Okefenokee Info

 

Note: more info is located at the end of this “3 Entrances”  – keep scrolling way on down

 3 Entrances to Okefenokee Swamp? – What’s the deal?

 

Here is the Question
“I am confused, because there are three seemingly major entrances of the Okefenokee Swamp. What are the differences between the three entrances, their locales and how do I figure out which one or more might be best suited to me.”

To answer this complex question, it is easier to describe each entrance and allow you to pick which entrance best suits you and your interests.

The East Entrance of Okefenokee NWR a.k.a. Suwannee Canal Entrance – Think of the United States Government or Federal public lands management of almost 700 square miles of the swamp under jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, specifically the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service known here as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. This entrance contains ONWR headquarters plus the “National” public use and visitor facilities for Okefenokee. This entrance is located on the east (Atlantic Coast) side of the swamp. Entrance into ONWR is 7 miles south of Folkston, GA.

The West Entrance of Okefenokee NWR a.k.a. Stephen C. Foster State Park Entrance – Think of the State Government of Georgia – the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources who leases this small tract of land from the Federal Government to operate a state park. The leased area is less than 100 acres and functions as one of Georgia’s numerous state parks. This entrance is located on the west (inland) side of the swamp 18 miles from Fargo, GA.

The North Entrance or a.k.a. Okefenokee Swamp Park (nearby to the north part of Okefenokee NWR) – This is an old (from the 40’s) privately held business, commercially oriented, non taxpayer or Govt. funding supported. Swamp Park is the oldest, longest operating public accessible tourist facility oriented to Okefenokee Swamp. Swamp Park’s entrance and facilities have access but are situated mainly on lands outside the Okefenokee NWR. The Okefenokee Swamp Park is located at the edge of the Wildlife Refuge on the north side of the swamp 6 miles south of Waycross, GA.

Comparisons and Characteristics of the three entrances

East Entrance This is the headquarters for the whole thing, the 700 square miles that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Manages. These guys are the boss and make all the decisions that influence everything that happens within the boundary of the Refuge. This entrance is on the coastal side of the swamp approximately 35 miles (as the crow flies) from Cumberland Island National Seashore giving the east entrance an added convenience of the ability to see both these different spectacular natural National treasures from a single area location.
The east side of Okefenokee Swamp is dominated by habitat called prairie (it’s a wetland feature, not the same place Laura Ingels lived in a little house) which actually possesses what many educated in wetland ecology consider to be some of the most unique aspects of all Southeastern swamp features. The Okefenokee prairies are captivating to any nature enthusiast because of the wide open spaces and bright vistas of plant and animal habitats. Considered excellent for wading bird sightings and as alligator, reptile and amphibian habitat the east side has many areas within reach in this mosaic of ecosystems available for public enjoyment. Suwannee Canal (the east side primary waterway) is considered one of the most reliable high and low water entry access points into the interior of the Okefenokee. A number of water trails for day and over night use start here or are easily reached from this entrance’s boat basin.
Quite a number of people have missed this entrance entirely because it was advertised much less than the other two entrances. One obvious exception would be for anyone who gets seriously into the Okefenokee Swamp (researchers, scientists, journalists, educators etc). They usually become familiar with this entrance through their actual contacts with the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and its administrators. Many professional writers, travelers and explorers insist this entrance rates as the best one if you are only able to visit a single entrance. If you have the time for more, then the consensus is that the west entrance at Stephen Foster S.P. be visited next on the list and last but not necessarily least is the north entrance at Swamp Park near Waycross. Travel times driving from this entrance to the other two entrances is as follows. Stephen C. Foster State Park and the west side entrance is about 75 miles or a 1 hour 15 minute drive.  The Swamp Park or the north entrance is about 40 miles or a 45 minute drive.

Facilities available at east entrance: The Visitor center area for Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has a museum, interactive science displays, nice film on the Okefenokee, information for the public and a small gift shop. Profits from items purchased from the visitor center gift shop help support the wildlife refuge in various projects not funded by tax dollars. A “Friends of the Refuge” non-profit organization staffed by volunteers runs this small gift shop within the visitor center. Profits from sales at the visitor center stay at the Wildlife Refuge. A nice picnic area with tables and some limited grilling facility is situated under the longleaf pines by the visitor center entrance.
The Wildlife Drive (starting at the top of the visitor center parking lot) is a 7 mile blacktop loop ending at a parking, picnic and rest area with public restrooms. This is the trail head for the impressive swamp board walk extending into the swamp ¾ mile one way, ending at a 60 foot tall tree top observation tower looking out west over Seagrove Lake and out into Chesser Prairie.
Nearby is the Chesser Island Homestead, a national heritage site which preserves the old homestead, illustrating the way of life early European descendent American pioneer settlers and a subsistence farm family at the Okefenokee Swamp. Area contains the Chesser house, barn, smokehouse and other preserved structures of interest relating to pioneer homesteading around the Okefenokee. The Chesser Island Homestead area also has a pre-Colombian archaeological mound site. Numerous miles of walking trails are located at different areas and locations found around the visitor center and the east entrance area.
A private business {a contract concession business named Okefenokee Adventures} is contracted by the U.S. Federal Government and pays a small percentage of their gross income to be allowed to conduct business at the site exclusively. The concessionaire operates at this entrance a gift shop and provides services such as watercraft rentals, motorboat tours into the swamp, food, gear and bicycle rentals. It is located by the public boat ramp. The owners and staff of the concession are not federal employees or volunteers.

At the Entrance: Okefenokee Pastimes is located just outside the Refuge’s Main entrance, directly across from the entrance. It is the closest most convenient accommodations to this entrance. Featuring Overnight Cabins, Camping (RV & Tent), Shuttles, Outfitting, Canoe & Kayak rentals and a small campground store.

7 miles away in Folkston: Folkston, GA is a pretty typical small South Georgia town offering other overnight accommodations. Folkston has Doctors, gas, fast food restaurants, a golf course, skeet shooting, a hand full of family restaurant choices, a super market, a good little fresh produce store, 2 drug stores, several Gift shops, hardware stores and a sporting goods store. Oh yeah, and train watching!
More different choices are about 30 miles away nearer the coast in Kingsland and St. Marys, GA.  Jacksonville International Airport is less than a 1 hour drive, Atlantic Ocean beaches in GA & FL are about the same distance.

West Entrance Located on the western inland side of the swamp closer to the I-75 corridor and the very middle of southern Georgia. Geographically the west side entrance is very interesting because it is located on a narrow peninsula of high ground called “The Pocket” that juts into the swamp bordered on one side by the Suwannee River. This is another wonderful area for boaters especially if water levels are up. From this access you have the more Hollywood style cypress swamp as the dominate feature. The west side’s dominate feature is more typical and common of many gulf coast area swamp wetlands. The Suwannee River leaves the swamp there and develops a current when water is high, which is why most people end their swamp overnight trips at that side. Billy’s Lake and Island are easily boated to and several boat trails lead to other wonderful swamp locales. The newborn Suwannee River snakes through this part of Okefenokee to a spot where it leaves the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near the Suwannee Sill, an earthen dam misguidedly constructed many years ago. This government boo-boo was designed and never worked correctly to hold water levels un-naturally high in the swamp in order to prevent fires. The sill is another water access point located within Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge about 5 miles from Stephen Foster SP. Be aware that water levels could and do fluctuate radically on this side. Too much water and too little water can be serious. I have seen both situations shut down water access at the state park, more commonly the problem is low water conditions.

Facilities available at west entrance: Services offered at Stephen Foster are camping, cottages, boat launch, day use fee collections, boat rentals for paddle boats & motor boats, short guided tours, Okefenokee souvenirs, snacks and small camp store. They operate out of a concession building right on the water at the boat basin by the boat ramp. There is also a small museum located close by and a picnic areas with a sort of playground for kids.

Fargo, GA 18 miles away: A very tiny, timber is king town, near the Suwannee River on U.S. 441 in rural south central Georgia resting on the west and inland side of the Okefenokee. It is a long drive into Stephen Foster S.P. from Fargo, GA the closest town offering supplies or services. Fargo doesn’t have too much, basically a motel, a few stores, gas, restaurants.

North Entrance “The Okefenokee Swamp Park” is located 6 miles south of Waycross, GA and is a commercially oriented business. Swamp Park being the oldest and longest operating ONWR tourist facility is classified as a concession also and has certain grand-fathered in aspects not found at the other entrances. After World War II a group of prominent business people from Waycross got together to create this business. The Idea was to attract some of the hordes of tourist traffic going south for vacations straight to FL and right past Waycross and Okefenokee. At first and for many years Swamp Park resembled many of the roadside and tourist traps you would see throughout Florida. As Swamp Park evolved as a business, probably with some prodding by USFWS, it became more of a zoological park and a higher quality attraction by taking on more of a ecological, conservation, heritage and a less tacky entertainment orientation.  Swamp Park’s facilities have very limited access into the interior of Okefenokee NWR and actually utilizing most of its land outside the Okefenokee NWR, Cow House Island and The Dixon Memorial State Forest. Okefenokee Swamp Park also has a special and very old relationship with the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge/USFWS. There is no real access by boats into the interior of Okefenokee for the public by way of this entrance. The part of the refuge seen up in this section is not usually considered as dramatic as it can be at the other entrances but is still beautiful and might be all that many get to see of the Okefenokee.

Facilities available at north entrance: Swamp Park charges a separate additional entrance fee and offers train rides, shows, animal, reptile and amphibian zoological type displays, 1 and 2 hour boat tours into the swamp and a gift shop. The grounds are pretty to walk around with nicely landscaped foot paths in the vicinity of waterways harboring gators. Swamp Park has a special area dedicated to Walt Kelly the creator of the comic strip “Pogo”. Walt Kelly’s Okefenokee Swamp dwelling character “Pogo” (a very enlightened O’possum who had many interesting Okefenokee critter friends) is the patron saint of the Okefenokee Swamp. The Swamp Park does a nice job of paying homage to Pogo as well as the creative giant, Walt Kelly who brought the Okefenokee Swamp into the homes of millions. In one area they have re-created the studio where he worked on the strip, it’s worth seeing if you were a fan of Pogo.

Near the entrance: Where you turn to head into Swamp Park and across highway US 1, a mile or so up an entrance road into the Dixon Memorial State Forest is Laura Walker State Park. Yet another, Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources controlled State Park offering camping, cottages, and a golf course.

6 miles away in Waycross: Waycross, GA is the big city of the Okefenokee Swamp, named for its railroad convergence. Waycross has several other Okefenokee related and tourist oriented destination spots and many restaurants, department stores, accommodations, etc.

Hope this information has helped you. We know we left some things out but this should have covered the important stuff.

More Info on Okefenokee & the area – keep scrolling down

NORMAL REFUGE HOURS ON EAST SIDE

March 1 – October 31 open: half hour before sunrise to 7:30pm
Nov. 1st – February 28/29 open: half hour before sunrise to 5:30pm

Entrance Fees:

$5.00‚ The private, non-commercial vehicle entrance fee is $5. For a seven day pass.

Bicycles are a $1.00 for a pass.

Special Fire Info – 2017  fire bringing “New Life” and habitat health to the Okefenokee. Get a little education on fires at the Okefenokee.

Q and A on the fires

HAS FIRE HARMED THE SWAMP?

No. Fire is important and vital to the swamp’s ecosystem because most of the refuge is open wet prairie that supports an extensive community of plants and animals. Without wildfires, Okefenokee would be transformed into a strangled bog and many species such as the Sandhill Crane might disappear. Alligator habitat would be seriously degraded.

HOW WILL THE VISITOR EXPERIENCE BE CHANGED BY THE 2017 FIRE ?

Not much overall really. Nature is is recovering quite quickly and efficiently, only some small scarring remains. The East Entrance has the best water levels for swamp excursions on the water. Many times low water can be the best and most exciting situation for wildlife viewing.

HOW HAS SWAMP WILDLIFE FARED?

Some animals did die, but overall the populations seemed to have done fine. Gopher tortoises and most snakes burrowed. Birds flew away and are now coming back.

WHAT ARE THE LONG-TERM IMPACTS OF THE FIRE?

In the swamp, the fire burned lots of the woody low growth vegetation, opening up some of the prairies and reducing the number of land building plants. This eventually will increase the number of wetland acres in the refuge when water levels rise again from increased rainfall. Visitors will get to see more and better wildlife such as alligators, all wading bird species and most mammals because so much of the view blocking undergrowth had burned up. The acidity levels in the water will be lowered by potash from the fires and in the future that should mean more fish will thrive.

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE FOR TREES AND OTHER VEGETATION TO GROW BACK?

Many shrubs, grasses, ferns and aquatic plants already are grown back. Trees are growing, but it could take years for them to fully recover their canopies.

WHAT WILL GROW BACK?

Almost everything in the swamp. Cypress & Bay trees are sprouting out right now. In the upland (dryer) areas the fires will have removed many smaller trees and the strangling shrubs to create better long leaf pine habitat. Planting more long leaf pines will help to restore them as the dominant native tree of Okefenokee’s upland plant communities.

WHAT BURNED AND WHAT’S LEFT OF THE SWAMP?

Of the over 430,000 acres inside the boundaries of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge the 2017 fire burned over 153,000 acres. It is about 1/3 of the Okefenokee. The swamp is renewed, it recovers naturally and the birds and animals will be attracted back by this rebirth.

 

 

 

 

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