The Okefenokee Swamp is a swamp at the Southern end of Georgia, close to the Florida border. Parts of the swamp are protected by the Okefenokee Wilflife Sanctuary and can be visited. A huge ecosystem with water routes which inhabit alligators and many birds and a lot of natural scenery can be explored.
3 public entrances
The swamp expands to 180.000 hectares and is mostly protected. There are 3 entrances to the swamp – all three are located in Georgia: by Folkston in the East, in the South by Fargo and in the North by Waycross.
In the Stephen C. Foster State Park which is located south you can rent canoes, kayaks and motor boats, go fishing, enjoy a guided tour or go hiking. The Fargo Folkston entrances are used mainly by adventurers for canoe tours – there are several spots in the swamp to spend the night at.
Boat tour at Okefenokee Swamp Park
We visited Waycross, Georgia in November where the Okefenokee Swamp Park is located. Right at the entrance we had an encounter with a huge alligator which obviously enjoys to rest on a small island within a narrow channel left of the visitor parking lot. The visitor center provides information about the tours.
One of these tours is a boat tour with a small motor boat using the swamp’s water roads. We were lucky: due to a hurricane the previous day, visitor load was very low, the park was basically empty. The tour guides has information about flora and fauna and tells stories about the park while we were travelling cozily in the channels of the park. Alligators are everywhere, quite likely right next to us. We saw some young alligators which were nurtured at the sides of the channels. We did not spot fully grown alligator during the tour.
The water tour stops once – at an observation tower reachable by a walk on a bridge. The tower is approximately 30 meters high and provides a stunning view over the vastness of the swamp and the high tree tops where many different bird species live. After 45 minutes the tour ends.
Train tour and animal encounters
As a second tour option is a ride on the small train with a little steam engine. The tour goes 1,5 miles through the park. The train drives very slowly – almost walking speed. It stops on a little island where an exhibition about the early settlements of the swamp is shown. It is a nice tour, although the first one is a little more spectacular. Maybe you should first do the train first tour and the boat tour after that.
Back at our starting point, the visitor center, we watched a 30 minute presentation in which animals of the swamp where shown. At least it is NOT some kind of circus thing – the animals (snakes, baby alligators e.g.) are just shown for a moment while some interesting facts about the species and life of these animals are given. Afterwards they go back into some boxes. We sa some baby alligators, very little ones that are only a few months old and slightly older ones that are still tiny. I asked where they come from an the answer was: 2 animals per year can be held in captivity for educational purposes.
Having this presentation at all and presenting these animals at all is debatable and maybe questionable. Of course it is interesting to learn about the animals of the swamp. But do you really need to see a living animal for demonstration purposes? The animals were looking fine, they did not seem to suffer (as far as I can judge). To me, this presentation is not a reason to boycott the park because they treated their animals respectfully. 2 alligators per year are arguable – there are also living alligators in zoos for example. The animals were not severely bothered during the presentation, so I can accept this (in other parks I have a different opinion).
During the train tour we could see some Christmas decoration. The typical Santa Claus Figures, reindeer, sleighs etc. where positioned near the tour. In the South it’s obviously only Christmas when some fancy decoration is arranged – just like the snow fits to Christmas in Germany. I personally don’t need to see that but it didn’t really bother me.
Atmosphere of the swamp
Remarkable in the swamp is the very dark prevailing mood. Despite of bright daylight everywhere else the water is almost black and you always expect some alligator beneath every water lily. The black color of the water comes from the many dead plants and derives from the fact that it is marsh land (“Blackwater River”). According to the tour guide a lot of water was evaporated during the summer – consequently, the level was too low. Because of that the water appeared even darker. The atmosphere of the Okefenokee Swamp is very unique, difficult to describe and capture in words. It is dark and mysterious – like from a louring fairy tale.
Due to the size of the swamp it is necessary to pick one entrance. It is not possible to drive to more than one entrance in a day. Within the swamp there are no roads, only waterstreets. A car doesn’t help here. By car, the only option is to travel the long distance around the swamp. In the swamp, only boat traveling is possible. Okefenokee is not really easily accessible. We traveled from Tallahassee but it takes around three hours till Waycross (150 Miles). In the South, distances are always long and that is something that has to be considered – we started to travel early that day so we reached early enough to spend enough time in the Okefenokee Swamp Park.
From Jacksonville, the swamp area is easier to reach by the North entrance in Folkston. But here it is best to rent a canoe and go paddling. That would be surely a great adventure but for us not the right thing for the first visit. I wouldn’t want to paddle and suddenly an alligator is swimming right next to me. Moreover the swamp is a huge maze consisting of water streets, moor, swamp, land and lagoons. I would have quite some problems to know where I am and I would defintely need a tour guide. But anyway, it would certainly be a great adventure to once do a canoe tour with someone who knows the area!
Open daily from von 9 am – 5.30 pm, Entrance 27 Dollar including boat and train tour.
The Park is not a state or national park but operated by a non-profit organisation. All money they make goes back to the park. The park is about 12 km outside Waycross. They don’t provide many road signs, the park is not that easy too find.