Alligators and Wild Horses

This week, we explored several parks near our Kingston, GA campground, including the Okeefenokee Swamp Park and the Cumberland Island National Seashore.

067Okeefenokee Swamp Park  is part of the Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge which encompasses nearly a half-million acres and provides the headwaters for the Suwanee and St. Mary’s Rivers. The Park offers wildlife shows and exhibits, a boat tour, train ride, boardwalk nature trail to a look out tower, and pioneer island homestead. The park also decorates for the holidays, offering special “light show” train rides nightly during the season.

054The boat tour offered an entertaining mix of natural beauty and swamp life history. Our guide was an area native and shared many stories about the region. He was also very familiar with the resident alligators and their characteristics. The current undisputed king of the swamp is a large male known as “Crazy” (pictured).  He patrols the swamp diligently to defend his territory against any males and safeguard his harem. The train tour makes a stop at a “pioneer island homestead” which displays restored buildings, live farm animals, and exhibits depicting pioneer life.

IMG_3447Entrance to the Park is located 8 miles south of Waycross, GA on Highway 1. Entrance fees are $17 without the boat tour and $27  including the boat tour. The park offers a thoroughly entertaining half-day of fun. If you go, wear comfortable shoes and take sunscreen and insect repellant. Although we were there on a cool December day, summers would undoubtedly be very buggy!

25498280_10212560787388456_4631538019624889549_nAnother highlight of our time here was an all-day excursion to the Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island. The island includes miles of pristine undeveloped maritime forest, marshland, and beaches. The only access to the island is by boat; a 45-minute ferry ride services the island. There are no paved roads and the only way around the island is on foot, by bicycle (rent one or bring your own) or by pre-booked van tour. We chose to take our own bicycles, although riding on the sandy main road was sometimes a challenge. We only went halfway up the island and still clocked a tiring 18+ miles in our day. It would be very difficult to see the entire island (14 miles end to end) on a bicycle, so if you want to see everything you should book the all day van tour.

IMG_3469Natives, missionaries, enslaved African Americans and Wealthy Industrialists occupied the island over the centuries, including members of the Carnegie family that built several estate homes here. One of their former homes, Plum Orchard, is available for tours. Built in 1898, the 20,000 square foot mansion boasts  impressive modern features including electrical lighting and numerous indoor bathrooms in an era where indoor plumbing was quite rare. The basement structure was designed to capture inrushing flood waters and channel it out through piping to a nearby river. The home is fully equipped with period furnishings and the free tour was absolutely fascinating.  That was my favorite part of the day.

IMG_3467Other sights include the ice house museum and ruins of one of the large mansions that burned down in 1959. As we toured on our bicycles, we encountered several of the feral horses that roam the island. I was aware of wild horses out west, but didn’t know there were wild horses this far east! The island also provides primitive beach front campgrounds, for tent camping. There were quite a few hardy campers, braving the cool weather and the challenges of manually hauling gear from the dock to campsite!

It’s definitely an all-day trip. Ferries depart at 9 am and 11:45 am, return ferries at 10:15 am and 4:45 pm.  There’s also a 2:45 pm return during the summer. The ferry cost is $28 round trip per person plus tax, and it is an extra $10 to take your own bicycle on the ferry. Bicycle rentals on the island are $16 per day, but supply is limited. Entrance fee to the park is an additional $7 per person, but we used our annual National Park pass.

There are no concessions on the island. You have to pack in your own food and beverages, although drinking water and restrooms are available in limited locations. You will need sunscreen, comfortable layers, and bug spray! Even on a chilly December day, the gnats were bothersome at times.

After a long and tiring day of touring the island, we had an excellent seafood dinner at St. Mary’s Seafood and More restaurant. Located just a couple of miles from the dock, the delicious dinner and adult beverage certainly hit the spot!

Next up:  Wrightsmanpalooza family holiday celebration takes it “on the road” to Charleston!

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