The Okefenokee Swamp
The Fellow Travelers traditionally take a three-day trip through the Okefenokee about the first week-end in October. This trip is limited to ten persons because that is about the number who can camp on the platforms without severe overcrowding. There is a fee of $10 per person per night which must be paid in advance in order to secure the necessary permit.
Swamp trips are great, but there are restrictions which make them somewhat inferior to river trips. Most camping is on crowded platforms, and there are no campfires. Most trails have almost nowhere to stop for a dry land break. Canoeing can be strenuous if the water level is low. Peat blow-ups can make it seem more like pushing through mud rather than canoeing through water. Still, most of the canoeing is easy, and a swamp trip is one of the best opportunities to see wildlife.
There are three entrances for canoes--Stephen Foster Park near Fargo, the Suwannee Canal entrance near Folkston, and the Kingfisher Landing near Racepond, about midway between Folkston and Waycross. It is also possible to launch canoes at the Suwannee River sill, but this is better used for trips down the Suwannee than for actually canoeing the swamp. Private canoes can not enter the swamp at the commercial park near Waycross.
Stephen Foster State Park (soon to be included in the new Okefenokee State Park) is an excellent park with 67 campsites, nice cabins at a reasonable fee, rental motorboats and canoes, a museum, and a primitive campground available for group use. The boat basin is just off Billy's Lake. There is a fee for entrance into the refuge and for launching boats.
Stephen Foster is the place to go for those wanting to see Billy's Lake, Billy's Island, the Suwannee River narrows, the sill, the Middle Fork Run of the Suwannee, Minnie's Lake, and Big Water Lake. All of these destinations can be reached in a day's time and still give the paddler time to return before dark--but those going to Big Water should get an early start.
The Brown Trail to Craven’s Hammock is probably permanently closed since the Suwannee sill is no longer used to maintain a higher water level on the western side of the swamp. The Fellow Travelers once had a permit to Craven’s Hammock but could not complete the trip due to low water levels, and that was when the sill was in operation. However, Chip Campbell of Okefenokee Adventures says it is still possible to get a permit for the trip. There is a large of area of dry land at the end of the trail, and it is supposed to be a really grand site for camping.
The west side of the swamp is probably the most scenic area, particularly for those who like beautiful cypress trees and canopied canoe trails. The area is fairly busy, especially the Billy's Lake and Billy's Island sections. Birds and alligators are easily spotted. Deer, foxes, raccoons, and foxes roam the park. Occasionally a bobcat is seen, and even more occasionally a black bear will be noted.
Suwannee Canal, or Camp Cornelia, is the headquarters for the refuge. There is a boardwalk, an observation tower, a museum, rental canoes and motorboats, and a restored swamp homestead. There is a fee for entrance into the refuge and a launch fee for boats.
The Suwannee Canal itself is much like a river, and is not especially interesting. It is obviously a man-made trail, but without it the interior of the swamp would be inaccessible. The day use portion of the canal is almost straight for about ten miles, and ends just past the Canal Run shelter. There is a day use shelter at Coffee Bay, and it is a hangout for alligators and raccoons looking for a scrap of food. There are chemical toilets at Coffee Bay and about a mile from the put-in.
The Suwannee Canal is the put-in for those who wish to paddle through Grand Prairie and Chesser Prairie. Trails lead to Monkey Lake, Buzzard's Roost Lake, and Gannett Lake. Most of the area reached from the Suwannee Canal entrance is open prairie, but it is alive with alligators and birds. Between November and February the prairies are home to hundreds of sandhill cranes.
The Orange Trail begins at the Suwannee Canal entrance and has the Canal Run shelter as the overnight stop. This shelterhas been rebilt and is now a full-size shelter in excellent repair. There is a little dry land where tents can be pitched. Beware of expecting this dry ground in wet weather,. Campfires are permitted here. The trail from the shelter to Stephn Foster has the reputation of being overgrown and unpleasant, but three Fellow Travelers paddled it in 2005 and found it to be an unmitigated delight. The trail is narrow, but there was only place which required anyone to get out of the canoes to clear an obstruction. The trail had numerous alligators, turtles, and birds. The wildflowers were perhaps the prettiest ever observed in the Okefenokee.
The Purple Trail is a favorite. It, too, begins at Suwannee Canal. About eight miles down the canal the trails takes off to the right through Chase Prairie. This portion of the trail is difficult at low water levels, but it is a bird watcher's paradise. Wood storks are often seen. The shelter at Round Top is in good repair, and gives a beautiful view of the sunsets and sunrises. The sight of sandhill cranes flying against the colorful sky is one to remember.
From Round Top, it is an easy paddle to the second night's destination at Floyd's Island, although the canal to the island can also be difficult in low water. Yellow flies and mosquitoes are a real problem in that stretch. The trail itself is very pretty, and it becomes forested within about a mile of Floyd's Island.
The island is a delightful place to spend time. There is an old cabin there, and it is available for sleeping and eating. The cabin has recently undergone major repairs and is in exceptionally good repair. It does, however, have its share of roaches and rodents. There is a well there. Be prepared to prime the pump, and do not expect to drink the highly sulfuric water. The island is home to many deer, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, and probably black bears. The oaks and pines are enormous. Campfires are permitted, and firewood is plentiful.
The island requires portaging the canoes and gear across the island, but there are carts there to make the task easier. The run from Floyd's Island is through a mostly forested area, and it joins the Red Trail for its final miles to Stephen Foster Park.
The Kingfisher Landing entrance is without facilities except for a porta-john. Finding the place presents a problem, but it is on County Road 99 off US 1 just south of Racepond. This is the beginning of the Red and Green Trails. Both begin in a man-made canal and split about mile later, the Green Trail turning south toward Bluff Lake and the Red Trail turning north toward Maul Hammock.
The Red Trail is the longest trail in the system, and reaching Maul Hammock before dark can be a chore if the water level is low. The trail winds through open prairie through Double Lakes, Ohio Lake, and finally to Maul Hammock Lake. The shelter is in poor repair. Maul Hammock is a pretty lake, though.
After leaving Maul Hammock, the trail begins to run through narrow channels of shrub plants. Spider webs are a constant nuisance. There is a fairly good break area at Dinner Pond, and a water monitoring station is there. From Dinner Pond, the trail goes through a section with many logs obstructing the waterway, but it is generally possible to negotiate the trail without getting out of the canoe. Once Big Water Lake is reached the canoeing becomes easy. There is a day use shelter shortly after entering the lake. The Big Water shelter is slightly off the main trail on the spur trail to Floyd's Island. The shelter is in excellent repair, but it sits high above the water and requires lifting the gear a bit.
From the shelter to Stephen Foster is a piece of cake. After leaving Big Water Lake, the trail is mostly through wooded areas until reaching Minnie's Lake. This is one of the prettiest lakes in the swamp. The cypress trees are huge, and alligators abound. There is a day-use shelter on the right at the end of the lake.
The trail from Minnie's Lake to Billy's Lake is through the Middle Fork of the Suwannee. This is another twisting section and requires some quick paddling to avoid running into the cypress trees.
It is easy to reach Billy's Island, the most over-rated part of the swamp. Take a left upon entering Billy's Lake and paddle about a mile to the landing. There is a cemetery and some remnants of the logging community which was on the island during the first part of the twentieth century.
It is only about two miles to the take-out at Stephen Foster.
The Green Trail is also a prairie trail all the way to Bluff Lake. It winds through to Flag Lake and Durden Lake before reaching the shelter. The shelter is in an area where day use is permitted, so it is possible to run into other people even after setting up camp on the shelter. Again, the shelter is in need of repair and can be home to vultures. Bluff Lake is fairly small, but it is a pretty view from the shelter.
After leaving the shelter, the trail continues toward the junction with the Blue Trail which connects the Purple Trail and Green Trail. It is a fairly easy paddle to Floyd's Island but the canopied trails are a haven for spiders. Occasionally low water makes the paddling difficult.
Organized groups (Boy Scouts, church groups, etc.) are allowed to camp at Mixon’s Hammock which is just past the south end of Billy’s Lake and less than two miles from Stephen Foster State Park. Mixon’s Hammock has a dock and a composting toilet but no shelter and no tables. It is a beautiful camping area reminiscent of Floyd’s Island minus the cabin. Camping is in a clearing under the hardwoods. The trail from the dock to the camping area is approximately 200 yards. It is an excellent vantage point to explore the western side of the swamp. The Fellow Travelers were able to use the area in October 2007 because most of the trails were closed due to fire damage and extremely low water levels. Anyone camping at this site would be able to tour Billy’s Island and Minnie’s Lake and still return to camp before dark. Likewise, the dock is located just at the beginning of the River Narrows heading toward the sill so trips in that direction are also feasible. The hammock is populated by very large raccoons, deer, birds, and bugs.