Tall, skinny pine trees sway gently above me as I breathe in the smell of the great outdoors…and also all the bug spray I just sprayed all over myself, because wowza, lots of bugs live outside. And a particularly large amount of said bugs reside in at the Okefenokee Swamp, often called one of the seven natural wonders of Georgia.
October was a mentally tough month for me, and I didn’t realize how badly I needed to get away from it all until I did it. I also went camping in the Smoky Mountains this month but something about the swamp made it the perfect venue at which to really hit the reset button. I think a lot of it has to do with the seriously remote location. While camping at Stephen C. Foster State Park, you are tucked inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where wildlife rules all and alligators outnumber humans a hundred to one. This park is also the only dark sky in Georgia registered by the International Dark Sky Association, furthering that feeling of totally retreating from society. AND wetlands are nature’s way of cleansing itself of toxic substances…symbolism, am I right? (That’s right, I read the info panels.)
I think the lesson that I have really been trying to drive into myself is this: all of the different tributaries of your life may feed into the same river, but just because a few of them are hard or heavy or toxic does not mean that your entire river is wasted…or that your river will stop flowing. There can be parts of you that are broken—stressed, hurting, what have you—but that doesn’t cancel out the rest of you. Nature has ways of cleansing itself that are beautiful and inspire growth of all varieties. It is still okay to intentionally find joy in life, even when it feels like it’s not. All hope is not lost if you are willing to find it, and that’s what we did at the Okefenokee Swamp.
My long distance BFF and I had set aside the last weekend in October to make some kind of plans, but only booked our campsite at Stephen C. Foster State Park a few days in advance. Our hastily thrown together camping trip ended up being a magical weekend retreat, so I thought I’d share some of the things we did, in the event that you may decide to pay a visit to this wetland that won my heart.
Stephen C. Foster State Park is a registered dark sky park, and the only registered dark sky in Georgia. The International Dark Sky Association has a pretty rigorous set of standards, which help wildlife that depend on a day/night cycle. This helps regulate areas that have little to no light pollution from civilization. I personally had never really considered this type of necessary conservation before, and the concept seems beautifully innovative.
The park offers stargazing gatherings on Friday nights, featuring a naturalist and a large telescope. It wasn’t the most informative class I’ve ever attended at a park, but it was super cool to see the moon and the North Star through the telescope. It was also a somewhat cloudy night during our visit, which probably didn’t help. If you are into astronomy, I would highly recommend a visit to this dark sky! If you aren’t into astronomy but want to stargaze here, I suggest brushing up on your constellations so that you have an idea of what you’re looking at. We also arrived to the gathering location a little early and turned off our flashlights to let our eyes adjust to the darkness.
Everything about Stephen C. Foster State Park caters to the swamp that surrounds it, and the available entertainment is no different. I usually seek out parks with lots of hiking trails, making this park about as far as possible from what I would usually visit. However, this gateway to the Okefenokee has a series of waterways that are super easy to navigate. I was quite content to trade in my hiking boots for a paddle and head out into the black water.
We chose to kayak out to Billy Island, about two miles away from the launch point (four miles round trip). I kept calling it our “private island,” which is obviously inaccurate, but exactly how it felt. Billy Island has a small dock at which you can dock your boat before venturing into the trees on this uninhabited island. It has a short walking trail—less than a mile loop—that makes for a quiet escape from human life. There were a few people on their way out when we arrived at Billy Island in the early afternoon, and it was a glorious moment of truly being out in nature (on a manmade dock, but whatever).
I also had a hilarious moment of dramatic irony while docking. I happily pulled up next to the dock, and pulled my kayak up and out of the water, and then turned to do the same with the second…you know, going about my business, being my bad self. All the while, I took no notice of the GIANT alligator not ten feet away from us. My counterpart had a good laugh when she finally pointed it out to me and watched my startled reaction! We named him Joe (he hung out and watched us while we ate lunch on the dock), and he was the largest of the reptiles that we saw while out on the water. We did see quite a few gators though, as well as turtles and birds, including egrets and a great blue heron!
The park has single and double kayaks, canoes, and even motorboats available for rent. We also saw plenty of other visitors with their own kayaks atop their vehicles, but we didn’t encounter many of them on the water. We stayed within the day-use section of the water, which allows for about 15 miles of kayaking (one way), but you may also get a permit to go beyond, if you are so inclined.
The nature trail at Stephen C. Foster State Park is about a mile loop with a boardwalk that extends off of it into a dead end. It begins as a dirt trail, but quickly turns into a winding boardwalk as it wanders out over the swamp. We didn’t see the large reptiles along this trail that we were able to spot while kayaking, but there was a plethora of large bugs and some birds among the trees. My friend was particularly good at noticing arachnids and stopped to take more photos of them than anything else! Spanish moss hung from the branches above the path offering relief from the sun, but the sky began to open up as we followed the boardwalk to the end.
Although it’s not a challenging bit of exercise, everything about this nature trail is beautiful—from the surrounding nature right down to the pathway itself. I would highly encourage you to take it slow and give yourself plenty of time to enjoy it! On this occasion we had the trail entirely to ourselves for the most part, save for the few moments that we chatted with a couple headed in the opposite direction, and I was perfectly content. You can find the trailhead for the nature trail behind the dock at the visitor center.
My heart sank when I arrived on Friday and realized that I had accidentally reserved an RV campsite rather than a tent site. However, when I went to pick out a site I was greeted with a variety of lovely options. I had been worried that we would end up tent camping in an RV section, but all of the sites were mixed together based on the size of the available landscape. All sites are on level ground rather than gravel, with bushes and trees in between allowing for more privacy than a lot of other campsites I’ve visited. The park only allows two vehicles at each campsite (campers included). Since we live in different cities, my friend and I had driven separately and there was only enough space for our two cars to fit snugly at the entrance of our site.
We had an electrical hookup water spigot, picnic table, and fire pit, as well as a campground comfort station complete with plumbing and showers. We were basically glamping, if we’re being honest. I cooked breakfast on my camp stove in the mornings (and when I say I “cooked breakfast,” I mean I heated water for oatmeal), and we had hot dogs, foil pack meals, and s’mores for our dinners! #glamping at it’s finest.
And in case I haven’t already mentioned all the wildlife a million times, there were plenty of critters crawling around the campground, too! We spied large groups of deer (not only in the campground but around the entire park), and a flock of wild turkeys in the vacant site across from ours.
With the weather in the 60’s and 70’s during the day and the 50’s at night, it was literally the perfect camping weekend. Combine the beautiful weather with the quiet, relaxed vibes of the location and this made for a great weekend to refresh my brain. Fresh air might not solve all of your problems, but it will for sure replace a few of them with some happy trees and some cleansing, swampy water.