Explore Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia’s Top Wildlife Tourist Destination


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

a flock of birds flying over a body of water: ibises are common in the Okefenokee swamp

© Georgia State Parks
Ibis are a common sight across Okefenokee Swamp

Despite its massive size, there are few access points that offer visitors a glimpse into the wilderness of North America’s largest blackwater swamp. However, for those who wish to spend a weekend in search of the native flora and fauna of the South, Stephen C. Foster State Park offers unparalleled opportunity in remote areas of southern Georgia. Although this certified Starry sky park and Natural wonder of Georgia is a prime destination for ecotourism today, the whole region was a very different place in the distant past.

“Millions of years ago the area was under the ocean,” says Josh Snead, ranger interpreter at Stephen C. Foster State Park. “It is possible that, during this time, the saucer-shaped depression that the Okefenokee Swamp would later occupy may have formed. After the ocean receded, fresh water replaced salt water, and plant life and peat deposits began to fill the depression. A mosaic of habitats such as wet meadows, dense cypress forest, and upland pine forests are found in this 438,000-acre wetland.

Park is home to over 12,000 alligators” data-id=”60″ data-m=”{"i":60,"p":58,"n":"openModal","t":"articleImages","o":2}”>
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 is no shortage of accommodation options dotted throughout the park. There are over 60 pitches available for motorhomes, caravans, or anyone brave enough to venture into their own personal tent, while anyone in need of more upscale accommodation can book the one of the nine fully furnished chalets in the park. Equipped with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and a personal fireplace in the courtyard, these spacious accommodations are perfect for immersing yourself in the natural world without having to go totally to prehistoric times.

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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 best accomplished on a guided motorboat tour. With a ranger Stephen C. Foster State Park well versed in the ins and outs of the swamp as a pilot, this is by far the best way to familiarize yourself with the many creatures that inhabit the park.

“There are approximately 620 species of plants, 39 fish, 37 amphibians, 64 reptiles, 234 species of birds and 50 species of mammals known in the swamp today,” Snead explains. “Alligators, white-tailed deer and turkeys are regularly seen in the park during the day. Most nights barred owls hoot in the campground and after an evening downpour many species of frogs are calling. In the spring, dovetail kites arrive from their wintering grounds in South America to nest and are commonly seen acrobatic flight over the park. During the winter, river otters are more commonly seen in major rivers and sandhill cranes are frequently heard calling from swampy areas of the marsh.

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 largest mammals, including bobcats, black bears, and gray foxes, these particular beasts tend to shy away from human activity. So they’re rarely seen by visitors – although you might be able to spot one if you’re particularly lucky. For bird watchers, a particularly popular sight is the red cockade woodpecker. According to Snead, these spotted creatures tend to gravitate towards mature pine forests and are currently endangered in the state of Georgia.

The Okefenokee Swamp may be one of the state’s most iconic natural features, but it is far from the only one to visit in the region. For a truly memorable vacation, add a second reserve to the list after thoroughly exploring Stephen C. Foster State Park.

A few minutes north of the limits of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Laura S. Walker State Park offers visitors the chance to spot waffle turtles, jug plants and all manner of wading birds, and it even has its own 18-hole golf course. Meanwhile, those making the trip to Georgia’s idyllic coastline can find Cumberland Island, a pristine coastal getaway filled with sandy beaches.

Georgia might earn most of its acclaim from its world-class cities, but the state has so much more to offer than just Atlanta and Savannah. Stephen C. Foster State Park might be a little tricky to get to, but there are few things in life more satisfying than sitting in a kayak in the heart of the swamp surrounded only by the gentle hum of native Georgia wildlife.

10Best is part of the USA TODAY Network, offering a truly local perspective on destinations around the world, in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.

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