Adventure Guide: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Head to South Georgia’s wild, winter escape for adventures across North America’s largest blackwater swamp.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is a swamp, in all the best ways you can imagine. Its 438,000 acres protect a seamless blend of wetland prairies, cypress forest and pine uplands in South Georgia, along the Florida border. All told, it represents the largest blackwater swamp in North America—a wild landscape seeped in dark, tannin-rich waters that hold key habitat for countless birds, threatened species like the red-cockaded woodpecker, water snakes, turtles and an estimated 15,000 alligators. There’s history to be found in this swamp too, home to more than 60 Native American mounds identified within the refuge. The last Indigenous people to live in the swamp were the Seminole, who moved into the area after Europeans showed up. You can also see the remnants of an early 20th-century logging boom on Billy’s Island. The Okefenokee is so rich with wildlife, history and habitat that it has been deemed a Wetland of International Importance (a step toward becoming a World Heritage Site). 

Since this is South Georgia, winter is the best time to visit Okefenokee: temps are mild, bugs are hibernating, and wildlife is frisky. Make the three-hour drive from Atlanta and you’ll likely spend most of your time in a boat (it is a swamp, after all), but there’s plenty of hiking to be had and some unique camping opportunities as well. 


Okefenokee is predominantly a paddling destination, but there are some great hiking trails that explore the terrain starting at the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, just south of Folkston, Ga. Most of the trails are flat and family-friendly, giving visitors an easy chance to see the refuge’s wildlife. The Upland Discovery Trail (.25-mile loop) delivers you into prime red-cockaded woodpecker territory, offering a prime opportunity for birding. If you want to see alligators, check out the Chesser Island Boardwalk (1.5-mile out-and-back), which is the most popular trail in the refuge. In a relatively short distance, you’ll walk through a cypress forest and grass prairies while hovering over the water on a wooden boardwalk. In addition to gators, you have the chance to see frogs, snakes and a variety of birds.

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A man stops to take photos an alligator along Chesser Island boardwalk at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Folkston, Georgia.


There are 120 miles of marked canoe trails within the refuge, all of which are signed with poles and mile markers. The Okefenokee protects the headwaters of the Suwanee and St. Mary’s rivers, but it’s all flat, slow-moving water so you don’t have to worry about fighting currents, which makes out-and-back paddling trips easy.

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The 5.5-mile Pink Trail begins on the Suwanee Canal at the east entrance before breaking off to traverse the Chesser Prairie and Grand Prairie, some of the most iconic open wetland prairie in the refuge. The trail ends at Monkey Lake (there’s an overnight shelter there if you want to turn this into a two-day trip). You’re all but guaranteed to see alligators on this trip. 

If you’re looking for a quicker day-trip, begin at Stephen C Foster State Park and paddle two miles to Billy’s Island, or paddle the 1-mile loop trail that passes by a Native American ceremonial mound. The park has canoe rentals (starting at $15).

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To experience the most variety in the refuge, consider a “thru-paddle” from the Suwanee Canal Recreation Area Visitor Center to Stephen C. Foster State Park. There are a number of routes you can take across the park, but combining portions of the Orange, Purple, Blue, Green and Red trails will provide two nights in the refuge while traversing an array of terrain, from wide-open swamp wetlands to narrow water trails lined with cypress trees to open natural lakes. You can treat the paddle as a one-way trip, or add mileage and turn it into a loop. 

Where To Camp

If you’re looking for a remote campsite, you’ll need to paddle a canoe to one of the seven overnight shelters with wooden platforms or three islands open to camping within the refuge. All of the campsites offer a remote, backcountry paddling experience allowing you to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of the swamp. And they all have port-a-potties. Snag a permit from the refuge ($15 per night/per person). If you want to car-camp, head to Foster State Park, which is carved out of the center of the refuge and has 63 sites to choose from ($55 a night). 


Okefenokee is 300 miles south of Atlanta. The Suwanee Canal Recreation Area Visitor Center, on the eastern edge of the refuge, is the main entrance to the refuge and has the most extensive hiking and paddling trails out its back door. You’ll also be able to find restaurants and gear rentals in nearby Folkston. Okefenokee Adventures offers boat rentals and guided paddling tours.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.