okefenokee swamp vertical
Photo by Mary Prater

I have wanted to explore the Okefenokee swamp’s dark and mysterious waters for years, but trying to convince anyone that a trip to a mosquito infested alligator breeding ground has been tricky. After many refusals from potential travel companions, I realized that I needed to find someone who either had no sense or no choice. I finally made the trip this Spring with my very sensible fourteen year old son, Jackson.

Located in southeastern Georgia, the Okefenokee swamp is part of the 630 square acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It is a landscape of constant change that the Native Americans called “Land of Trembling Earth”. The dark tea-colored waters of the swamp flow slowly into vast “prairies” dotted with peat “batteries” on the east side, and between cypress and moss covered islands on the west. These unique habitats are home to a plethora of wild animals: alligators, white ibis, wood storks, sandhill cranes, gopher tortoises, bobcats, black bears, and a variety of snakes. Two rivers begin in the Okefenokee, the St. Mary’s and Suwannee, that extend this unique ecosystem to the Atlantic ocean on the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the south.

Photo by Mary Prater
Photo by Mary Prater
okefenokee lilypads
Photo by Mary Prater

There are many recreational opportunities available for a day trip or longer camping trip. Jackson and I opted for an easy day visit. We arrived early and made our first stop at the east entrance Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center. After a quick look at the exhibits explaining the swamp ecosystem and a short debate on whether the alligator sunning itself across the canal was real or fake, we headed over to Okefenokee Adventures. All tours, canoe/kayak and equipment rentals at the east entrance are offered through this privately owned and operated concessionaire. This is also the only place you will be able to purchase food or drink while on the eastern side of the refuge. We signed up for the hour and a half naturalist led tour. Our boat was shaded and comfortable enough for the length of the tour, and our guide was knowledgeable. We cruised through man-made canals that eventually opened onto a large battery covered prairie. Here we were met with spring blooming blue irises, water lilies and sunning alligators.

After the tour, we visited the Chesser Island homestead and boardwalk. This is an original homestead sitting on the 592-acre Chesser Island in the middle of the swamp. Why someone chose to settle here, I cannot imagine, but the home still stands and is surrounded by lovely wooded, moss covered hiking trails.

photo by Mary Prater
photo by Mary Prater

There is also a boardwalk that takes you through the tree covered swamp out to the Owls Roost Tower observation point. Here you have an expansive view of the Okefenokee from four stories up.

We explored the eastern side of the refuge on this trip, but there are entrances from the north and western sides. We found that the eastern side has the main refuge visitor’s center, outfitter rentals, tours and island homestead. This was a great choice for a day trip. The landscape on the east side was a little less “swampy” than I had imagined. While beautiful and interesting, the canals and open prairies lacked the moss draped canopy I was hoping for.

Photo by Mary Prater
Photo by Mary Prater

This can be found more at the western entrance from the Stephen C. Fuller State Park (Fargo, GA).  There is also the family-friendly privately owned Okefenokee Swamp Park (Waycross, GA) on the north end. We opted out of this entrance because we were looking for a more low-key experience.

After this visit, I am still completely fascinated by the Okefenokee swamp. I am also glad to report that during this springtime visit the mosquitoes were a non-issue. When I return I intend to enter from the western entrance. I still want to travel into the dark heart of the moss covered swamp.

Photo by Jackson Belford
Photo by Jackson Belford

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