Okefenokee Swamp: A Hike in the Land of Trembling Earth

Swamp Grass

Summer’s merciless heat, humidity, and squadrons of mosquitoes had moved on leaving behind crystal clear, azure skies, dazzling sunshine, and Cote d’Azur temperatures.

It was mid-week in early November and the only sounds in the Okefenokee Swamp were birdsong and the rustle of wind through tall grass. It was the sort of day southerners dream of in August, pray for in September, yearn for in October, and celebrate in November. And if there was ever a day for a hike, this was it.

Swamp Movie poster
A 1952 Movie filmed on location in the Okefenokee Swamp. We saw snakes but no human skulls.

For most people, the word “swamp” conjures up a dark, creepy, buggy, snakey bog. But in the case of Okefenokee, nothing could be further from the truth. We have Native Americans to thank for its unusual name, which means “Land of the Trembling Earth,” referring to the land’s spongy moss base.

Oil-black Swamp

Sitting astride the Georgia/Florida border, it’s one of the largest swamps in the US, and most of the refuge is only accessible by boat. But luckily, much of the flora and fauna can be viewed on a number of easy hikes, or by car or bike.

Alligator 3

This dozing alligator was sleeping off his last meal, and in another 3 steps, I would’ve stepped on him. Terri suddenly yelled,


Actually, I wasn’t as oblivious as it sounds. As luck would have it, the gator was napping about a foot from a cluster of carnivorous pitcher plants that I was trying to photograph.

The large swamp and most of the surrounding area is very flat, and a few inches of elevation can make a huge difference in the habitat: totally wet, dry, or in between. This pine/palmetto woodland was prairie-like, and had an amazing assortment of flowers and tall grasses.

This attractive, but lethargic butterfly (or moth?) sat perfectly still for a nice shot, which was probably explained by the cooler temps and nearing the end of his season.

Butterfly 2

Because the area is so flat and marshy, creating roads meant scooping dirt and piling it up to form road beds. These excavations produced “borrow ditches” which now border all the park roads. These roadways are excellent for wildlife viewing because now these canals are full of dark, coffee-colored water, home to fish, turtles, and of course, beaucoup alligators.

We lived in the Southeast US for years and grew accustomed to alligators. We became experts at spotting the difference between a gator and floating log, so these crafty crocodilians didn’t add another level of excitement to kayaking. It was always fun to read about their latest escapades – a big ol’ boy in someone’s pool, a pair sunning themselves on the golf course. But make no mistake, alligators may look like large, sluggish lizards, but in nature they’re wild and hungry, and warning signs should be taken seriously.

A large part of the Okefenokee Swamp’s appeal is its isolation, but it’s only 50 miles northwest of Jacksonville, Florida, so it’s a quick and easy drive to see this unique ecosystem. Summers in this part of the world are brutal, so visiting in the early spring or early winter is the best bet. And BTW, leave your small pets at home.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

34 thoughts

  1. I was about 6-8 feet from the gator Bronwyn, but he was pretty lethargic, so I was OK. But,having said that, I never intentionally get that close to alligators, lethargic or not. ~James

  2. I would love to visit this swamp, so much to see (and to watch out for!) I don’t know why I never have on my visits to Florida. We did go to Corkscrew Swamp. Thanks for all of your great photos. I’m glad you didn’t step on the gator. In a zoo I saw a lot of lethargic crocodiles, then suddenly one leaped out and snapped at another. All of the onlookers screamed, including me, even though we were in no danger. Alligators and crocodiles are magnificent creatures, best viewed at a safe distance.

    In Corkscrew Swamp, we saw a mother alligator with babies riding on her back. I hadn’t realized that they were protective of their young for about a year.

    Last year, we visited a couple of golf courses on Kiawah Island. On one, there were large alligators lounging everywhere, while golfers casually walked by. I don’t know how you can even concentrate on your game with so many reptile hazards.

    1. The Okefenokee is sort of in the middle of nowhere Cathy, so it’s not the easiest place to visit. If you ever visit the St. Augustine/Jacksonville area or St. Simons Island in Georgia, it’s not far away. But, it’s a unique ecosystem, is amazingly uncrowded, and a real treat. Like many places in Central Florida, it gets eclipsed by the beaches on each coast, which is a shame really. As you’d expect, it can be very hot and buggy in the summer, but early winter and early spring are wonderful there. Bring the camera and binocs when you go. ~James

    1. Yvonne, I really did almost blunder into this gator. Luckily, with cooler temperatures they’re fairly sluggish, so this one didn’t flinch. Mind you, I didn’t push it and moved out PDQ. Terri had her first long walk a couple of days ago, and she can tell from the aches and pains. If Terri’s experience is an indicator, recovery from this surgery is measured in weeks not days, bus she’s definitely on the mend. Thanks for asking. ~James

      1. Gosh, a split second, and Terri’s life has taken a change she didn’t really ask for! Does she have a bell so she can summon you? 🙂

  3. Of all the places I’ve explored in FL, I haven’t gotten around to the Okefenokee yet. I’ve always felt I would want to give myself a couple days to really see as much as possible and I’ve never had the time. Hope Terri is healing up quickly so you can head off to more adventures like this!

    1. Laura, definitely check out Okefenokee. It’s really close to I95, and is a quick trip over. If you got an early start, you could see most of it in a day, and get back on 95 to continue your trip. In addition to the swamp, there’s some other cool stuff to see:


      So I’m sure that you’d enjoy it. As we’ve discussed before, there are lots of wonderful things to see in non-coastal Florida that frequently get missed. Okefenokee is one of them. ~James

  4. Trying to take some photos of carnivorous plants not far from a big carnivore! Luckily that big guy was just napping. 🙂 Those are some really nice photos you took, James. I love the colors of the flowers, and the deep, mysterious color of the water.

    1. Thanks Bama. Autumn comes late in this part of the world, so in addition to the normal colors, there are fall colors as well. And of course low humidity, which doesn’t happen much in the swamp, helps with vivid blue skies. The water really is coffee-colored from the tannins produced from rotting vegetation. It makes it easy to hide the alligators. 🙂 ~James

  5. Something tells me you didn’t use a tele-photo lens for the alligator. It’s a perspective-thing: being a Californian, a hike in the Sierra (where you won’t even see the mountain lions that are definitely watching you) doesn’t phase me, but the idea of walking near an alligator has me in a panic. Glad you didn’t become dinner.

    1. You’re right Susan, no telephoto involved. These large reptiles get pretty sluggish in cooler weather, and once I saw that he wasn’t interested in me, I moved in for the shot. Of course, I had my escape route planned just in case – always have an escape plan. 😉 ~James

    1. Lynn, you’ve mentioned two things that large reptiles love: napping and the sun. But not always. I saw an alligator nursery (in the wild – it was very cool) where there were two sets of young ones. There was a large female on duty, and she was on high alert. Also, at the trailhead, there was a large sign warning dog owners to definitely NOT take their pets on the trail. Spooky but true. ~James

  6. Good grief! You almost stepped on the alligator? The description makes my hands sweat. At least hiking in Canada one can use bear spray. Not sure there is an equivalent for alligators. Wowza!

    1. I’m not normally cavalier about these kinds of things Sue, and I give wildlife its space. But this sneaky bugger was sound asleep and pretty well hidden in the weeds, which is actually pretty unusual for a gator. Normally, they snooze in the open (it’s not like something will attack them). Luckily, all turned out well … and I got the pitcher plant photos without losing a limb. 🙂 ~ James

  7. Gorgeous blog, James. And a great reminder of the beauty of swamps. As for me, I have always loved the name, Okefenokee. I’d go there (have gone there), for that reason alone. Had to laugh when you described how most folks mistakenly view swamps in one paragraph and then described your encounter with the alligator in the next. 🙂 Thanks for this delightful blog with its beautiful photos. –Curt

    1. Curt, if you’re like me, you probably have a list of 10 places that should be on everyones’ radar, but isn’t. Okefenokee is definitely on my list of overlooked places. You’ve been there, so you know what a unique ecosystem it is, and the flora and fauna are wonderful. The refuge was my first introduction to carnivorous plants, which are such a intriguing evolutionary oddity. Hopefully, this post will motivate a few more Florida-bound visitors to get off I-95 and check it out – gators and all. ~James

  8. I went to Okefenokee on a school trip when I was in middle school, from Atlanta 5/6 hours to the border. I remember being hot and paddling on canoes with my classmates.

    It might be nice to go back at some point in my life, but not, as you say, in summer. South Georgia is hellish in a lot of ways, being mostly desolate and boring and crappy, but in summer it really does resemble Hell in terms of the heat.

    1. Thanks for the comment Alex and for dropping by the blog. We lived in St. Augustine, FL as well as St. Simons Island, GA, so we can relate to summers in this part of the world. When possible, we tried to travel to cooler climes in summer. But the reward comes in January when I could watch those poor people in Minnesota freezing their butts off. 🙂 ~James

  9. What a great place to explore and not a world away – at least in distance. Had to shudder at the sign – if alligators can travel that fast what good does staying 20 feet away do?!

    1. I’ve seen a few of these signs in Florida and Georgia, and I don’t have a pet, but if I did, I would take them seriously. Humans aren’t often attacked, but it happens sometimes – three deaths in 2015 for example. Yikes! Not the way I would choose to go. ~James

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