Swamp Things: What’s the best way to explore the Okefenokee?

When you live on an island, it may feel like your life is one big vacation. With the beach, their family and friends right there, my parents barely venture over the causeway from St. Simons Island to Brunswick, Ga. – let alone make a get away to some distant vacation spot. 

In a couple of weeks, however, my mom and one of her long-time friends will be trading the sandy beaches of southeast Georgia for a week along the rocky coast of New England. It’s a girls’ trip, and my mother cannot wait to touchdown in Portland, Maine. She will head Down East, linger in Acadia National Park and go whale-watching in the Bay of Fundy before zipping down to Cape Cod, Mass. for a couple of days.

As my mom enjoys the lobster, the fog and the cold waters of the North Atlantic, I will be heading to Spanish Moss- covered St. Simons with my three boisterous daughters to keep my dad entertained. St. Simons is a second home to my husband, our daughters and me; and as such our “vacation” there doesn’t always feel like a vacation to the kids’ Grandmother and Granddaddy. So while we plan to spend a lot of quality time at the beach and with my dad, I think it will be only fair to his sanity and their curiosity if I get the kids out to try new adventures for at least a couple of the days that we are there.

I have decided that we are going to take one full day off of the island and head west to the Land of the Trembling Earth. The kids have studied the Okefenokee Swamp in school, but have never visited it. I figure, what better time to explore a big swamp in South Georgia than during the hot, humid summer?      

If we’re lucky, we may be there in time to catch the first of the baby alligators hatching and clucking to their mothers in their nests.

To explore the park, we will hit the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge visitor’s center at the East Entrance near Folkston, Ga. and take-in the wildlife viewing stations and other stops along the Swamp Island Drive. I also want to get the kids out on the water, and will be booking a 90-minute boat tour through the refuge. Okefenokee Adventures works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to run the boat tours, and also rents kayaks, canoes, small motor boats and bicycles to park visitors. We typically enjoy sea kayaking, but I’m not sure how ready any of us are for paddling right by an alligator (or ten).  That might be an adventure too far right now. 

I don’t know if we will have time, but I had also considered heading to the Okefenokee Swamp Park at the North Entrance, near Waycross.  The private park has a rail tour, boardwalk, pioneer village, wildlife viewing areas and a serpentarium (which will undoubtedly fascinate one of my daughters, disgust another and frighten the third).  

How much time should you allot to explore the park, and which entrance is best for a swamp newbie to begin their exploration? What are your must-see attractions in the Okefenokee? How many times have you been to the Okefenokee? Have you ever stayed overnight there? When is the best time to visit?

Have you canoed or kayaked through the swamp? How did you handle encounters with alligators and other wildlife as you guided yourself through the dark waters? Is biking through the swamp at this time of year bearable?

Is there anything we should stop and see on our way out to the swamp (either en route to Folkston or on the road to Waycross)?

20 comments Add your comment

Danger Ranger

July 21st, 2010
7:08 pm

Try Stephen Foster State Park, deep inside the swamp.

K Williams

July 21st, 2010
7:15 pm

Most people prefer the Folkston entrance, but they have just rebuilt the viewing tower in Waycross, so there is some hoopla over that. Go to http://www.folkston.com/trains/trains.htm to find out about a unique train-viewing experience available there.

don

July 21st, 2010
7:34 pm

TheStephenFoster Park entrance, near Fargo, is by far the most scenic and pristine entry into the swamp. Will take longer from the east, but well worth it.

HeavelyJane

July 21st, 2010
7:53 pm

We prefer the Stephen C. Foster State Park because they have lovely CCC-era cabins and within a short stroll are rental boats. You can park your car and not use it until you leave.

Swampgirl

July 21st, 2010
8:16 pm

Bring lots of water for your trip through the swamp and even more bug spray. You’ll get drenched with sweat but it is a delightful adventure in the park. You can canoe on your own or with a guide. We prefer the guides when we take the kids or family so they can get a great history of the swamp. Most of the guides have been there many, many years and a few grew up in the swamp. If you can get out to the Chesser homestead on the Folkston side, do it. Sometimes the Chesser children that grew up in the house come back to talk to the visitors. We went one day and spent 2 hours talking to one of the daughters (she was 90) as she quilted on the front porch. If you can make it Stephen Foster, it’s worth a trip as well. Maybe even get brave and stay over night in one of the cabins. And bring lots of water and bug spray, lots, trust me.

PaddleBoy

July 21st, 2010
9:40 pm

I’ve done two overnight canoe jaunts through the swamp. The advice to hit Steven Foster park is the right advice for a canoeing or kayaking day trip. It is the most gorgeous aspect of the swamp, and is the traditional vision of what a swamp should look like. It’s a short 30-minute or so paddle across open water to the most beautiful areas of the swamp; totally immersed. I can’t speak to the educational or other features of the Steven Foster entrance, but it’s great for a paddle.

Steve

July 22nd, 2010
2:12 am

It’s so refreshing to see reader responses that are polite and positive. So many of these posts turn into rants and raves and fights. Kudos on the article and on the great responses.

I have never been to the swamp, but was fortunate enough to stay near a river/swamp while working in Gainesville a decade or so ago. I always wanted to go on a vacation to the swamp since that Gainesville trip, and all of these responses are very helpful .. and making me want to go right away. Thanks for all the tips everyone!

Chuck

July 22nd, 2010
4:57 am

I visited the Okefenokee for the first time about two years ago and chose to stay at Stephen C. Foster State Park as I wanted to camp out for a couple of days. The 90 minute boat tour is great and if you search Youtube you will find 3 videos of the Swamp Tour that I posted shortly after my trip. It was only myself and the park guide on the boat. We were able to see 4-5 alligators on the tour. One of them we were pretty close to as it was laying out on some of the blowups. I went in late August and at that time there weren’t any baby gators out and about. If you had the time I would recommend camping out for a couple of days. There is the museum there at the park, but also another one just before you turn on the road to the park. It’s also really nice and while going in I was able to see a Rat Snake, I think, wandering around the sandy river area near by.

Brent

July 22nd, 2010
5:34 am

I took my daughter about 15 years ago and we rented a jon boat and outboard motor at the Folkston entrance. It was a very neat experience and we talked about it just the other day, she is in college! Recommend bug spray, GPS if you go without a guide as we did, water, snacks, and the most important CAMERA!

The Dogfather

July 22nd, 2010
8:55 am

The swamp is fun for the youngsters and quite scenic for us old folk.We also reside part time in St Simons and have also “discovered” Sapelo Island. Gret day trip.Gotta catch the ferry-nobrodges stop lights or fast food. Check out the reynolds mansion(built in the roaring 20’s with no expense spared) and meet the gullah families(some of the nicest people) . It was much better than cumberland island.Check it out –you won’t be disappointed.

Timothy justice

July 22nd, 2010
9:32 am

I remember back in the early 70’s, I went a couple of years with my Explorer group camping on Billys Island for a week during spring break. I had a whale of a time ruffin’ it. I loved it and recommend that any one that has this opportunity should take it. Like Jimmy Dean says, “Ain’t none better.”

downsouth

July 22nd, 2010
10:37 am

I wouldn’t worry about trying to go to the Waycross entrance if you go to Stephen Foster. It’s quite a long drive between the two. I’ve been going to the swamp all my life, and love staying at Stephen Foster and renting the jon boats. If you could snag a cabin there for one night – DO IT. you’ll need to bring food though.

You don’t need a GPS if you don’t have a guide, there’s really not many places to get lost, as long as you don’t take the jon boat down a closed canoe trail, or go on some crazy walkabout on Billy’s Island!!

bring bug spray, sunscreen lots of water, and hats!! i’d only bring the bikes if you stay overnite. not much riding except back down the road you came in on. there’s a small boardwalk area there around the boat docks.

it’s always a good time in the swamp, and don’t worry about the gators, they stay out of your way. i’d rent the jon boat over the canoes if you have any concerns of your kids not being able to maneuver a canoe, and if you’re only there for a day, you’ll see more. it’s much different in the swamp than messing around on a lake, wondering if something lies beneath!!!! chomp!!

it is a GREAT place that so many people have never been, thinking “swamp” means yucky or something. once they actually get in there and see it, they are amazed at how beautiful it is. I hope y’all have a great time.

Phil L

July 22nd, 2010
10:59 am

Have done 2 or 3 multi-day trips through the swamp. Highly recommend after mosquito season since I have been there in different season. Is a tantastic place to visit and is really fun to have a raccoon walk across your chest in the middle of the night on one of the camping platforms. Also, night time gator eye viewing was great! Have a great time! I need to bring my kids and grandkids on a visit now.

Terri

July 22nd, 2010
12:33 pm

I took my boys to the park through the entrance near Folkston in June 2000. At that time, the swamp was experiencing a drought so we couldn’t rent a motorboat, only a canoe. Most of the alligators were in the canal so we saw quite a few very close to our canoe. Lots of bugs and humidity but still an incredible experience. We rented a tiny cabin right outside the park entrance. We went back in December a couple of years later and stayed at one of the cabins at Stephen C. Foster State Park. The water level was up so we were able to rent a motorboat and go out to Billy’s Island and explore the remnants of the old logging town. We didn’t see even one alligator on our second trip to the swamp but did see many birds and other wildlife. We got a different perspective of the swamp from each trip.

Nana

July 22nd, 2010
1:02 pm

I took my 3 Granddaughters ( 1 age 7, 2 age 5) to the Waycross entrance last year. They still ask me to take them back. Sunscreen and bug spray are a must. We did the 90 minute boat trip and saw many ‘gators. We caught Okefenokee Joe’s serpent show. The ole time village showed the girls how Nana grew up in rural Georgia in the fifties. They still don’t believe me. All staff were friendly and our experience was educational.

Keith

July 23rd, 2010
8:44 am

Thank you to everyone! This is great advice and will definitely help me plan our trip through the swamp. I’ll let you know how things go!

Clutch Cargo

July 23rd, 2010
3:25 pm

The best way to explore the Ok-fun-ok is with a pair of weighters strapped on.

molly

August 22nd, 2010
9:16 am

We’ve been to the Swamp a few times…stayed at Folkston and Foster. Love the cabins at Foster. Can make the drive from east to west easily. The evening/night boat ride into the swamp on the east side is a can’t miss. Head out near sunset…see/hear the sunset in the chesser prairie, then, in the dark, flash flashlights out into the swamp to see the vibrant red of alligators’ eyes reflect back. Absolutely stunning trip. One time, when it was just my son and me at Foster…we went out for a walk at night under the stars. Could see/hear the alligators along the canal leading out to the river. There was a group of deer in a clearing. Stars were incredible and it was SOO quiet. As we stood there and took it all in, started to hear what sounded like a strong wind starting up. Turns out, it was a flock of sandhill cranes heading into the swamp. Can’t beat it.
Another time there, after a night boat ride into the swamp, we were able to very clearly see Halley’s comet. The boardwalk on the east side is great. We’ve also stayed in St. Mary’s state park and made the drive. This place is one of my most favorite on earth…don’t miss it.

molly

August 22nd, 2010
9:20 am

Also…do explore the Chesser home…we met one of the children (she was about 85 several years ago). Fascinating…

Widower

September 14th, 2010
10:43 am

Ive had taken several of my previous wives on weekend visits to the Swamp for overnight camping trips but the funniest thing keeps happening. When I awake in the morning they have disappeared.

Now being Im a business man I must return to work Monday only to receive a call later in the week that my wife was found stabbed or eaten by alligators or died from a snake bite or drowned etc.

Ive lost several wives in this manner and cant quite understand what keeps happening. They just keep up and dying on me.