Georgia Gems: St Mary's, Cumberland Island, and Okefenokee Swamp

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14071A, Kayak


  • Kayak and explore the Okefenokee Swamp and the scenic St. Marys River
  • Take day trips to Cumberland Island and Fort Clinch
  • Enjoy abundant wildlife viewing and spring flowers in bloom


  • Kayak, paddle, and pfd rental for the week
  • Ferry service to and from Cumberland Island
  • Evening boat tour of Okefenokee Swamp


DatesMar 30–Apr 5, 2014
StaffJohn Kovacevic

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Winding for 126 miles from its headwaters in the eastern Okefenokee Swamp, Pinhook Swamp, and Osceola National Forest, the St. Marys River enters into Cumberland Sound and then the Atlantic Ocean at the historical maritime town that bears the same name. Along its course, the St. Marys River forms a natural border between the states of Georgia and Florida.  Some have called this natural connection of the Okefenokee Swamp to the Atlantic Ocean the “Swamp to Sea Trail.” Regardless of the name that you choose to bestow upon it, this area offers up some of the finest and most diverse natural attractions in the entire Southeast United States. We will spend an entire week exploring this magnificent area from many different angles. We will kayak the mystical Okefenokee Swamp by day as well as take a magical boat tour at night, where the glowing red eyes of alligators will look back at us as we shine our lights into the darkness. We will kayak a section of the scenic St. Marys River, where we will wind back and forth between the states of Florida and Georgia while searching the shoreline for birds and wildlife, as well as spring flowers in bloom. We will spend an entire day exploring the largest member of the Georgia Sea Islands, Cumberland Island, which stands as a grand testament to the power of preservation. The ferry boat ride to and from Cumberland Island is a thrill in itself, with dolphins often accompanying us on our journey.

Our base for exploration will be Crooked River State Park, where we will stay in cozy cabins located on a bluff directly above the Crooked River. The sunrise on the river is amazing and a great sight to wake up to each morning. Nature trails wind through maritime forest and salt marsh, and hikers may see endangered gopher tortoises, fiddler crabs, herons, and other coastal birds. Crooked River State Park is located in St. Marys, Georgia, which is the gateway to spectacular Cumberland Island. Historic St. Marys' enchanting storybook setting on the St. Marys River beckons with white picket fences, charming Victorian inns, majestic magnolias, stately live oaks, fragrant salt air, alluring waters, and quaint shops. From the dock of the St. Marys Waterfront, we board the Cumberland Queen, which will take us on a 45-minute trip down the St. Marys River and across Cumberland Sound, landing on the backside of Cumberland Island. As a barrier island, Cumberland Island protects the mainland from erosion, provides habitat for animal and plant life, and renews one's spirit by displaying a rare and genuine beauty. The island has much to explore, including deserted beaches, sun-dappled maritime forests, shimmering freshwater lakes, golden marshes, and grand historic ruins. Wild horses wander all over the island, often crossing paths with visitors. Dolphins and other sea creatures can often be seen swimming in the waterways surrounding Cumberland Island, while fiddler crabs inhabit the marshes that dominate the backside of the island. Shore and migratory birds are present year round as well. Whether on land, sea, or air, wildlife is abundant!

At the southern extremity of Georgia lies the largest swamp in North America, where a world of fascination awaits those who enter upon its dark, life-rich waters. A moody paradise of approximately 700 square miles, it is called Okefenokee, which means “land of the trembling earth." This name comes from the floating islands of peat that are formed and the slowly colonized by grasses, shrubs, and trees. These peat islands tremble and quiver when a person walks upon them. Kayaking the Okefenokee is an experience that you will remember for a lifetime. As we glide along on the water and dip our paddles in and out, alligators often also glide nearby us through the same tea-colored water. Herons and egrets wade through tall grasses and water lilies, while Florida cooters (turtles) sun themselves on fallen logs, plopping into the water if we approach too closely. The magic does not end at night. Dawn and dusk are prime wildlife viewing times. “Night Magic” occurs in the dark, as we hear a symphony of frogs, barred owls, insects, and even bellowing alligators fill the night sky with a chorus of sound. Not to be outdone, dancing fireflies and alligators staring back at us with glowing red eyes provide us a visual spectacle as well!

While Okefenokee, Cumberland Island, St. Marys River, and the town of St. Marys can all rightfully be called “Georgia Gems," we will also explore some “hidden gems” such as the Crooked River, Fort Clinch, and some of the countless creeks and waterways  that meander throughout this amazing area. Whether you are interested in maritime history, blackwater rivers and swamps, tidal saltwater marshes and estuaries, the mighty Atlantic Ocean, barrier islands, beaches, or just simply kayaking, this area offers one of the most diverse combinations of attractions that you can imagine.


This itinerary is subject to change due to weather, water levels, tides, permits, or other unforeseen factors. Safety is our top priority.

Day 1: We will assemble at Crooked River State Park at 4 p.m. Everyone will be assigned to a cabin and we will make introductions and go over the outing. After settling in, we will enjoy a huge welcome dinner.

Day 2: After having a hearty breakfast, we will outfit everyone with a kayak and paddling gear for the week and give paddling instruction. We’ll kayak the Crooked River for a couple hours in the morning and you’ll have the afternoon free to explore the park. For those interested, we will offer another short late-afternoon paddle and talk about the role that tides play in the area.

Day 3: Today we paddle a scenic upriver section of the St. Marys River. We’ll search the shore for wildlife and wildflowers as we meander back and forth between the states of Florida and Georgia, as the St. Marys forms the border between the two states. We’ll keep an eye out for hawks, anhingas, and other wildlife. The relaxed pace of the river takes us back in time as we think back to the days that old time mariners went out of their way to obtain the tea-colored water of the St. Marys. Decaying vegetation produces tannic acid, giving the water its burgundy color and also acting as a preservative that would keep the water fresh for up to two years!

Day 4: Our arms get a rest today as we hop on the Cumberland Queen for the 45-minute boat ride over to Cumberland Island. After listening to a ranger presentation and visiting some of the decaying mansion ruins that the island is famous for, you will have the rest of the day to explore the island on your own. You can hike, beach comb or swim on miles of secluded beach, view wildlife, rent bikes for the day, or just relax. An optional tram tour of the island will also be offered for a small additional fee. Wild horses are the symbol of Cumberland Island and can be seen wandering all over the island. Upon returning to the mainland, we will have dinner at the historic St. Mary’s Waterfront and you’ll have some time to explore the charming historic district on your own.

Day 5: This will be our longest and most action-packed day as we enter the realm of the alligator and explore the legendary Okefenokee Swamp. A national treasure, the vast and mysterious Okefenokee provides refuge for a large number of animals and plants that thrive in the solitude of the lakes, islands, wetlands, and uplands that make up the sanctuary. We will kayak the eastern part of Okefenokee, stop off at the visitor center, explore an old homestead, listen to a short ranger presentation, and enjoy this watery world of lily pads, alligators, and amazing bird life. After having an early dinner at a nearby local diner, we’ll head back into the swamp to take an evening/night boat tour of the swamp. As we shine our lights into the darkness, glowing red eyes look back at us!

Day 6: We’ll cross the border as we journey into Florida to spend the day exploring Fort Clinch State Park. We’ll take you to our secret ultra-scenic blackwater creek, where we will enjoy another exciting day of kayaking. Next, we explore the 2.3 miles of ocean and sound beaches, nature trails, historic fort, and a giant ocean fishing pier. At Fort Clinch, the striking natural environment merges with one of the best preserved masonry military forts in the U.S. Gazing to the north from the top of the fort, we’ll enjoy breathtaking views of the south end of Cumberland Island. Time permitting, we’ll explore downtown Amelia Island before heading back to share a farewell dinner.

Day 7: After breakfast, we’ll pack up and bid farewell to new friends after enjoying an amazing week of exploring some of Georgia’s true gems. For those with extra time, historic downtown St. Marys offers a great way to spend it!



Getting There

You will need to provide your own transportation to and from the outing start and we will also be carpooling to our various destinations throughout the week.

We encourage participants to contact each other regarding shared rides and carpooling, and you may be asked to share (give or get) a ride during the outing. We will start and end the trip at Crooked River State Park, which is located in St. Marys, Georgia. Jacksonville, Florida offers the closest major airport and is less than an hour drive to St. Marys. Detailed directions will be sent to all confirmed participants prior to the outing.

Accommodations and Food

We will spend six nights in private cabins within Crooked River State Park. The cabins are surprisingly nice to most people and have many modern amenities, including: refrigerators, microwaves, stoves, dishwashers, televisions, showers, and flush toilets. Each cabin has two bedrooms with two double beds in each room. Participants coming alone will share rooms-two per room-and couples will room together. Participants will take turns helping prepare meals and cleaning up. Most meals are included. We will go out to dinner twice -- these two dinners are NOT INCLUDED in the trip price. There may also be an opportunity for an optional lunch.

Trip Difficulty

We will paddle intermediate routes, averaging 5-10 miles in distance and spending a total of 4-6 hours on the water (with breaks and lunch) on days that we paddle. You should be comfortable sitting in a kayak for up to 3-4 hours at a time. You need not be an expert paddler, but you should have some previous paddling experience. Basic paddling and safety instruction will be given on the first day of the outing. Each participant should understand that this is a group outing and that they will be required to stay with the group while we are on the water and trails. You should be flexible as plans and itineraries often change due to weather, group ability, or other unforeseen reasons. Optional hikes will be 1-5 miles on level terrain and/or beach.

Note: Alligators are a regular highlight in coastal Georgia waters. They are not interested in kayakers, but you should be aware of this and be comfortable paddling among the alligators.

Equipment and Clothing

We will provide rental kayaks, paddles, and pfds to each participant. We provide all cooking gear and dinner plates, utensils, etc. You will need a lunch container and water bottle(s). A gear list will be sent to all participants. A dry bag and day pack will be needed to carry your gear throughout the week.


  • Lenz, Richard J., Georgia Coast and Okefenokee. RR Donnelley and Sons, 1999.
  • Dilsaver, Lary M, Cumberland Island National Seashore: A History of Conservation Conflict. University of Virginia Press, 2004.
  • Schoettle, Taylor, A Guide to a Georgia Barrier Island. Watermarks Publishing, 2001.
  • Andrews, Larry F, Cumberland Island: A Treasury of Memories. World Publications, 2007.
  • Nelson, Megan Kate, Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp. University of Georgia Press, 2005.
  • Schoettle, Tyalor, A Naturalist’s Guide to The Okefenokee Swamp. Darien Printing and Graphics, 2005.
  • Witherington, Bill, Sea Turtles: An Extraordinary Natural History of Some Uncommon Turtles. Voyager Press, 2006.


Okefenokee Swamp experiences a natural fire cycle, where fire consumes part of the swamp every so many years and the swamp experiences a regular “rebirth” after each fire burns through. One example of this are some pine tree species, whose cones can only germinate after being consumed by fire. Okefenokee experienced a massive fire in 2011, which unfortunately also consumed many of the structures, boardwalk, etc near the east entrance visitor center, although the visitor center itself was spared. We will listen to a ranger presentation about the fire cycle of Okefenokee, as well as other environmental issues impacting the swamp. We will also get to see and utilize the new boardwalk and other structures that have been rebuilt since 2011.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from Cumberland Island National Seashore and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.



John Kovacevic has led and co-led many Sierra Club Outings since completing an Outdoor Leadership Training Course in 2004. He is certified as a Wilderness First Responder, and completed both ACA kayak instructor certification courses as well as several water rescue courses. John’s current focus is on kayak trips in the Southeast, with South Carolina, Coastal Georgia, and Florida being like second homes and favorite paddling destinations. John looks forward to sharing some amazing places with you that he has explored and discovered, as well as finding some new ones. After adding cozy and comfortable lodging in scenic locations and great meals to the mix, you’ll enjoy the trip of a lifetime!

Assistant Leader:

Ken Green is a relative new comer to assisting/leading trips for the Sierra Club. He and his wife have been members for several years and have participated in many national and local outings. After deciding that fitness had to be a priority in life, he has become an avid backpacker and cyclist. He has done several long section hikes on the AT and has completed four century rides (100 miles) just this summer (2013). He and his wife decided that leading/assisting on trips would allow them the opportunity to share all the things they find fascinating in the great outdoors and also to allow them to continue to learn from other enthusiasts from all over.

Assistant Leader:

Robin Green is new to leadership with the Sierra Club but has been an avid hiker with the Sierra Club for over a decade. She has hiked or paddled various part of the U.S. -- from the High Sierras to the Adirondacks -- with Sierra Club groups and has started her journey toward leadership with backpack trips and service trips. She is a firm believer in the Sierra Club's "Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet" motto and looks forward to being part of the team that brings the participants out into the natural world and shares her enthusiasm with all others.

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