Date: 1/17/15 – 1/19/15
Location: Stephen Foster State Park, Fargo Georgia
Camping Site # 49
For a long time now, Julie has had camping in the Okefenokee Swamp on her “bucket” list. Since we can’t seem to find any campsites in Florida with openings this time of year, we decided to make a reservation at Stephen Foster State Park in south Georgia. This state park is actually totally within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which make it a little different than many of the other state parks.
We arrived at the state park on Saturday morning after a very easy two hour drive from our home. In Georgia State parks you reserve a campsite that is suitable for the type of camping you do (tent, trailer, large rig, etc), but not for a specific site, Being that we were coming in on a Saturday we were a little concerned that we wouldn’t find a nice site. But we had nothing to worry about as there were a good number of sites to choose from that would accommodate our trailer. Most sites in this park are well spaced, so you are not right on top of your neighbor.
After we got set up, we ate a quick lunch and then decided to do some kayaking. Near the park store and check-in is a large boat basin and a canal that leads out to Billy’s Lake. The canal has large grassy banks on one side, which makes launching your kayak or canoe very easy. The far bank is swampy, boggy area where he many gators hang out and watch as your get into your boat!!
Coming out of the canal you enter into Billy’s Lake with is a long, narrow lake of about 3 miles in length. For today’s paddle we decided to take a left and head over to Billy’s Island to take the nature walk around that island. It was an easy 2 mile paddle to get there.
It was an overcast and somewhat grey day, but the wind was down and the temperatures were perfect in the low 60’s.
This the GPS track of the track we took to get to Billy’s Island.
There’s a dock and boardwalk at the landing, but it was a little crowded with other canoes and motor boats. So, we decided to just pull up on land.
Billy’s island was originally inhabited by local Native American's, but later became a small town where many working the lumber industry lived. Back in the early 1900’s there were attempts to build canals and drain the swamp to make timber harvest easier. They finally abandoned that idea and the town on Billy’s Island ceased to exist. But before they gave up, a lot of the swamps cypress trees were cut and hauled out by train on tracks built to cross the swamps.
There’s not much left of the town on Billy’s Island, but theirs is some old pieces of equipment scattered here and there. Also, there is a small cemetery located near the boat docking area.
The hiking trail on the island is relatively short at three quarters of a mile. Below is the GPS track of this hike.
On our paddle back to the state park, we took a few side trips in the small creeks that lead deep into the swamp. These creeks are not marked and after your go a short distance you realize how easy it would be to get turned around and loose your way. When hiking or paddling we always carry a GPS and track where we’ve come from. Hopefully making it unlikely we’d get turnaround and lost.
While paddling around these back areas, we encountered many flocks of birds and had a few owls screeching back and forth to each other. Besides the birds, there really is no other outside noise. Really a pretty cool experience.
And our GPS track from Billy’s Island back to Stephen Foster State Park
On Sunday morning we found the boardwalk that begins behind the visitors center and heads off into the swamp. After about a quarter mile the boardwalk ends, although you can see old sections leading off into the distance. Probably a victim of the fires that ravages these swamps a few years ago.
The Okefenokee Swap is huge, taking up about 440,000 acres straddling the Florida/Georgia boarder. Back in 2007 a lightening strike started a wild file that consumed over 600,000 acres in the area, including vast areas within the Okefenokee swamp. Another large wildfire in 2011 burned other sections of the swamp. As a result, much of the area around Billy’s Lake looks like the picture below. A good article about the fires can be found at this link.
Here is GPS track of our swamp boardwalk hike.
Sunday afternoon we wanted to go further into the swamp than our paddling arms wanted to take us. The park offers john boats with small gas motors for rent. We decided to get one of these boats for four hours.
We first headed west on Billy’s Lake as far as we could go. We motored about a mile and a half to Mixon’s Hammock where we turned around and then headed east back towards Billy’s Island.
The Okefenokee Swamp is called the land of the trembling earth, for all of the floating islands of vegetation. But it should also be called the land of many gators. They were everywhere and we passed one after another as we boated by. And those are just the ones we saw. I’m sure there were an equal number of gators that we didn’t happen to notice.
A picture showing the areas of burned out trees from the wild fires that consumed this area.
The Okefenokee is the headwaters for the Suwannee River, with about 90% of the water flowing out of the swamp feeding that river. We passed this sign pointing out the Suwanee Sill where the river originates.
Heading north out of Billy’s Lake we followed a river (or a at times a narrow stream!) that is part of one of the many canoe/kayak trails that wind through the swamp. We had hoped to get as far as Big Water Lake which is the northern most boundary for “day use” activity. But the boating was slow with many twists and turn along the way. And we encountered a somewhat large group of boy scouts canoeing in the opposite direction. It was obvious that they were not ever given any paddling lessons as they were bouncing from shore to shore, with almost none of them heading in a straight line. So, we puller over many times to let them pass and found their antics amusing. Although we did feel sorry for the one group with the canoe that had tipped and they were attempting to tow the submerged canoe the three miles back the dock. A few of the adults in the group looked a little grumpy!!
We did make it to the Minnie’s Lake Rest Shelter. This is a structure above the water built on stilts. It was a good place to get out and stretch your legs and have a little lunch. There were a few other groups there and it was interesting talking with them and hearing about their day.
Here is the track of our day on the water in the john boat.
Sunday afternoon, after our time on the water, we found a few of the other short hiking trails they have within the park. The Upland trail winds its’ way from the park road, out into an old old pine forest, which is now mostly gone with some young pines now starting to fill in. The only problem is that about three-quarters of the trail is under water. We had out water shoes on, so we decided to forge on and completed our hike.
And our last hike was the Fitness Trail which boarders the camping loops. Along the way they have some exercises for you to do. Julie did some of them and I watched!!
On Monday morning it was time to pack up and head back home. Julie and I have added this park as one to make a return trip to and do some more exploring sometime in the near future.