Hidden way down in Southeast Georgia is one of the most pristine wilderness areas in the eastern United States. It is more than 438,000 acres and cover approximately 700 square miles. Over 230 species of birds, 600 plants, 49 mammals, 64 reptiles, 37 amphibians and 39 fish have been identified in the swamp. The swamp has seven habitat types occurring within its boundaries.
The majority of the swamp is contained in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is 396,000 acres, making it the largest in the eastern United States. 353,981 acres are designated as a Wilderness Area.
The swamp a vast peat-filled bog inside a huge, saucer-shaped depression that was once a large ocean lagoon lying behind Trail Ridge. The entire swamp is covered with peat beds which overlay the sand floor. Peat is organic material formed by the decomposition of plants in water. In the Okefenokee Swamp, it takes about 50 years for one inch of peat to form at the base of the swamp. The peat ranges in depth from thin layers at the edges of the swamp and islands to more than 15 feet in places. The average depth of the peat is 5-10 feet. Peat is pushed to the surface of the swamp water by the buoyant force of trapped methane and carbon dioxide, by-products of underwater decomposition. Many people in the Okefenokee region call such formations “blow-ups.” This peat will amass on the surface into what is known as “batteries”. A “house” is a tree covered island common throughout the prairies of the Okefenokee Swamp. Common trees of the houses include pond cypress, blackgum, red maple, bay and pine. Unstable peat masses will tremble, giving the Okefenokee its name, an indian word meaning “Land of the Trembling Earth.”
Rainfall accounts for approximately 95% of the water in the Okefenokee Swamp. The swamp is the headwaters for two rivers, the Suwanee River and the St. Marys River. While 80% of the rainfall is returned to the atmosphere by evapotranspiration, about 85% of the drainage feeds into the Suwanee River on the West side of the swamp, where it flow 280 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. The the remainder empties into the St. Marys River in the Southeastern corner and flows 135 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.
History of the Okefenokee
The Okefenokee Swamp was a dark, mysterious place to man during the early days of our nation. It was not until 1840, during the Second Seminole War that General Charles Floyd took his men from the west side across the swamp. They discovered Floyd’s Island (so named after Gen. Floyd), which included a recently abandoned indian settlement. They continued east across the swamp the next day, trudging through briars, peat, shrubs and enduring countless hardships. Soldiers related the experience as the worst they could imagine.
By the 1850’s, settlers started claiming homesteads on the edges of the swamp. Survey crews were exalted for their exploits by the Atlanta newspapers, and the public awareness of swamp’s potential grew. In 1889, the State of Georgia put the swamp up for bid. It was won by a group headed by Captain Henry Jackson, which was named the Suwanee Canal Company. Its intention was to dig a canal out to the St. Marys River, draining the swamp and creating rich agricultural land. The project was beset with technical problems, poor management and a series of problems. The canal walls collapsed, costs ran out of control and water was said to be running back into the swamp. To recoup their investment, management turned their attention into the swamp and its large tracts of Cypress lumber. Over the next 2 years they dug 12 miles canals into the swamp. The venture ultimately failed, however, and the company went into receivership in 1987.
The Hebard Company purchased the land of the old Suwannee Canal Company. Their intent was only to extract the lumber. After, a period of extensive surveying and developing local resources, the company established operations on the west side of the swamp at Billly’s Island, built rail lines and extracted over 425 million board feet of Cypress. By 1927, a combination of habitat destruction and a week market ended timber cutting operations of the major companies.
The Hebards maintained a hunting cabin on Floyd’s Island, of which many writers and naturalist were invited. They brought attention of the natural wonders of the swamp to the nation. Francis Harper, a student at Cornell, fell in love with the swamp during a biological survey so much that he moved there. He led efforts for national protection, including writing to Franklin Roosevelt, whose children his wife had tutored. In 1937, the swamp became a National Wildlife Refuge under the executive order of President Roosevelt.
Paddling in the Okefenokee
Paddling in the Okefenokee is an unforgettable experience. Escape the hustle and bustle for the solitude of uninterrupted wilderness. Paddle through prairies of floating plants, past strands of Cypress Trees, never knowing what might pop up around the next bend.
Up The Creek Xpeditions provides guided kayak tours in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Come join us on our Okefenokee Day Trip kayak adventure through the swamp, or our unique Okefenokee at Night paddle.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has over 120 miles of paddling trails available for daytime or overnight exploration. The trail system is divided into six trails, plus many additional day use trails. The main overnight trails are:
Follows the historic Suwannee Canal, which was dug in the late 1800s in an attempt to drain the swamp. Canal Run Shelter is ten straight miles from the east entrance, on the berm of the canal. Past Canal Run Shelter are five miles of narrow, winding trail that leads to Billy’s Island. Follow Billy’s Lake two miles to Stephen Foster State Park. Low water levels between Canal Run and Billy’s Island often mean navigating stumps and peat blow-ups, and encroaching side vegetation.
Kingfisher Landing to Maul Hammock is a long day of paddling twelve miles through scrub-shrub, prairie, and small lakes. The eleven miles between Maul Hammock and Big Water go through prairie, narrow closed channel 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 nine miles go through prairie, cypress forest, and Billy’s Lake.
Kingfisher Landing to Bluff Lake is eight miles along a channel originally cut for peat mining and across open prairies full of pitcher plants. The next nine 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 paddling during low water levels. The overnight shelter on Floyd’s Island is a hunting cabin built in the 1920’s. There is a short portage across the island. Floyd’s Island to Stephen Foster State Park is eight miles of prairies and cypress forests, ending in Billy’s Lake.
To reach Cravens Hammock, you paddle 5 miles through the Narrows to the Suwannee River Sill. Follow the trail through five more miles of mixed cypress, bay, and gum swamp to an oak-covered hammock. Trail condition varies with water levels–there can be a strong current through The Narrows, which may make the return trip difficult. Cravens Hammock is currently closed.
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 difficult, but the shelter is worth the trip, especially when the moon is full.
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.
Day Use Trails
CHESSER PRAIRIE/MONKEY LAKE SHELTER
This is the main route for day paddlers using the Suwannee Canal Entrance. The entrance is on the left two miles down the canal. It passes through Chesser Prairie and continues on to Grand Prairie. Seven miles out from the visitor center is the Monkey Lake Shelter, a day use shelter that occasionally serves as a overnight shelter. Several side trails branch off the main trail, including Cooter Lake, Tater Rake and the Gannett Lake. The motorboat guided tours enter into the Chesser Prairie about .5 to .75 miles, so expect some traffic in this area.
YELLOW TRAIL/CEDAR HAMMOCK
Just before the Suwannee Canal splits, you will find the trailhead to the Cedar Hammock Shelter, a day use shelter on the old yellow trail. The trail passes through the Mizell Prairie. It once ran all the way to Round Top Shelter, but now gets choked up and is impassable a mile or two past the shelter.
The recently named Hurrah Trail is an old air-boat trail that parallels the Suwanee Canal. Take this trail to avoid the motorboat traffic and for better variety of swamp plants. It is a narrow trail, so prepare for possible close gator encounters.
Overnight Trips in the Okefenokee Refuge
Make a trip into the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge even more special by choosing an overnight camping trip. Choose from one or two night trips (longer trips are available, depending upon season). If you prefer a guided tour, Up The Creek Xpeditions is a licensed overnight guide. Join us on our next trip. Click here for more info.
One Night Trips
- Suwannee Canal to Canal Run Overnight Shelter via the Orange Trail (20 miles roundtrip).
- Suwannee Canal to Monkey Lake Shelter and return to Suwannee Canal (15 miles roundtrip).
- Suwannee Canal to Coffe Bay and return Suwannee Canal (12 miles roundtrip).
- Kingfisher Landing (Kings Canal) to Bluff Lake Shelter via the Green Trail (16miles roundtrip).
- Stephen C. Foster State Park to Minnies Lake and return to Stephen C. Foster State Park (6 miles roundtrip).
- Suwannee Canal to Roundtop to Canal Run and return Suwannee Canal (28 miles roundtrip).
- Suwannee Canal to Monkey Lake to Coffee Bay and return Suwannee Canal (23miles roundtrip).
Okefenokee Refuge Entrances
There are three major entrances and two secondary entrances to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, each with its own facilities and special character. From the open, wet “prairies” of the east side to the forested cypress swamps on the west, Okefenokee is a mosaic of habitats, plants, and wildlife. Entrance fees are required at each entrance, inquire at the phone numbers below for more specific information and regulations.
Suwannee Canal Recreation Area (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
This is the main Fish and Wildlife Service entrance, located 11 miles southwest of Folkston. The area includes a picnic area, driving trail, hiking trails, a 3/4 mile boardwalk and observation tower, and a restored 1920s homestead.
Make sure to stop at the Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center, where you can plan your visit at the information desk, shop in the bookstore, watch an award-winning movie, and try out fun interactive exhibits about the Okefenokee. At the center you may climb a tower into the cypress canopy, explore beneath the waters in a Swamp Sub, listen to an animatronic storyteller, or enjoy the Swamp Songs jukebox. Call (912) 496 7836 9am-5pm daily for the visitor center. Entrance Fees are required.
Hours of Operation
March 1 – October 31, 1/2 hour before sunrise – 7:30 pm
November 1 – February 28, 1/2 hour before sunrise – 5:30 pm
Stephen C. Foster State Park (Georgia State Parks)
This entrance is located on the west side of the refuge, near Fargo, GA on refuge land leased to the State of Georgia. Stephen C. Foster State Park offers campgrounds, cottage rentals, boat and canoe rentals, a playground and recreation area, a small museum, and a small store. State Park naturalists provide programs and information.
The West Entrance has the same fee collection system as the east side, since it is located on refuge property. There is an additional fee for camping, boat rentals, and cottage rentals. Call (912) 637-5274 for information, 1-800 864-7275 for cabin reservations. Entrance Fees are required.
Hours of Operation
March 1 – September 14, 6:30 am – 10:00 pm
September 15-Februay 28, 7:00 am – 7:00 pm
Okefenokee Swamp Park (private, non-profit)
Located just south of Waycross, GA on Highway 121, Okefenokee Swamp Park offers a different type of swamp access. It features a reconstructed pioneer village, souvenir sales area, serpentarium, boardwalk, and viewing areas for alligators, river otters, turtles, deer, and bear. There is an admission fee, with additional fees for boat tours. Five- and ten-mile tours are also available at an extra cost when water levels permit. (912) 283-0583 General Admission Charge.
Hours of Operation
Open year round 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.)
Suwannee River Sill
The sill is a secondary entrance to the swamp and is reached by the same road as Stephen Foster State Park. Visitors may launch boats (when water levels allow), fish, or hike along the 5-mile earthen dam. There is a parking area, information kiosk and composting toilet. Visitors must sign in and out of the landing for their own protection. Entrance fees are required at the Suwannee River Sill.
Kingfisher Landing is located about 13 miles north of Folkston, GA along U.S. 1. It features a boat landing, information kiosk, and composting toilet. Visitors must sign in and out of the landing, for their own protection. Entrance fees are required at Kingfisher Landing.