A two-hour drive due west of Lake Park on GA-94 is the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Within the Refuge’s 402,000 acres — the largest U.S. wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River — is one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the world.
The refuge was created in 1937 to protect this diverse and beautiful habitat and is visited by 400,000 people a year. The Okefenokee was at one time on the ocean’s floor and is now a broad depression that is a vast bog. In some places, the peat deposits are 15-feet thick and almost liquefied. The word Okefenokee is a native word meaning “land of the trembling earth.” When one stomps on the ground and makes the ground move, including causing trees and other vegetation to shiver, the name becomes obvious.
The vast amount of decaying plants in the swamp release tannic acid into the meandering waters that eventually coalesce into the Suwannee and St. Mary’s rivers. This gives the water it brownish hue and provides the foundation of the rich ecosystem that is the Okefenokee.
A wide range of amphibians and reptiles — alligators being the most famous — are found here, along with a wide variety of birds (herons, egrets, cranes, ducks, and raptors) and mammals (mink, opossums, beavers, bobcats, white-tailed deer, and black bears).
The Refuge includes the Swamp Island Drive, a 9-mile driving route that can also be biked or walked. There are numerous smaller walking trails and wildlife viewing spots that lead from this main transportation route.
There are also a wealth of boating and canoeing options available. Boating trails within the Refuge are open to the public, while guided boat tours are also available from private companies in nearby Folkston, the town nearest the entrance to the Refuge. Fishing is, of course, another popular activity.
Inhabited since at least 2,500 B.C. by Native Americans of the Deptford, Swift Creek, and Weeden Island cultures, the last Native Americans who occupied the swamp were the Seminoles. They were driven out of the area in the aftermath of the Second Seminole War (1838–1842).
Since then the swamp has been sparsely populated, though there have been failed attempts to drain the area for rice, sugar cane, and cotton growing and there have been periods of heavy logging. The Okefenokee Preservation Society was formed in 1918 and began efforts to preserve and protect this remarkable and unique ecosystem.