Discover the Resources of the Satilla River One of Georgia’s 14 Major Watersheds

satilla watershed
The Satilla River. Photo by SouthEast Adventure Outfitters

The Satilla watershed is one of Georgia’s 14 major watersheds. The river rises in the middle of South Georgia in Ben Hill and Coffee counties and flows east-southeast for 260 miles to empty into the Atlantic Ocean through St. Andrews Sound, north of Cumberland Island. The Satilla is a blackwater river, meaning its headwaters originate on the Coastal Plain. The “blackwater” label comes from its color. It appears a dark tea color near the surface but black at lower depths, though usually, the water is very clean. Acids leached from leaves and other organic materials from the riverbanks causes this dark color. Unlike alluvial rivers, a blackwater river usually has no floodplain. If there is one, it is very narrow. The white sand carried long by these rivers collects in sand bars, which provide a dramatic contrast to the dark river water. Read a Satilla River Paddling Guide

See all of Georgia’s 14 Major Watersheds

Altamaha, Chattahoochee, Coosa, Flint, Ochlockonee, Ocmulgee, Oconee, Ogeechee, Satilla, Savannah, St Marys, Suwannee, Tallapoosa, Tennessee

The Satilla Watershed System

The Satilla watershed lies entirely within the state of Georgia. The Satilla rises in Ben Hill and Coffee counties at an elevation of about 350 feet. It flows generally east-southeast for 260 miles and empties into the Atlantic Ocean through St. Andrews Sound, north of Cumberland Island. In the upper reaches, the river is bordered by swamps, except where it’s touched by bluffs, which sometimes reach to a height of 50 feet above the river. From a width of 0.25 miles at river mile 7, the Satilla gradually widens, becoming approximately 1.5 miles across at the mouth. The lower reaches of the river are bordered by a salt marsh and have a maximum width of about 3 miles.

How the Satilla Got It Name

French explorer Jean Ribault named the river Riviere Somme, but a Spanish explorer, St. Illa, gave the river his own name, which is the one that stuck. English usage converted St. Illa to Satilla.

River Protection

The mission of the Satilla Riverkeeper is to protect, restore, and educate about a uniquely beautifyl ecological system.

Experiences in the Satilla Watershed

Listed below are locations where you can see or experience the Satilla watershed.

Crooked River State Park

Located on the south bank of the Crooked River, this park offers fine facilities in a beautiful setting. The boat ramp is popular with anglers who often take to the water before sunrise. Visitors may venture to the nearby ruins of the tabby McIntosh Sugar Works mill, built around 1825. The mill was later used as a starch factory during the Civil War. Just down the road is the ferry to Cumberland Island.

The Satilla Watershed Connection: Crooked River is not really a river but is instead a tidal creek that extends only a short distance west of I-95 and US 17. It lies between the Satilla River to the north and the St. Marys River to the south and is part of the great estuarine system of rivers, tidal creeks, marshes and barrier islands that make up the Georgia coast.

General Coffee State Park

One of southern Georgia’s best-kept secrets, this park is known for interpretation of agricultural history; its Heritage Farm demonstrates this history with log cabins, a corn crib, tobacco barn, cane mill, barnyard animals and other exhibits. Seventeen Mile River winds through a cypress swamp with rare and endangered plants. The threatened indigo snake and gopher tortoise also make their homes in this sawgrass community. Overnight accommodations include a nicely decorated 19th century cabin. The park was donated to the state by a group of Coffee County citizens in 1970 and is named after General John Coffee, planter, U.S. congressman, and military leader.

The Satilla Watershed Connection: General Coffee State Park is on Seventeen Mile River, which flows into the Satilla River north of Waycross. The Satilla flows into the Atlantic at St. Andrews Sound at the northern end of Cumberland Island.

George L. Smith State Park

This secluded South Georgia retreat is best known for the newly refurbished Parrish Mill, a combination gristmill, saw mill, covered bridge and dam built in 1880 and now open for tours. Anglers and canoeists can explore the mill pond, dotted with Spanish moss-draped trees and home to the blue heron and white ibis. Hikers can experience 11 miles of trails covering wiregrass terrain, home to the rare gopher tortoise, Georgia’s state reptile. The park is named after one of Georgia’s most respected legislators.

The Satilla Watershed Connection: Fifteen Mile Creek forms Parrish Pond on the park property, then continues on to join the Canoochee River south of Metter. The Canoochee joins the Satilla north of Richmond Hill; the Satilla flows into the Atlantic at Ossabaw Sound between Wassaw and Ossabaw Islands. The mill on Parrish Pond (once known as Watson Pond) is a good example of how early settlers in the region used the power of creeks and rivers to power Georgia’s first industries.

Laura S. Walker State Park

Located near the northern edge of the mysterious Okefenokee Swamp, this park is home to many fascinating plants and creatures, alligators included. Walking along the lake shore and nature trail, visitors may see carnivorous pitcher plants, the shy gopher tortoise, numerous oak varieties, saw palmettos, yellow-bellied flickers, warblers, owls and great blue herons. The park’s lake offers opportunities for swimming, boating, and fishing; there is also a swimming pool. Laura Walker was a Georgia writer, teacher, civic leader and naturalist who was a great lover of trees and worked for their preservation.

The Satilla Watershed Connection: Big Creek, the stream that carries the outflow of the park’s 120-acre lake, illustrates how a slight difference in elevation in the mostly flat terrain of this part of Georgia can determine the direction of a creek or river. Big Creek flows north into the Satilla River, rather than south into the park – as would seem “natural” – to join the Suwannee or St. Marys rivers, both of which originate in the Okefenokee. The Satilla flows into the Atlantic Ocean at St. Andrews Sound at the northern end of Cumberland Island.

More Satilla Watershed Resources

Here are some other places and resources that will help you experience the Satilla watershed and its estuarine system where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean at St. Andrews Sound north of Cumberland Island.

Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve

Sapelo Island enables visitors to see virtually every facet of a barrier island’s natural community, from the diversified wildlife of the forested uplands to the vast expanses of salt marsh and the complex beach and dunes systems. The Visitor Center, located near the mainland ferry dock, brings to life both the natural and cultural history of Sapelo, while guided tours of the island enable visitors to experience the African-American community of Hog Hammock, the University of Georgia Marine Institute and Reynolds Mansion. Guale Indians, Spanish missionaries, English freebooters and French royalists fleeing a revolution all occupied Sapelo Island before Thomas Spalding purchased the island’s south end in 1802. Innovative planter, architect, businessman and statesman, Spalding developed Sapelo into one of the Deep South’s most productive antebellum plantations. Ruins of his tabby sugar mill and other buildings remain on the island. In 1912 Detroit automotive engineer Howard E. Coffin purchased Sapelo and established agricultural operations, a seafood business and an ambitious construction program, including restoration of the mansion in 1925. Tobacco millionaire Richard J. Reynolds, Jr. owned Sapelo from 1934 until his death in 1964. Reynolds donated land and buildings to the University of Georgia for the creation of a marine research facility. Facilities and programs: 6,110 acres, visitor center, guided tours, marsh and beach walks, bird and wildlife observation. Directions: the Sapelo ferry dock and visitor center are located in Meridian, 8 miles northeast of Darien, off Ga Hwy 99. Accommodations: Reynolds Mansion Lodging-group accommodations for conferences, workshops and retreats for up to 28 persons, minimum two nights. Rates include three meals per day, meeting facilities and transportation (912.485.2299). Pioneer Camping: Groups may camp near the beach on Sapelo’s Cabretta Island. Minimum two nights for up to 25 persons. Comfort station with hot showers available.

University of Georgia Marine Education Center and Aquarium

The University of Georgia offers short academic classes and summer science camps for school children (pre-K-12th grade). Classes for college students and teachers and programs for visiting adult groups are available by advance reservation. Classes and programs can include classroom, laboratory or field activities. Boat trips and trawling are available. An aquarium, open weekdays and Saturdays, features species of fish, turtles and other animals native to Georgia coastal waters. The Jay Wolf Nature Trail has 0.5 and 1-mile loops that wind through the maritime forest and beside the salt marsh. Directions: located on Skidaway Island, less than 30 minutes from downtown Savannah. Follow Waters Ave. south, which becomes Whitfield Ave, then Diamond Causeway. After the stop light on Skidaway Island, turn left onto McWhorter Dr. at the 4-way stop and follow the signs for about 4 miles.

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Brown’s Guides is a website about the top outdoor experiences in America and about the professional outfitters and guides who know them best. BG selects guides and outfitters located in or in close proximity to the Natural Areas they provide activities in. These outfitters know the areas and care about protecting and preserving them in a way that outfitters based in other states never can. Hiking, biking, sea kayaking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and other outdoor activities are indexed on the site. BG has been doing this type of thing since 1972 in books, magazines, maps and on the Internet.

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