Okefenokee Swamp Camping

Okefenokee Swamp Camping

My Okefenokee Swamp Trip Guide and Review

Looking for details about Kayaking or Camping in the Okefenokee Swamp? For my straight-to-the-point readers, this section is for you. I’ll cover the overview of how to plan your trip. I’ll also provide you the essentials you will need for the trip, along with helpful advice and information. And of course, the most common question I get – What about kayaking with Alligators!?

Afterwards, I will go into immense detail of my day-by-day journey that Rachel and I took through this beautiful wildlife refuge.

But we’ll get to that in a second.

First, lets talk about how to plan for your trip.

Trip planning needs to be done well in advance.

This piece of advice is critical. The swamp is a popular camping spot, but it only has a limited number of camp sites. The two most popular sites I stayed at, Round Tree and Floyd’s Cabin, are taken very quickly. It’s recommended to register 2 months in advance so you can secure your camp sites. Don’t make the mistake of waiting. Even at 1 month out, you very often will not be able to secure your spot. Before calling to register, you need to know your trip route, where you plan to stay, and what to bring. Once you know that, then you will be ready to register for your trip. Let’s start with the basics of what you need to plan out for your trip.

Figure Out Your Canoeing / Kayaking Logistics and What To Bring!

Now you need to figure out how you’re going to paddle and what you need to bring with you. Are you going to Kayak or Canoe? What about packing your boat? Are you bringing your own? Or will you be renting one once you get there. And finally, are you going to need a shuttle to bring you back to your vehicle?

I’ll go into detail of each, giving you the considerations that Rachel and I made when planning our trip. We went back and forth on a few of these.

Are you going to bring Kayaks or a Canoe?

This one is a matter of preference and experience. We originally thought we would take a canoe. The problem is I’ve never really canoed before. In addition, we didn’t really have any time to practice anywhere before the trip. Given my inexperience with canoeing, we decided to go with our kayaks. We took our sit-in kayaks. My consideration before the trip was that I felt like these kayaks offered a little more security (I’ve never been kayaking with gators before!) and more storage room than my sit-on-top kayak.

Are you bringing your own Kayaks/Canoe or will you be renting one there?

This one will depend on a few factors. How are you traveling to the swamp? How many people are in your group? We took my truck and our own kayaks. We looked into renting kayaks while from Okefenokee adventures, but we determined the cost of taking the truck with gas was cheaper then renting the kayaks. I recommend calling them to see what the rental rates are to compare the cost of bringing your own. The other consideration to make is security. Kayaks have been taken from people’s cars before. So if that is a concern for you, renting may be better in that case as well.

What campsites are you staying at, and how many days will your trip be?

To plan your trip, download the map of the canoe trails by clicking here: https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/OkeMapSide2015_FINAL.pdf

The map has a description of each trail along with where each of the shelters are located. I highly recommend you call and talk to the park reservation number (in the How To Register Section below) with any questions, after you have a tentative idea of which routes you want to take. Plus, they will give you information such as if water levels are low and if there are any obstructions along your routes. I’ll give you the full route that we took once we get into the day-by-day narrative below.

When considering your trip, one helpful piece of advice is that paddling the swamp is a slower process because there is no current and your boat is loaded down with extra weight. We found we were averaging 1 to 1.5 miles per hour between taking photos, no current, or in the prairie section where lily pads block the way and slow down your progress.

Will you need a shuttle?

This will depend on the route you take. There are 3 different areas to enter and exit the swamp. Okefenokee Adventures offers a shuttle service. I did call to check into the service. However, the contact I talked to did not understand the shuttle service system or the best way to arrange times for the shuttle. He told me he would have someone call me. Unfortunately, they called me the day before our trip after we scrapped our plans to use the shuttle several days before.

Our biggest deterrent was the time required for this. We were looking at dropping of the car at the exit point and shuttling back to the entrance point. However, park rules require you to be in the water by 10 am. Plus we did not want to lose all of that time in the shuttle.

On the flip side, we were uncertain on a specific exit time. We were uncertain how to arrange a shuttle to pick us up at the exit, and again we figured by that point we would rather be hitting the road for food and home instead of riding in a shuttle. So ultimately, we skipped the shuttle idea. However, it would have been nice to have someone explain our options, but I missed the call and did not return the phone call back to Okefenokee Adventures.

Packing Your Boat / What To Bring For Your Camping Trip

So this one took a lot of time. Having a detailed-oriented girlfriend really helps here as well! Rachel is great at thinking of most everything we need for our trips. Here is what we brought with us.

Essentials
  • Water – This one is the most important. It was recommended by the park to bring our own water instead of filtering the swamp water. So we packed about 6 gallons of water for 3 days, 2 nights. The downside to this is the amount of added weight to the boat. Now, I am not an advanced kayaker but I usually move along pretty well. The first day with a loaded boat of water, my normal paddling speed slowed down significantly.
  • Tent – The platforms are covered but if you are looking to escape the bugs a tent is a must have.
  • Plenty of Bug Spray & Sun Screen
  • Food of your choice – We brought normal camping food
  • Camping Stove with bowls and utensils
  • Rain Coats
  • Hats
  • Clothes for the trip with a few extras just in case. We also had some stashed in the car to change into after we came back.
  • Deodorant, sunscreen, and other simple items such as tooth brush, tooth paste, hand sanitizer, etc.
  • Park Map
Extra Items We Brought But Are Not Required
  • Nikon D7200 was my camera of choice with a landscaping lens. I did not have a zoom lens for wildlife at this time yet which is very disappointing, but I still managed to obtain some really beautiful photos.
  • Playing cards
  • Binoculars
  • Battery Power Packs to recharge my camera batteries and cell phone

How To Register To Camp At The Okefenokee Swamp

To register for your overnight trip you, will need to call the park permit reservation number at 912-496-3331 between 7:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. (EST) Monday – Friday (excluding federal holidays). Yes you read that right. You only have a 3 hour window during the mornings to call. Don’t be like me. I would get busy and then wham bam. It was past 10 am and I had to wait until the next day.

Another key tip – the phone line will often be busy. They only have 1 person working the phones typically. They are all very, very nice and helpful. Even though I am sure they get the same questions over and over, they answered all my questions with enthusiasm and courtesy. So just remember to call before 10 am and call again if there is no answer or the line is busy.

Once you call, they will gather your information and you can tell them what camp sites and dates you plan to visit the park. After you have done this, you will need to log onto recreation.gov to pay for your trip and obtain your permits. Print out your permits. You will need one for each vehicle that you park.

The price at the time I went was $15 per person for each night, plus a $10 recreation.gov fee. So the total for me and my girlfriend for 2 nights was $70. Parking is included at no extra charge.

Where to Stay at the Night Before?

When planning your trip, I recommend you stay the night before somewhere nearby. You have to be on the water by 10 am, and you will need a good night’s rest. The park is located right next to Folkston, Georgia. When we looked to book a room, all the hotels/motels were full. We are not sure if a special event was going on that weekend, but we ended up staying in Waycross, Georgia at the Holiday Inn Express, which was about 30-45 minutes up the road. The hotel was great, and if you can not grab a room in Folkston I would recommend staying there.

Planning Guide Conclusion

That pretty much covers everything you need to know in order to plan and get your trip set up. Now, the next part of this post is going to go into detail of each day of our trip.

Day 1: The Adventure in the Okefenokee Swamp Begins

So we managed out of our snug hotel beds, devoured some coffee, ate the hotel breakfast, made our way to the truck, and prepared to get our trip underway. The drive down was smooth. There was one turn around where a train was crossing but for the most part we made our way through the Georgia countryside with ease. As we rumbled down the road, we saw the entrance to turn into the Okefenokee park. We turned right and began the trek to the campground office and visitors center.

When you register for an overnight trip, the parking is included in your fee. We showed the kind gatekeeper our pass, and she motioned us through. We made it to the parking area, and after a quick trip to the bathroom figured out which building to go to.

I was somewhat confused, as the check-in building looks like a convenience store. I was sure it was the other building with the visitor center, but as usual I was incorrect and it was indeed the little building with the store inside.

The ladies at the counter were super nice. They gave us some good tips, a map, told us where to park, and soon we were exiting the building with excitement about what lied ahead.

I backed the truck up to the docking ramp and unloaded the boats. One of the locals at the dock suggested we load off into the grass instead of the concrete dock. After looking at the two options we concurred and put our boats there. We unloaded the truck and packed each kayak one by one. Soon we were almost ready to go.

Ready to begin our Okefenokee Kayaking Trip

Rachel settled into her Kayak, and I shoved her into the water. Next I shimmied my boat into the water, hopped in and we were off. We veered to the right, following the outgoing traffic sign.

Opening view into the okefenokee

This is pretty much the first view as we started going out into the swamp. Almost immediately, we started to see alligators. There was one on the right. Next the left. And pretty soon we realized there were a LOT of alligators everywhere. I will admit it was a little unnerving at first knowing that these swamp creatures were all around us. One tip that we quickly picked up on is that if the gators are on the shore, they will charge into the water if they see you. They are not charging at you, rather it is a defensive instinct to jump into the water to protect themselves. However, when you’re in a boat and a gator is charging into the water beside you, I can almost promise your heart rate will pick up with a jolt of adrenaline!

Soon though, we quickly realized that the gators only wanted to move out of the way. It was actually in our first initial 30 minutes I picked up the best photo of an alligator on the trip.

Alligator at Okefenokee Swamp

This guy was sun bathing on the side and had his monster jaws nice and open for a photo. I took plenty of other great photos on this trip, but this is one of my favorite alligator shots I was able to get.

As we advanced, we came out of the entrance canal and veered right into the main artery of the swamp – the Suwanee Canal. It was during the late 1800’s that an attempt to drain the swamp was made. This attempt failed due to faulty work and engineering. All of this lead to a lack of funds and an end to the swamp drainage, leaving behind what is now the Suwanee Canal.

The Suwanee Canal was a true pleasure to traverse. Alligators were to the left, to the right, and all around. However, the canal generally has enough space for everyone to comfortably pass through.

As we moved on down the canal, my camera was firing shots of alligators all along the way.

But there were also plenty of other wildlife along this stretch.

As we went along, Rachel made the comment that I was moving extremely slow! This was for a few reasons. I was taking in all the scenery and snapping photos at every moment. Primarily though, gallons of water in the boat will give you the ultimate rowing workout!

As the trip down the Suwanee kept going, I started looking forward to our lunch stop at Coffee Bay. Soon we started to see the shelter in sight! However, there were  a few concerns crossing our minds as we approached.

Getting docked was a small challenge as we were greeted with a few inhabitants of the shelter.

HORNETS! They were EVERYWHERE at this shelter. Fortunately, they seemed little interested in us. Still, it was a little less than exciting to be eating lunch with these guys swarming about. Regardless, it was great to get docked and stretch our legs for a while.

Still there was one final issue we had to deal with……

That bathroom stall was a LONG way off. Really, if you had been paddling with thousands of gators the thought that you may accidentally stumble across one on the way to the bathroom stall will quickly start peculating in your head.

We opted to skip lunch at the picnic table under the hoards of hornets and had lunch dockside instead.

We had a visitor looking for hand outs while eating. We passed.

The gator circled for awhile and then eventually gave up. Feeding gators is strictly prohibited and for good reason. Do you really want one of these gators swimming up to you looking for a snack because they are used to humans feeding them? Don’t feed the gators.

With our bellies filled and energy restored, we set back off on our way.

The next major incident along this trip was a stand off. While most of the gators moved rapidly out of the way, we came across one who decided that he was not moving.  This created an awkward situation. We slowed down our approached and waited slightly. Upon seeing the gator in the direct middle was not going to move, we decided we would have to make our way around him.

I went first to the left side, amidst some hissing and fussing from the parked gator we were disturbing. Next, it was Rachel’s turn. Luckily, I was able to gather some good photos of this moment.

That particular alligator felt much closer then he actually was in the photo.

With the gator behind us and all the other gators either moving out of the way or guiding us forward, we were making progress along the Suwanee Canal. 

Soon however, we were about to enter a new canal which was completely different from the Suwanee Canal part. We were about to enter the Chase Prairie.

We turned right onto the trail for the Chase Prairie, and the scene changed drastically.

The canal turned shallow and the trees fell into the landscape behind us, opening up into a beautiful open view. You really feel as if you are in a true prairie out west, except in a boat.

The paddling is a little more difficult as you are constantly battling through lily pads, but the view is amazing.

But these lily pads, while a little difficult to paddle through, are absolutely beautiful. The gators are also fewer in number in this area. This was a welcomed break from the thousands in the Suwanee Canal part. There were plenty of gators I’m sure hidden in the prairie grass, but you definitely will not feel overwhelmed as in the Suwanee Canal. The downside is when you do see one coming, there is less of a traffic lane to go around them in the Chase Prairie.

The heat was a little more beaming in the prairie with the open surroundings. After an entire day of paddling, we were ready to see where we would be camping at that night. After our experience at the day shelter Coffee Bay, we were concerned what our platform night shelter would be like. However, all the reviews said it was the must-stay camp site if you are Okefenokee Swamp camping, so we were curious to see what would be waiting for us.

And soon we found out.

This is the Roundtop Shelter in the Okefenokee Swamp. Our concerns were quickly alleviated. This platform is indeed a wonderful place to spend your night in the refuge. There were no hornets. The toilet was on the platform but didn’t emit any foul odors, and the view was amazing. We had a very nice 360 view of the prairie all around us.

We did have a couple of alligator visitors hanging out with us during the evening, hoping for a handout. They were disappointed as we ate our camp food and filled our own bellies instead. Here are a few more views from the Roundtop Shelter.

A couple of notes about camping on the platform. There were anchors to tie the boats around however we just drugged ours up onto the platform. Alligators can not jump onto the platform, and we had no visitors other then a lizard or two during our stay. You will hear a chorus of frogs that sound off as dusk falls. You will see the birds frolicking in the skies as the sun sets over the horizon. This swamp is truly an experience to take in.

Sunset over the Okefenokee Swamp

The next morning, we were greeted by a wonderful sunrise.

While we were gasping and awing at the dawn in the swamp, we heard another strange sound bellowing out from the prairie. Rachel and I looked curiously at each other. What was that sound? Suddenly, a bellowing roar comes in from beside the platform. It was the ALLIGATORS! Apparently, in the mornings they bellow at each other throughout the swamp. This was one of the coolest experiences out in the swamp.

After our morning coffee and breakfast, we packed up the platform campsite and prepared to say farewell to the Roundtop Shelter. We brought the kayaks back into the water, loaded our gear and started on our way down the remaining stretch of the prairie in the Okefenokee Swamp towards our destination for day 2 – Floyd’s Island.

Day 2: The Journey to Floyd’s Cabin

The morning of day 2 was a struggle for me. The prairie was thick with foliage and warm on this morning. As you can tell, Rachel sped ahead of me on this day. One really surreal experience this morning was the sound of the gators talking to each other. Their bellowing out from within the prairie as we paddled along this morning was an experience I will not forget. In between my heavy breathing, I took several photos along the way this morning of flowers and animals.

Flowers in the Okefenokee Swamp Prairie

As the day wore on we reached the end of the prairie and crossed into the connection to the blue canal trail. We stopped for a quick break and then took a right onward to the connection with the green trail.  This section of the canal opened up wider then the Chase Prairie section but was not as deep as the Suwanee Canal section. We were only on this trail for a small amount of time. After a small way down the blue trail, there was a side grey canal trail. We opted not to take that route and continued straight until we came to the connection with the green trail.

We veered to the left, taking the main route to our destination, Floyd’s Island. As we traveled down this canal route, the trail narrowed and the tree canopy started to return around us. This began a very interesting section of the trip.

As we progressed, the water become more shallow and the sides more narrow. However, unlike the prairie, the traffic lane with us and the gators became more congested. There were not as many gators in this section as the Suwanee Canal but we did come across a few.

There was one particular encounter with a very large gator. I saw him up ahead. He was speeding down our way at a VERY fast pace. There was nowhere to go.  However, soon we came to crossing each other. Both me and the alligator realized there wasn’t enough room for both of us to pass. We sat and stared at each other for a small amount of time.

Luckily, the water hole we were stalled in was fairly deep. Eventually the gator gave in and submerged into the water in front of us. The bubbles appeared above where the gator was, and we edged forward. It’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing that an alligator is literally just a foot below you, but you get used to it as you go on through the swamp.

As we progressed forward, we came upon a section with a number of little gators. Cute, but it also had us wondering if a mommy gator was around anywhere nearby.

These little guys were less prone to get out of the way. I had one little one give a tiny snort and hiss. Unlike the gator on day 1, this was hardly intimating but entertaining!

The final stretch to Floyd’s Island was a true workout. The situation is that the water becomes more and more shallow as the canal trail continues forward. This makes paddling more difficult and strenuous.

The logs and low water made paddling a challenge. It almost would have been easier in this situation to get in the water and drag the kayak. However, we decided that was not an option, given the murky water. Stepping on a gator probably wouldn’t be a fun experience!

Eventually, after slugging our way through, we reached a dead end with land. This was somewhat confusing as we were not expecting the trail to just end on land. We pulled our boats onto land and assessed what was going on.

We took a quick exploration of the where we were and suprisly found we were already at Floyd’s Island! As we walked further inland, we came upon the cabin.

We were impressed by how clean the cabin and campsite around the cabin was kept.

Knowing where we were located at and that we were at our destination, we went back to our boats to grab our gear. Thankfully there was a small cart to carry all our gear to the cabin. It’s not a long walk, but still after all the paddling of the past 2 days, it was convenient to have a cart.

After we settled our gear into place, we did a little more exploring around the island. The other side, where you put in if you were going down further the canal trail, had a green “swamp thing” appearance to it.

It turned out we had made it to the cabin around 2 pm, so we had a lot of time left to kill that day. We took a closer look inside and around the cabin. There were some miscellaneous supplies inside, left by previous visitors to the island. It was very well kept and very interesting to read the guest book that was out in front of the cabin.

After some discussion we determined that instead of sleeping inside, we would set up our tent outside on the porch. With no HVAC, the cabin was extremely warm. Plus, there was no lighting inside the cabin.

So with the camp set up, what did we do to pass time? We played cards of course!

Rachel brought out The Don’t Die Out There! deck. This is a great card deck for camping. The cards are waterproof and the information on the cards is very entertaining and useful to read as you are playing. If you are interested in them, check them out on Amazon.

After a few rounds of cards, I settled in and took a quick afternoon nap.  While we were quietly sitting in the area, it was really nice to see all the wildlife around us. There were plenty of birds around. Lizards were also abundant as well. Even the butterflys were fluttering about.

The real treat came as the evening was setting in. A family of deer wondered into the campsite.

We both sat quietly and watched until one of the deer just sat down. Being this close to nature is a large part of what being outdoors is all about for me. Watching these deer on the front porch of Floyd’s Cabin was a perfect way to end the evening.

We settled in for the night to end day 2. We knew tomorrow would be a full day in front of us, with the longest paddling day on our trip ahead.

Day 3: The long journey home through the Okefenokee Swamp

The next morning we had our morning breakfast, packed up our items back into the cart, and began our walk to the boats. We packed the boats and began our longest day of paddling back to the park entrance.

With a lighter boat and plenty of photos from the previous days, I was able to paddle at a much faster speed versus the  first day.

We backtracked through where we came on the green trail, turned back onto the blue trail and made way for the Suwanee Canal trail. This day there were no surprises or unexpected events along the way early in the day. We had been kayaking with alligators for 2 days now and were ready to finish out our trip, so gator crossings did not bother us as we went along.

We made our way back to the Suwanee Canal.

The gator sightings picked back up as we made our way back through. There were 2 particulary interesting events with the gators on our way back.

The first was a very large gator who lead out in front of us. Normally, when the gators do this they eventually veer off to the either the left or right. This guy just kept going. At one point he decided that he was tired of us following him. He made a loud hiss and dove under the water. We assumed he stayed under water like most of the gators as we passed.

Within a minute we see this guy surface above the water about a 100 ft ahead. He went underwater and flew ahead of us. At this point, Rachel suggested that maybe he was not happy with us following him. So we backed off and waited for him to get a little further ahead. This evidently satisfied the gator as he veered off to the right and stayed there as we passed by.

The next interesting incident on the last day was an odd one. We were paddling back in the Suwanee Canal and to the right was an intersection with a smaller waterway. All of the sudden, we saw a horde of gators swimming out of this intersection into the main canal. We estimate there were 50 to 75 of them booking it out of the waterway.

After the final alligators had run out of this waterway, we paddled forward and looked to the right into the entrance. We saw several LARGE white herons sitting there. Our educated guess is that the birds landed into the area and startled the gators for some reason, or perhaps they were all having a secret party together. It was a fascinating experience.

I was able to capture a few photos along this stretch of the trip. Mainly though, I was ready to get home so I captured less photos on this day.

The most interesting wildlife we saw that day was a nest of hawks in a tall tree. The baby hawk was looking down out of the nest. Unfortunately on this trip, I did not have a zoom lens. I only had my wide angle landscape lens, so my photos of this nest were less than desirable.

Still, it was a really cool in-person experience. The wildlife in the Okefenokee Swamp is abudent and everywhere. It took us most of the day, but we were coming back to where we started and we knew our trip would be over soon.

As we paddled up on shore, our bodies acky, the stench of sweat and body odor emitting from us, there was a satisifaction and sadness at the same time that this trip had reached its end. We packed the kayaks into my truck, switched into new clothes and said goodbye to the swamp.

Bottom line – if you are looking for an adventure, I highly encourage you to take a look at the Okefenokee Swamp camping experience.

It ranks as a 5 star trip in my books.

Have you been to the Okefenokee Swamp? Are you considering going?

Let me know how your trip went or ask me any questions about my trip in the comments below!

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