Lower Suwannee Nat’l Wildlife Refuge

Lower Suwannee

Lower Suwannee River

The Suwannee River originates in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Georgia and flows 265 miles southwesterly through upper Florida, into the Gulf of Mexico.

As I child I learned Stephen Foster’s American folk song, ‘Old Folks At Home’ and found myself humming it as I explored the Lower Suwannee River Wildlife Refuge. It is the official state song of Florida and has an interesting history, having been written prior to the abolition of slavery from the viewpoint of a slave, and subsequent revisions reflect less offensive lyrics.


Swamp palmettos

While the Park Headquarters were closed due to the recent government shutdown, the park gates were open dawn to dusk to visitors, of which I saw few. I pretty much had the place to myself, which was a strange feeling. Fifty-three-thousand acres with very few humans present is not a common occurrance for me.ย I had never seen a swamp of this size beforeโ€“ literally a hardwood forest flooded year round, filled with tupelo, cypress, sweetgum and sycamore, among others.

Sweetgum - fall

Sweetgum – autumn color

From a park info board:

“The river and its floodplain provide habitat for 232 species of birds, 72 species of reptiles, 42 species of mammals, and 39 species of amphibians. The river supports a substantial population of manatee during the warmer months and is home to the last viable breeding population of Gulf sturgeon. The estuary at its mouth supports thousands of overwintering waterfowl, migrating birds and serves as an important feeding area for nesting wading birds.”

A bit unnerved by the warning signs for cottonmouth snakes and alligators, I made my way along the loop trail to get to the open river. Part of the trail was submerged from the record amounts of autumn rainfall further up river and rather than turn back, I slogged through the ankle deep puddle, figuring I’d wash my shoes later. It turned out muddier and deeper than I expected! Ah, well, I squished onward.

blue mirror

Blue mirror

The sky was mirrored in many places, making it a puzzle to figure where the trunks ended and the water reflection began. I was thrilled with the sounds of large flocks of robins, warblers and the distant calls of pileated woodpeckers. I felt a bit untrained in this type of habitat and alert for any danger โ€“ alligators at rest look like submerged logs, of which there were many broken trees in the tannin-rich water, so even if there were ‘gators, I didn’t recognize any. Luckily, most of the trail was an elevated boardwalk.

fish rising

Fish rising

The river was swiftly flowing once I got out to it, with large fish jumping and splashing in the cloud-dotted waters. It was so peaceful, despite the fact that it felt odd being so utterly alone.

flooded boardwalk

Flooded boardwalk

I set out along the return loop and encountered flooding at the end of the boardwalk that looked too deep to navigate, so I had to return the way I came, back through that mucky puddle – ugh!

En route, I saw a floating, flat log that had been colonized by ferns, moss and a round-leaved plant, like a miniature garden. Another log sported a tall flowering ragwort. (As I’m not familiar with the flora here, my IDs are fuzzy.)

There is a nature drive that wends its way throughout the refuge, basically a system of fire roads to access the bulk of the swamp, offering a close up view from the comfort of one’s car with trails forking off for hiking. Culverts are periodically placed to ensure that water could flow freely throughout and the rushing of water around these attracted wading birds, mostly herons and egrets.

I spooked a Great Blue Heron that had caught a black snake in the road and watched it slowly and methodically dip it in water and beat it against a felled tree to stun it, until it manuevered it into position to go head-first down the gullet. I wondered if, and how, birds ate poisonous snakes without being bit or harmed by ingesting venom?

Swamp mirror

Swamp mirror

What thrilled me most was seeing miles of habitat set aside exclusively for wildlife, many of which were familiar avian migrants that populate our northern forests in the summer breeding season. As more acreage every day is lost to human development, I was grateful that at least here was a place where they could live in good health and peace.

About Eliza Waters

Gardener, writer, photographer, naturalist
This entry was posted in Field Notes, My Photos and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

115 Responses to Lower Suwannee Nat’l Wildlife Refuge

  1. timkeen40 says:

    Cottonmouths we have here in Kentucky. Alligators are a different thing. Still, I’d make that trip in a heartbeat. Awesome post.


  2. cindy knoke says:

    How beautiful! I love your reflective shots, stunning!

  3. Thanks for taking us along on your trip. Love the swamp mirror!

  4. Beautiful photos, Eliza, I loved all the reflections!

  5. David says:

    Very nice photos. They capture the beauty and peacefulness of the swamps. I first saw the Suwannee River in May 1972 as we crossed it in upper Florida on our first trip to St. Pete’s Beach. Its it palm lined banks and sandy beaches and bottom were so different from the spring fed, rocky bottom and often stone cliff lined rivers I was used to canoeing in the Ozarks. I thought it would be a really cool adventure to canoe the Suwannee from it origination to the gulf. (Not that I could ever take that much time off from work to try it.) Then I learned more about alligators and decided the rapids of the Ozarks were excitement enough. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thanks, David. Yes, I was a bit nervous about the gators. I was hoping the cool temps in the 50s would slow any down. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Luckily, I didn’t encounter one (that I knew of).

  6. pastpeter says:

    A different and enchanting world! You were brave to hike it, and rewarded with some sweet swamp pictures. Thank you for sharing it all with us!

  7. Pingback: Lower Suwannee Natโ€™l Wildlife Refuge – Another Picture On The Wall

  8. Vicki says:

    Brilliant photos and the walk sounds both exciting and illuminating. Easy to see what you mean about where the tree trunks stopped and the reflections started.
    ……and so many birds, I would be in heaven at the sight of even a dozen or so.
    Thanks for sharing this beautiful wildlife refuge with us.

  9. Anne says:

    Wow! I felt entranced by your wonderful ‘bottomless’ pictures and description of the almost eerie beauty of being alone in such a peaceful place.It is good for our souls to experience the electronic silence of nature – just the soughing of the wind, birds, insects and mammals; to smell the damp, the dry and the in between of vegetation; and above all, to sense the peace that nature can give us. This has been an uplifting post.

  10. Peter Herpst says:

    How interesting to be alone in the swamp. Glad you didn’t encounter any gators or poisonous snakes so that you could share these gorgeous shots with us.

  11. Karen Lang says:

    Such a beautiful place to visit Eliza! Love all your photos and your experience ๐ŸŒพ๐ŸŒฟ

  12. Kris P says:

    It’s a beautiful landscape and you captured it well in your photographs. You’re braver than I am – I’d have been put off by the warning signs, especially when park personnel are furloughed – but I’m glad you were able to share your trek with us.

  13. Denzil says:

    Now I’m going to have that tune on my mind all day! Love that mirror photo!

  14. rabirius says:

    Beautiful, how you composed most of the pictures with vertical lines..

  15. Sue Vincent says:

    Gorgeous, Eliza. I am glad that at least some parts of the wild world ar still protected.

  16. Beautiful photos Eliza! It looks like such a peaceful, tranquil place, if not also a bit spooky because of snakes and alligators. I’m glad you were able to enjoy it without the crowds of people.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Cindy, it was a fascinating place to explore. I’d love to see it by boat sometime to get another perspective. Not sure how many visitors they get annually, but I didn’t see many at all!

  17. Treah says:

    Water is life & this place shows that beautifully. Lucky you to be able to see it!

  18. neihtn2012 says:

    Great shots of Lower Suwanee NWR! I will have to keep it in mind if I go visit Florida again.

  19. I’m glad you found this amazing wildlife refuge and took us with you on your adventure. You captured some beautiful shots.

  20. myplaidheart says:

    Glad you didn’t encounter any snakes or alligators! Yikes! You’re braver than I am – haha. I was surprised to read that manatees inhabit the river. I didn’t realize they were found outside of ocean waters. Enjoyed this post!

  21. Wow! What an experience! I love the water photos. I can here the silence through the photos. Wonderful post Eliza! I very much enjoyed how you described the experience. The flooded boardwalk photo is probably my favorite. So many depths.

  22. Joanna says:

    Wow, thank you for sharing this! Looks like an amazing pace to visit. I love all of Stephen Foster’s songs so it is special to see the actual place! Those southern swamps always look a bit creepy to me, but I would still have enjoyed exploring there! And how nice to have such a place almost to yourself!!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Joanna. There was a creepy factor to it, largely because it would be SO easy to get lost if you went even 20 feet off the trail, everything looks the same in this soggy jungle. No one would ever find you! But the habitat was amazing and so full of life. If I go again, I’d like to find a local guide so I’d learn a lot more.

  23. Jen says:

    Oh my, but you are a brave soul! I would have done a u-turn at the first sign of snake mentioning! So glad you were able to enjoy such a peaceful walk and not let that deter you. ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. You are braver than I am! But yes, what beauty! And how good it is that land has been set aside for the wild things. I understand that in what passes for winter in Florida, the alligators are a little sluggish in what for them is cold water. Still, you were right to be cautious.

  25. Kathy Sturr says:

    I have driven through the preserve but never did I get out and walk the trails! Just once, an overlook on a lake. It is a beautiful escape isn’t it? I am impressed with your plant knowledge! I knew what that little round leaved plant was on the log at one time but now the name escapes me. It grows wild in my very new flower beds and has a precious little orchid-like flower. The black snake may have been a black racer (one lives in and around my new garden) – nonvenomous and a good snake to have. Unfortunate it was eaten! I saw a copperhead or water moccasin once crossing the road on the way back from the bat cave in Suwannee from the safety of my car passenger seat. We let it be. Beautiful photography (as usual)!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Kathy. It was a place that will live with me forever. There is a edgy feeling to it that is hard to describe. And so much that wasn’t familiar to me. I love wilderness and living here there isn’t much of it, sooner or later one comes to a road.

  26. Most interesting post Eliza, your wonderful photos added to the โ€œtourโ€. I can imagine it must have felt somewhat unsettling with no other people around.

  27. This looks like a spectacular walk Eliza, I’m glad that I don’t have to worry about alligators on my regular walks, but it would be great to see them at least once!

  28. Jet Eliot says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed walking the Lower Suwannee NWR with you, Eliza. An unusual circumstance to be in the park so alone, due to the shutdown, but what a great opportunity. I love that you “squished onward,” and heard myself groan when I read you had to go back through the ankle-deep mud because of the flooded boardwalk. What a fantastic adventure, and you were a brave one, there alone with alligators. I know not everyone likes swamps, but I find them so rich with life. Thanks for this vivid story and excellent photos.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Jet. The richness and diversity was so compelling for a nature lover like me. I didn’t even mention the insects (butterflies, yes!) and plant life. So delightful to see.

  29. Irene says:

    What fun and the reflections are amazing! I would have been watchful for alligators and snakes, too. โค๏ธ

  30. Alice Pratt says:

    What an awesome place to go adventuring. I remembered the tune, that I knew as a kid & looked up the words. All your photos are awesome. I love the ‘log’ photo. Jan Brett wrote & illustrated a book named ‘Mossy’ about a turtle, who has a garden on it’s shell…you should try to get it out of the Children’s Library.

  31. Murtagh's Meadow says:

    Looks like a magical place. Love all the reflections you have captured.

  32. This post suits your last name. You were fortunate to have the place to yourself.

  33. arlingwoman says:

    What an adventure! It is a little scary to be in a landscape whose dangers you aren’t accustomed to. Glad you didn’t see any alligators!

  34. You should have called!I am actually on the Atlantic side and have never seen an alligator.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      I thought about you, but figured a four-hour drive (more with traffic) was too much. This area of FL is comparatively undeveloped, which is why they call it the ‘Nature Coast.’ Right up my alley. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  35. ladyfi says:

    Wow – stunning!

  36. Be back, Eliza. For some reason your pictures are not showing. I’ve been having “issues” with WP lately. Groan!!

  37. wspines says:

    Now I am Humming Old Folks At Home, thanks for reminding me of that wonderful old song. Too bad they don’t teach those songs anymore. I visited a few parks in FLorida when myMom lived there. Snakes and aligators are my two least favorite things though and they were everywhere! The pictures were lovely.

  38. naturebackin says:

    What a rich and beautiful place. How energising to explore such a wilderness alone with all your senses alerted in each moment. Unforgettable. I really enjoyed a glimpse of these grand swamps and your photos are evocative.

  39. Living vicariously through this post of yours, Eliza. Stunning. ๐Ÿ’š

  40. Maria says:

    I love all of these landscapes Eliza. Good job, good eye!!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Maria. Have you ever visited the Everglades?

      • Maria says:

        Yes, I did a couple of years ago. I didn’t take the airboat which is probably the best way to see the it, however. I have to find out whether there are excursions by land because the airboats are noisy and could be obtrusive to animals. Did you go to the Okefenokee Refuge by land or by boat?

      • Eliza Waters says:

        I didn’t go to Okefenokee (it’s in GA), but drove to the LSNWR and took trails. I’ve always been curious about the Everglades, too, but never visited.

  41. Adele Brand says:

    Fascinating. Love the miniature floating garden! It must have been a special experience to walk those boardwalks alone with the sounds and smells of wild creatures – one of those times when you feel alert and extra alive.

    It also looks like the kind of place that would have been home to red wolves a century or two ago.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Adele. It was a pretty special place, so glad I went. There were once FL panthers there as well, sadly most apex predators don’t exist in much of the lower states anymore. There is a breeding facility not far from where I was that has red wolves, though I read recently that DNA tests reveal they are mixed breeds of wolf, coyote and dog. Similar to our eastern coyotes.

      • Adele Brand says:

        Science has debated the red wolf’s genetics for a long time, and will continue to do so no doubt! Whatever they are, they’re our best link to the ancient canids of the eastern US. There was a paper published just before Christmas which looked at the genetics of surviving wild canids in Texas and Louisiana and found red wolf DNA in about half of them. So as well as the ones in zoos and the tiny reintroduced population in North Carolina, it seems likely that some still survive in the south. It’s thought that red wolves don’t usually breed with coyotes unless they cannot find mates of their own species, so human hunting tends to increase hybridisation rates.

      • Eliza Waters says:

        Yes, that pressure seems to play a part in the interbreeding from what I read.

  42. ladyfi says:

    Wow – stunning shots.

  43. Cathy says:

    Sounds like a fascinating place to visit Eliza. And being alone in such an environmnet is also very enticing if not exciting! I recently saw a documentary about the Mississippi and the swamps there and realized how little I know about American geography and wildlife!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      I had never seen a Great Swamp before and it was captivating, so wild and free of people. I loved it! The US has so many different habitatsโ€“ desert, alpine, swamp, coastal, mixed woods – it would be fun to visit them all. Maybe Desert next winter?

  44. Beautiful photos, especially loved Blue Mirror, and what a spectacular place to explore! Itโ€™s amazing you had the place to yourself with only the wildlife for company. Although, even with the elevated boardwalk I think I would have felt I was surrounded by snakes and alligators.

  45. dawnbirdau says:

    This post is wonderful. I walked with you with every word!

  46. dylan says:

    cool article! the snake getting eaten was cool!

  47. Paulie says:

    Great images. Particularly the “swamp mirror.”

  48. Your photos are stunning. We’ve been along the Suwanee River in several places but never made it to this refuge. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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