East Entrance(Suwannee Canal)
Been wanting to paddle Okefenokee Swamp as an overnight/backcountry trip but between forest fires (several of the overnight camps burned down) and low water (currently 14 inches below normal) levels, a day trip was in the works. We left from the East Entrance of Suwannee Canal of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
I was prepared to dislike the canal portion of the trip, but was pleasantly surprised, primarily because of the extensive alligator sightings. Besides being a straight line, it doesn't look like you are in a canal. If alligators are old news for you, this portion is probably is not as exciting, but as a New Englander, seeing an alligator every 30 to 60 paddle strokes was pretty exciting.
We paddling approx two miles up the canal, then did a mile north up the "yellow trail" to the day shelter on Cedar Hammock. After a quick pee/snack break we were back in the boats for the return trip back the the canal. Then we headed 5.5 miles south on the "pink trail" to the day shelter at Monkey Lake. Both trails were through "high prairie" terrain, with occasional cedar stands. The only other option from this park entrance would be to continue on the canal route "orange trail" to Coffee Bay day use shelter.
Sadly because of the low water, a lot of the view was of mud flats, and the paddling was slow work, pushing through swampy terrain. Alligators were the most interesting part, either peering out from the water, ignoring us from the shore or silently slipping beneath the water and under our boats. There is also quite a bit of bird life.
We took two sea kayaks, though if you have a choice I would recommend a canoe for ease of paddling through swampy terrain, the height to see a little bit more, to have a few inches between the alligators and your elbows, and ease of exiting boats onto the docks of the day shelters.
Other things to know:
There is no place to easily get out of boats besides day use shelters, so be prepared to spend 2-3 hours in your boat at a time. There are privies at the day use shelters. There are no "creative" route options besides the well marked canoe routes described above, as the terrain does not allow for exploring; so no detailed topo maps or compass skills are needed.
Two other options for paddling are Kingfisher Landing on the northern east side (which at current low water levels is even less accessible) and the west side Stephen Foster entrance.
Rentals and information from Okefenokee Adventures (concessionaire at park entrance), open until 1/2 hour before sunrise until either 5p in winter of 7:30 p in summer. Also visitor center 9-5 hours. There is no immediate camping. Basically there is a boat ramp, visitor centers and bathrooms.
No permits are needed for day trips, though one is required to sign in at Okefenokee Adventures visitor center. $5 parking permit good for all entrances for a week.
From Folkston, GA: take 121 south and then follow signs to enter NWR.
The Refuge website (www.fws.gov/okefenokee) primarily has overnight canoeing information/maps, a map with day routes is available from Okefenokee Adventures.