Imagine waking to a mist enshrouded wetland, echoing with the calls of herons and ibis. Your camping site is a wooden platform surrounded by miles and miles of wet-prairie or moss-covered cypress. The only sounds you hear are the calls of native wildlife and those you make upon taking in such beauty. This is what it is like to experience a night in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Wilderness Area! The Okefenokee NWR encompasses the Okefenokee Swamp, one of the oldest and best-preserved freshwater areas in America. This vast bog, lies inside a huge depression that was once on the ocean floor. The refuge extends just over the state line into Florida. The interior wetlands of the Okefenokee Swamp within Georgia have been designated the state's largest Wilderness.
Native Americans called the swamp the "land of trembling earth" because the unstable peat deposits that cover much of the swamp floor tremble when stepped on. "Okefenokee" is a European interpretation of their words. The last Native Americans to seek sanctuary here, the Seminole, were driven out of the swamp and into Florida in 1850, and lived on to become the only Native Americans to refuse to sign a treaty with the U.S. government.
The Okefenokee Swamp forms the headwaters for two very distinct rivers. The historic Suwannee River originates in the heart of the swamp and flows southwest toward the Gulf of Mexico. The second is the St. Marys River, which originates in the southeastern portion of the swamp, and flows to the Atlantic Ocean, forming part of the boundary between Georgia and Florida.
The swamp provides a rich diversity of habitat types that support numerous species of wildlife and plants - islands, lakes, cypress forests, scrub-shrub areas, and open wet "prairies". Fire and water define the swamp's habitats. Lakes and prairies are created after long droughts when fire burns off layers of vegetation and peat. Rain water replenishes the swamp, filling in the open spaces created by fire. Later, cycles of drought lower water levels, causing vegetation and displaced peat blow-ups to cover the area again. Fire sweeps through the area once more and the entire process continues again.
Leave No Trace
Plan Ahead and Prepare: Make sure your expectations and skill match your destination. You are required to stay on trails and at designated campsites within the Okefenokee Wilderness. There is very little current so be prepared to paddle the entire distance. Be prepared for weather extremes and emergencies. Every attempt will be made to rescue you in an emergency, but wilderness rescues take longer than other areas.
Concentrate Your Impact: Stay on designated trails and campsites, leaving the remainder of the Okefenokee to the birds, alligators, bears, and other creatures. Traveling in small groups allows you more peace and solitude in the wilderness.
Dispose of Waste Properly: Use port-a-lets and composting toilets. Carry some type of portable toilet in your boat. Use biodegradable soap when washing yourself or dishes. Dispose of wastewater in composting toilets.
Leave What You Find: Do not harm or take trees, plants, artifacts, or animals. Do not leave anything behind to show you have passed through an area. Pack out ALL trash.
Use Fire Responsibly: Camp stoves are required for overnight platforms. Campfires are allowed only at Cravens Hammock, Floyds Island, Canal Run, and Mixons Hammock. Use only downed and dead wood and make sure your fire is out and cold when you leave. We highly recommend not bringing your own firewood because it has the potential to introduce undesireable organisms into the area. If you do bring your own firewood, please burn it completely and take out any unused wood.
Respect Wildlife: Do not approach too closely or harass or feed animals. Do not toss out food scraps or crumbs. This attracts unwanted guests at campsites and may lead to their removal if they become too aggressive.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Although you will encounter few people along your path, avoid loud voices and noises. Sound travels within the swamp. Be courteous to other paddlers.
There are three major entrances to the Okefenokee NWR and one secondary entrance. Each can provide access to the refuge Wilderness area. Entrance fees are required at all entrances/access points into the refuge, and are enforced.
East Entrance: The main U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entrance is located 11 miles southwest of Folkston, Georgia, off Highway 121/23 (Suwannee Canal Road). Stop in the Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center to plan your day and experience the Okefenokee through a film and interpretive displays. Walking trails, boardwalk and observation tower, boat trails, guided boat tours, motorboat and canoe/kayak rentals, a 7-mile wildlife drive, and a restored historic Swamper homestead are available. Call (912) 496-7836 for Visitor Information.
West Entrance: The Stephen C. Foster State Park, located 17 miles east of Fargo, Georgia, off Highway Spur 177. Boardwalk, boat trails, fishing, guided boat tours, motorboat and canoe/kayak rentals, camping, cabins, and a museum are available. Call (912) 637-5274 for information.
North Entrance: The Okefenokee Swamp Park, located eight miles south of Waycross, Georgia, off U.S. 1. Interpretive displays, boat and train tours, live animal displays and interpretive programs are available. Call (912) 283-0583 for information.
Kingfisher Landing is a secondary entrance, which is located approximately 8 miles north of Folkston, Georgia, off Hwy. 1. This entrance is a non-staffed entrance, which provides a parking area and boat ramp.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
For more information on the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Area visit the Okefenokee Refuge website or call 912-496-7336.
A canoe trip through the Okefenokee Wilderness takes planning. The experience of solitude is emphasized. You may or may not encounter other parties on your trip. Be prepared for a trip, which may include temperature extremes, precipitation, high winds and high humidity. The swamp is flat water with no current. Logs may be across trails and floating vegetation may slow your progress.
Visitors are required to stay on the designated trails. Do not be tempted to explore closed areas. It is easy to become disoriented and become lost.
It is strongly recommended that one entering the Okefenokee Wilderness brings their own drinking water. The tannic water was once thought to be safe to drink and hauled in barrels for sailors out at sea to drink, but it can not be trusted today. Visitors, boats, and atmospheric deposition have compromised water quality.
Due the water environment and lack of high ground, please carry some type of portable toilet with you.
At the Okefenokee NWR, visitors can have a lot of fun. Activities include the following:
Canoe or kayak on over thirty miles of water trails
Observe and photograph wildlife
Fish for over five species of freshwater game fish
Hike over 16 miles of trails
Hunt (during state hunt seasons)
Camp on a Wilderness platform in the swamp (with advance reservations)
Take a guided boat tour of the swamp
Watch an award-winning orientation film in the refuge Visitor Center
Take part in special events and programs (Gator talks, Nocturnal Nature Hikes, and a variety of environmental education programs for school groups)
Drive a scenic 9-mile wildlife drive
Visit a restored Swamper Homestead
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
Visitors to the Okefenokee Wilderness should arrive prepared for the south Georgia seasons. Spring and fall are the most heavily visited times, as temperatures and insects are moderate. Summer can be hot and humid, with biting insects making a concerted show. Winter days can be extremely cold and windy.
Water levels fluctuate. During dry times, it may be necessary to pull your canoe through some low areas. Refuge staff try to keep up on trail conditions but can not warn the visitor of every difficult situation. A push pole is a good tool to carry with you.
Safety and Current Conditions
Visitors are encouraged to remember that they are entering a wilderness area, part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. All animals encountered are wild and free to roam at will. Visitors should come prepared for seasonal weather and biting insects. First aid kits and water are strongly recommended when entering the wilderness area. Sign in and out stations are located at all entrances and are required for wilderness visitors.
When staying overnight within the Wilderness, a clean camp is required. Raccoons, alligaotrs and ants are common around platforms. Do not encourage their stay with food scraps and crumbs left behind. Although there has not been any human - bear conflicts within the swamp, black bears do traverse the swamp. Please store strong smelling food such as fish in a sealed container.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.