Alligators are a common site at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge — Photo courtesy of Don Teuton
If squirrels and pigeons are the only wildlife you’ve encountered during your Savannah vacation and you’re longing to see creatures a little more exotic, then hop in your car, hit I-95 South and head down to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The Okefenokee, a 402,000-acre swamp that spans portions of southern Georgia and northern Florida, is about a 2-½ hour drive from Savannah and worth every minute of travel time.
There are several companies that give tours of the Okefenokee, but one of the best is Okefenokee Adventures, which offers 90-minute guided tours of the swamp. The company’s interpretive boat tours leave every hour beginning at 9:30 am. The last tour leaves around 4:45 pm March-October and 3:30 pm November-February. Reservations are not required unless you have 10 or more in your party, but it’s always wise to call ahead to confirm hours, entry fees and availability.
Guests tour the Okefenokee on 24-foot Carolina Skiffs — Photo courtesy of Okefenokee Adventures
You’ll enter the Okefenokee through the East Entrance on Suwanee Canal Road in Folkston, Georgia. A small fee is required to enter the government-run refuge. Once you’ve entered the park, you’ll be directed to the dock, where you’ll board a 24-foot Carolina Skiff and begin your journey.
During your tour, you’ll learn about the swamp’s cultural and natural history and enjoy fascinating swamp stories from your guide. You’ll also be treated to an array of indigenous flora and fauna as your boat makes its way through the Suwannee Canal and Chessar Prairie.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is home to numerous plants and trees, including these pines — Photo courtesy of Don Teuton
Your tour guide will point out a range of native plants and trees, including cypresses, longleaf pines, bays and carnivorous sundews, and explain how each contributes to the unique swamp ecosystem.
Sandhill cranes populate the Okefenokee — Photo courtesy of Don Teuton
Birds are a common sight during the guided tour with egrets, herons, sandhill cranes and red-shouldered hawks making frequent appearances. Alligators are often seen poking out of the water or lounging on grassy areas in the sun. If you’re really lucky, you may even see bobcats or bears.
When your tour is complete, you’re welcome to explore the miles of walking trails and other sites around the park. There’s also a shop on premises that sells cold drinks, snacks and souvenirs.
Chef Jerome's Old School Diner is hard to find but worth the trip — Photo courtesy of Old School Diner
Once you return to your car and start heading back to Savannah, you may think your adventure is over. But it’s only just begun. Take Exit 67 on I-95 and head off the beaten path for an early dinner at the Old School Diner, a seafood restaurant on Jesse Grant Road Northeast in Townsend, GA near the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge.
Don’t let the remote location, mat-covered parking lot and eclectic décor hanging from the exterior of the red building scare you off. Once inside, Chef Jerome and his staff will give you a warm welcome, and you’ll be thrilled that you’ve discovered this hidden gem.
Guests could spend hours looking at photos and memorabilia on the Old School Diner's walls — Photo courtesy of Old School Diner
The Old School Diner is equal parts feast for the eyes and feast for the belly. Go ahead and place your order before you spend time looking at the thousands of photos and pieces of memorabilia that line the eatery’s interior walls. If you can’t decide what to order and you’re really hungry, go for the Wheelchair Platter, a heaping portion of whatever Chef Jerome fancies.
You could stay at the Old School Diner for hours, enjoying the quirky décor and friendly atmosphere, but after a long day, you’ll probably be ready to head back to your hotel. It should take you less than an hour to get back to Downtown Savannah, which will probably feel like an urban mecca after your backwoods adventures.