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Exploring Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia’s top wildlife tourism destination

10Best logo 10Best 8/16/2021 Jared Ranahan, Special to USA TODAY 10Best
a flock of birds flying over a body of water: Ibis are a common sight across Okefenokee Swamp © Georgia State Parks Ibis are a common sight across Okefenokee Swamp

When it comes to rich biodiversity and pristine natural beauty, the United States is home to a wealth of incredible destinations scattered across all 50 states. While iconic national parks like Denali, Death Valley and the Grand Canyon have earned worldwide acclaim, one particularly fascinating natural feature has flown largely under the radar. Measuring in at over 400,000 acres of pristine wetlands sprawled across Georgia and Florida, Okefenokee Swamp is one of the last great bastions of wilderness left in the southern United States.

In spite of its massive size, there are few access points that offer visitors a glimpse into the untamed wilderness of North America's largest blackwater swamp. However, for those wishing to spend a weekend searching for native Southern flora and fauna, Stephen C. Foster State Park offers unrivaled opportunity in the remote reaches of southern Georgia. While this certified Dark Sky Park and Natural Wonder of Georgia is a top destination for ecotourism today, the entire region was a much different place in the distant past.

“Millions of years ago, the area was under the ocean,” says Josh Snead, Interpretive Ranger at Stephen C. Foster State Park. “It’s possible that, during this time, the saucer-shaped depression the Okefenokee Swamp would later occupy was formed. After the ocean receded, freshwater replaced saltwater, and plant life and peat deposits began to fill in the depression. A mosaic of habitats like wet prairies, dense cypress forest and upland pine forests are found throughout this 438,000-acre wetland.”

a bridge over a body of water: Stephen C. Foster State Park is home to over 12,000 alligators © Josh Snead Stephen C. Foster State Park is home to over 12,000 alligators

For those planning to explore this diverse array of natural habitats, there’s no shortage of lodging options scattered all across the park grounds. There are over 60 sites available for RVs, trailers or anyone brave enough to rough it in their own personal tent, while anybody in need of more upscale accommodations can book one of the park’s nine fully-furnished cottages. Equipped with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and a personal backyard fire pit, these spacious dwellings are perfect for immersing oneself in the natural world without having to go totally prehistoric.

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Of course, no trip to Okefenokee is complete without venturing into the remote depths of the swamp in search of wildlife – a feat that’s best accomplished on a guided motorboat tour. With a Stephen C. Foster State Park ranger versed in the ins and outs of the swamp as your pilot, this is by far the best way to acquaint yourself with the many creatures that call the park home.

“There are around 620 species of plants, 39 fish, 37 amphibian, 64 reptile, 234 bird and 50 mammal species known in the swamp today,” says Snead. “Alligators, white-tailed deer and turkey are regularly seen around the park during the day. Most nights, barred owls hoot across the campground, and after an evening rain shower, many species of frogs will call out. In spring, swallow-tailed kites arrive from their wintering grounds in South America to nest and are frequently seen acrobatically flying over the park. During the winter, river otters are more commonly seen in the main waterways, and sandhill cranes are frequently heard calling from marshy areas throughout the swamp.”

a close up of a reptile: There are two distinct species within the alligator family: the American alligator and the Chinese alligator © Josh Snead There are two distinct species within the alligator family: the American alligator and the Chinese alligator

While some may be drawn to the park in search of the South’s larger mammal inhabitants, including bobcats, black bears and gray foxes, these particular beasts tend to steer clear of any human activity. They're therefore seldom seen by visitors – though you may be able to catch a glimpse of one if you’re particularly lucky. For avid bird watchers, a particularly prized sight is the red-cockaded woodpecker. According to Snead, these mottled creatures tend to gravitate towards mature pine forests, and they're currently endangered in the state of Georgia.

Okefenokee Swamp may be one of the state’s most iconic natural features, but it’s far from the only one worth visiting in the region. For a truly memorable vacation, add a second preserve to the list after you’ve thoroughly explored Stephen C. Foster State Park.

A few minutes' north of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge’s boundaries, Laura S. Walker State Park offers visitors the opportunity to spot gopher tortoises, pitcher plants and all manner of wading birds, and it even comes equipped with its own 18-hole golf course. Meanwhile, those who make the journey to Georgia’s idyllic seashore can find Cumberland Island, a pristine coastal getaway that’s rife with sandy beaches.

Georgia might earn most of its acclaim thanks to its world-class cities, but the state has far more to offer than simply Atlanta and Savannah. Stephen C. Foster State Park may be a little difficult to get to, but there are few things in life more satisfying than sitting still in a kayak in the heart of the swamp, surrounded by nothing but the gentle hum of Georgia’s native wildlife.

10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network, providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world, in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.


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