Meet a Water Trail: Georgia’s Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trails

"The Musical Wilderness "

Swamps have their own dramatic soundtracks, and Georgia’s Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trails epitomize nature’s music. The alligators, once again abundant in the swamp, bellow. The Sandhill Cranes’ are the buglers. Red-cockaded woodpeckers provide percussion with their machine gun staccato. And the cardinal red-crowned Sandhill Crane is the simultaneously gawky and graceful conductor.

Susan Heisey, Supervisory Refuge Ranger at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Folkston, GA, said, “Alligators are one of the most common inhabitants of the Okefenokee that visitors will see. Great blue herons, white ibis, wood storks, red-shouldered hawks, barred owls, prothonotary warblers, Sandhill Cranes, and roseate spoonbills can all be seen on the water trails. Bear, deer, gray squirrel, river otter, and even wild turkey can be seen from the water trails and at different overnight stops.”

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There are seven overnight sites on the 120 miles of water trails. Four have wooden platforms, measuring 20’ x 28’, with partial roofs. The other three are already high and dry. All have composting toilets. Reservations and permits are required.

If it sounds like the Okenfenokee Water Trail is playing your song, a fellow paddler agrees.

Balie Todd, a music professional from Tennessee said, “The canoe trails and platforms in the Okefenokee offer incredible opportunities to experience a fascinatingly unique ecosystem. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a photographer, or a videographer, you’ll be glad you took the trip. As someone who works with sound for a living, I was thrilled to hear the wildlife. Birds, frogs, and alligators produce rich soundscapes of an intensity that I’d never experienced before I started going to Okefenokee. swamp pics- Last year was my first time there. I went again this year, and I’m already looking forward to next year. I’ve camped many places throughout my life and this swamp has become my destination of choice.”

Heisey said, “There are close to 120 miles of water trails that make up the Okefenokee Water Trail system. Portions of the overnight canoe trails are more difficult than others with longer distances between overnight stops. The RED Trail is an overnight canoe trail for visitors that want to experience the solitude of the Okefenokee Wilderness. Any visitor that books a 3-4 night trip with an overnight camping permit should be an experienced paddler. Paddlers may encounter peat blow ups that must be paddled across, down trees, and low water levels that all make navigating the trail difficult. It is not uncommon for overnight canoeists to have to portage their boat across logs or through low water. If people are interested in booking an overnight camping permit for the Okefenokee, but don’t have a lot of paddling experience, there are overnight stops that are just a short distance from the Main Entrance near Folkston and the Stephen C Foster State Park where people can camp. It is required for people to book these permits in advance.”

Camping on the Okefenokee Water Trails is available with an overnight Wilderness Camping Permit only. The refuge offers three islands and seven camping platforms located throughout the Okefenokee that can be booked for anywhere from a one night trip to a four night trip (only 1-2 night trips in March/April). The permit system is featured on Recreation.gov, where visitors can access information about the permit process and view which overnight stops are available. People should make a profile in Recreation.gov before calling to book a permit. Visitors can make a permit reservation up to two months in advance and need to call the canoe reservation line at 912-496-3331 (between 7AM – 10AM Monday – Friday, excluding federal holidays) to book a permit.

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“Many portions of the trail that are great for beginners,” Heisey said. “The Suwannee Canal and associated day-use trails are accessible from the Main Entrance managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service near Folkston, GA. If beginning paddling visitors enter the Okefenokee through the Stephen C Foster State Park near Fargo, GA, the water trail into Billys Lake/Billys Island and to Minnies Lake is a beautiful route. Nearly 75 miles are open to day-use boating and paddling.”

There’s a map here with trails marked from easy to difficult, which also shows day trip options. And if you’re looking for services, that’s in the swamp too.

Stephen C. Foster State Park (Fargo, GA), located deep in the Okefenokee, provides access to day-use and overnight visitors. Billys Island is just a short trip and provides visitors a glimpse into the history of the swamp. Billys Island once supported a logging community with a population of nearly 800 people. The state park has a store on site with camping supplies, tee-shirts, books, and souvenirs for sale. The park also provides rental canoes and fishing boats, as well as offering boat tours daily.  Their website is http://gastateparks.org/StephenCFoster and their phone number is 912-637-5274.

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More info:

Okenenokee National Wildlife Refuge Website

National Water Trails System: Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trails Webpage

Georgia River Network: Okefenokee Wilderness Area Canoe Trails Webpage

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