Best Management Practices - Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trail System


Trail Mission Statement

Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trails strive to protect and enhance wildlife and its habitat, ensure integrity of the ecological system, and embrace the grandeur, mystery, and cultural heritage of the area.


Recreation Opportunities

The Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trails give visitors the opportunity to experience the solitude of wilderness while expanding the opportunities for wildlife observation, fishing, and photography by permitting overnight camping within the wilderness.

During normal water levels, 12 different combinations of trips ranging from two to five days are possible. Seven overnight campsites are widely scattered along the boat trails. Wilderness canoe groups consisting of one to twenty people make advanced reservations and secure permits, which allow them to spend from two to five days in the swamp (one to four nights). Travel on these trips is entirely non-motorized and averages between eight and twelve miles of paddling per day. Four overnight campsites consist of wooden platforms about 20’x28’ in size with a partial roof, table, and composting toilet located nearby. The other three sites are located on dry ground. Only one party per site is permitted, to reduce contact with other parties

Canoeing, kayaking, and motorboating are permitted year-round on marked trails. Visitors can enter the trail system from the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, Kingfisher Landing, and Stephen C. Foster State Park. Of the 120 miles of boat trails in the swamp, 70 are also open to day-use motorboats under 10 horsepower.

The refuge’s concessionaire, Okefenokee Adventures conducts guided interpretive tours of the swamp’s waterways by motorized boat, canoe, and kayak for individuals, families, and organized groups; by prior arrangement or on a walk-in-basis. They also outfit and guide multi-day excursions into the swamp’s interior along the trail system. They provide rentals of canoes, kayaks, and motorized skiffs for self-guided explorations of swamp waterways

Rangers at Stephen C. Foster State Park provide motorboat tours plus canoe, kayak, and motorboat rentals. To accommodate visitors in a remote location, the state park has a full service campground, group camping area, and cabin rentals.



The refuge has a multifaceted approach for educating water trail users about the value of water resources, cultural heritage, boating skills and outdoor ethics. The refuge has partnerships to increase the impact and effectiveness of our communications with the public. Last year, six tour guides from Okefenokee Adventures and Stephen C. Foster State Park successfully completed a challenging National Association for Interpretation’s Certified Interpretive Guide course taught by a refuge ranger.

Professional guides with Okefenokee Adventures conduct guided interpretive tours of the swamp’s waterways by motorized boat, canoe, and kayak for individuals, families, and organized groups; by prior arrangement or on a walk-in-basis. The State Park has a visitor contact station and a museum and conducts interpretive boat tours.

At the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, rangers and volunteers lead natural and cultural history interpretive programs year-round. The Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center has interpretive exhibits on the ecology and cultural history of the swamp as well as an award winning film. Most of the 3-4,000 students who visit the refuge on school field trips each year take guided boat trips. Partners also provide lead tours for hundreds of senior groups each year.

Visitors receive a copy of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Canoe Guide. This informative guide helps those planning a trip. In addition to the rules and regulations, the guide contains a breakdown of all the camping trips available in the refuge, recommendations for pre-trip planning, a recommended list of items to bring, a description of Wilderness, and a brief explanation of “Leave No Trace Skills and Ethics.”



The Okefenokee Swamp is a dynamic ecosystem where drought, lightning strikes, insect infestations, diseases, tornadoes, windstorms (microbursts) hurricanes, water level fluctuations and slight differences in elevation all play a role in shaping the Okefenokee Ecosystem.

The surrounding communities play a supporting role in assisting the refuge with protecting and restoring the swamp and recreational facilities. When there are fires, local businesses are great sources for equipment, supplies, and food and lodging for firefighters.

Cooperation between the refuge and the adjacent agency, industrial, and private landowners is facilitated through the Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners (GOAL) organization. Activities of GOAL include setting of priorities, acquisition of local resources, technology transfer, and general problem solving.

Wilderness trails provide visitors access to fishing, wildlife observation, photography, and education opportunities. They also provide access for management purposes such as biological, forestry, and fire work. Without this network of trails, access to the wilderness area would be extremely limited. Refuge biologists are currently working with partners on a habitat management plan for the refuge.


Community Support

The refuge enjoys the community support of 150 volunteers who work 18,000 hours per year. The refuge friends group, the Okefenokee Wildlife League (OWL) was established in 1990. All donations and funds generated from the sale of books, photographs, and other educational items are used to sponsor League projects. Funds are also used to purchase refuge equipment and materials for educational programs.

Another valuable partnership is the Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners. The mission of GOAL is: “To serve as a unified team managing, protecting, and promoting forest resources in and around the Okefenokee Swamp through a stewardship ethic to assure these resources will be available for future generations.” GOAL recognizes the Okefenokee Swamp is a national treasure and economically and biologically beneficial to the local communities and the states of Georgia and Florida. They also expect that this formal organization of landowners will provide an avenue for communications and develop strength in dealing with area issues.

When the integrity of the swamp was threatened by a proposed titanium mine on the border of the refuge, local residents, landowners, and Georgia conservation groups worked towards a consensus plan to save the refuge. In 2003, DuPont donated 16,000 acres it had purchased for mining to The Conservation Fund, and in 2005, nearly 7,000 acres of the donated land were transferred to the refuge.


Public Information

All of the major trailheads for the canoe trails are marked on Georgia state maps and atlases. The refuge maintains a Web site and Facebook page to disseminate information. Trailhead bulletin boards provide alligator and lightning safety messages, fish consumption advisory, and orientation maps.

The refuge provides a general brochure and tear sheet with maps of the water trails. Stephen C. Foster State Parks provide visitors with a map which features day trips from the park. Visitors receive a copy of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Canoe Guide. This informative guide helps those planning a trip. In addition to the rules and regulations, the guide contains a breakdown of all the camping trips available in the refuge, recommendations for pre-trip planning, a recommended list of items to bring, a description of Wilderness, and a brief explanation of “Leave No Trace Skills and Ethics.”

Natural and cultural history topics are interpreted on guided boat tours which depart from Stephen C. Foster State Park and the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area. Before or after boat tours on the east side, visitors can interact with the exhibit and see a film at the Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center. Nearby, the self-guided Canal Diggers trail has a brochure which interprets the history of the Suwannee Canal. The Cane Pole trail provides visitors an opportunity to explore the canal, swamp, and a prairie. Ranger and volunteer guided interpretive programs are provided year-round.


Trail Maintenance

Watercraft trail maintenance in a designated wilderness area may seem inconsistent with wilderness values; however, the uniqueness of the Okefenokee NWR Wilderness Area requires a departure from the routine management of a typical wilderness area. Congress recognized this fact when designating the Okefenokee NWR Wilderness Area. Watercraft trail maintenance was mandated in the act that created the Okefenokee NWR Wilderness Area in 1974. Congress recognized that without watercraft trail maintenance, watercraft trails would grow over and become nonexistent. Maintenance of motorized and non-motorized canoe/kayak trails, cleaning and emptying composting toilets, and maintenance of camping platforms are just some of the issues directly related to the management of the Okefenokee Wilderness Area.

Maintenance work in the refuge’s Wilderness Area is an on-going activity that can take many different forms. Maintenance work has to be performed on all aspects of the Overnight Wilderness Canoe Trail System, including camping platforms, composting toilets, historic structures, signs, even the trails, themselves. Tools that have been utilized in the past include a mechanical trail cutter, helicopters, airboats, motorized watercraft utilizing engines that exceed the 10 HP limit, and a variety of gasoline powered tools. Most wilderness managers would cringe at the prospect of using most, if not all of these types of tools, yet for the Okefenokee NWR, the use of many of these tools is, in some cases, the only way in which to accomplish the maintenance task with the least amount of impact.



The refuge completed its Comprehensive Conservation Plan in 2006. It is available at this link

This document guides the management of the refuge and the wilderness canoe trail system for the next 15 years. Work is currently underway to complete a visitor services plan which will provide even more detailed planning for the trail system.

In 2010, 3,822 individuals used the overnight wilderness camping facilities on the refuge. With the increased exposure and promotion with the National Water Trail designation the refuge could potentially have more impacts. Due to the limited number of platforms and the reservation system, an increase in use numbers is not expected. Increases would result from larger group sizes and expanding the use of the platforms during currently low use times. Environmental conditions (insects and heat) generally limit use during the summer months. Through the Wilderness Act establishing the Okefenokee Wilderness Area, the refuge is not allowed to expand the canoe system within the wilderness area beyond the 120 miles of existing trails. There is also limited space on the refuge to expand the canoe system outside the wilderness.

One area of potential growth for the trail is for a two-phase expansion of the national water trail to include the Suwannee, then the St. Marys Rivers. Both rivers have their protected headwaters in the Okefenokee Swamp. The Suwannee River flows from the swamp for 235 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The St. Marys River flows from the swamp and forms the eastern border between Florida and Georgia as it flows 130 miles to Cumberland Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. These rivers have been designated Florida Water Trails and are featured in the Florida Water Trails Brochure. The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail Web site provides an excellent overview of the trail. The St Marys River Guide is available as a hard copy or online version.


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