Located in rural south Georgia, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge comprises almost 400,000 acres of swampland and cypress forests. Famed for its wildlife, the park offers some of the most primitive wilderness canoeing in the region.
The Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge boasts a variety of wildlife – over four hundred species, with the alligator being the most sought after sight in the park. Black bears, sand hill cranes, and red cockaded woodpeckers round out the list of animals synonymous with the park.
With roughly 120 miles of boat trails open for use, the park offers ample opportunity for day trips, allowing paddlers the chance to visit myriad locations from one of the parks three main entrances. There are also companies that offer day trips on power boats for those looking to enjoy the scenery of the park without much exertion.
The real adventure is found in overnight canoe trips. Currently, the park offers one through four night self guided trips through the park. The park contains only seven overnight camping areas, so once they are filled up no one else can stay in the park at night.
These trips are not for the novice paddler. The water level is fairly low, which can leave stretches of trail where paddlers have to drag their canoes through shallow water, over peat moss deposits, and/or around vegetation. The bottom in the Okefenokee can be a thick, sticky mud, so hauling a canoe over it can be an exhausting experience. Add to that the virtual lack of any kind of current and you have a trip that is no free ride, but rather constant paddle.
All the effort pays off when you find yourself quietly gliding alongside swimming alligators or discovering flocks of cranes or other waterfowl in the many ponds and lakes that dot the park. Black bears can often be seen along the banks of the trails as well as around the campsites at night. The canoe trip in particular, and the park in general, provides wonderful opportunities for nature and wildlife photography. Fishing, with proper permit, is also allowed.
Of the seven campsites, Round Top on the Purple Trail is the must do, especially on a night with a good moon. The shelter has a 360 degree view of the surrounding swamp land. The Purple Trail winds through the Chase Prairie, which is a lot of swamp grass and cypress trees.
The hardest run of the six trails is the Red Trail, which consists of three long days of grueling paddling. If you are up for a challenge, this trail provides about thirty miles of it and makes a great weekend warrior getaway.
Most of the trails consist of eight to twelve mile stretches each day. The last day may be a full day of paddling or a shorter stint to get to the trail head. If you don’t feel up to it on your own, there are guide companies that will take you through the trails. While it doesn’t happen often, people do get lost, sick, dehydrated, or disoriented. And animals do pose a threat. Reservations are required and the entry fee for wilderness canoeing is currently $10 per person per day.
Depending on the entrance you use, cabins and campsites may be available. Check with park officials prior to arriving on availability of accommodations as well as trail conditions. In periods of low water or other natural events, whole trails can be shut down.