezing. Record lows have dipped to 18º. The rainy season is normally from June through September. Many summer afternoons are drenched with localized thundershowers. Lightning is probably the most dangerous feature of an Okefenokee experience.
Safety: Each traveler is required by law to have a Coast Guard-approved life preserver in his or her possession. Each canoe must contain a compass and a flashlight. Each paddler must register when entering and leaving the swamp. Due to danger from alligators, pets may not be taken into the swamp. For the same reason, swimming is not permitted. The minimum party size, for safety, is two persons. Parties will not be permitted to launch later than 10 a.m. to ensure that their overnight stop is reached before dark.
Camping: Overnight camping is permitted only at a designated overnight stop. You must register at each stop. No nails should be used and no trees or limbs should be cut. Open fires are not permitted except at specified areas, so gasoline, bottled gas, or similar types of stoves will be required if you plan to cook meals. You must remain at the designated overnight area between sunset and sunrise. You may camp only 1 night per rest stop. Portable toilets with disposable bags are required, even though overnight campsites are outfitted with chemical toilets.
Quality Control: Each canoe trail will be limited to one party daily, and each party will be limited to a maximum of 10 canoes or 20 people. Canoeists are responsible for keeping trails free from litter. Pack it in, and pack it out. Motors are not permitted on canoe trips.
Wildlife: Wildlife abounds in the Okefenokee every month of the year. Sandhill cranes, ducks, and other migratory birds are most numerous from November through March. Otter are commonly seen during cold weather when alligators are relatively inactive. Alligators are active in the summer and can be observed sunning on the banks, mostly during spring and fall.
In general, mosquitoes are no problem except after dark from April through October. They are rarely encountered during the daytime. Deerflies, although a biting menace at times during the summer are not as bad deep in the swamp. There is no need to fear snakes or alligators while Okefenokee Swamp paddling as long as normal precautions are taken and animals or nests are not molested.
Fishing: Sport fishing is permitted during posted hours in accordance with Georgia state law and Refuge regulations. Live minnows are not permitted as bait in Okefenokee waters. Bass fishing is best in early spring and late fall, but a lot depends on water levels, moon phase, weather, and the skill of the angler.
Suggested Supplies: In addition to regular camping gear, bring along: (1) Rope for pulling your canoe. (2) Drinking water. (3) Insect repellent. (4) Mosquito netting. (5) Rain gear. (6) First aid kit. (7) Snakebite kit. (8) Extra batteries. (9) Litter bags. (10) Free-standing tent with line to tie down to shelters, or jungle hammock and sleeping bag.
This Okefenokee Swamp tours 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.