In historic downtown Savannah, you’ll find elegant architecture and ornate statues, but not far from the city is the 29,175-acre Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. This is the closest refuge to Savannah, and it's an enchanting land of marsh and Spanish moss. Making up a hefty part of the Coastal Refuge Complexes—a whopping 56,949 acres of protected wilderness across Georgia and South Carolina—the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful place to visit year-round.
The two public use areas include the Visitor Center and Laurel Drive, only seven miles north of Savannah. Half of the refuge is comprised of bottomland and can only be accessed by boat. The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge once had strong roots in early Southern agriculture, encompassing land that had previously been used as rice plantations during the 1700s.
“Locals should visit because it’s wild, it’s free, and it’s theirs to enjoy,” refuge ranger Amy Ochoa says. “The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is a true refuge for native plants and animals and a part of the federal government’s network of public lands.”
Most of the hiking trails are interconnected, with many just west of the Visitor Center on either side of SC 170. Parking is available at Tupelo Trail, Little Black Rock Trail, Kingfisher Pond Recreation Area, and at the start of Wildlife Drive.
Tupelo Trail will lead you on a 3.4-mile, one-way hike to Kingfisher Pond, where you’ll follow the east marshes. The moist environment of the marshes is mesmerizing, with tall grasses stretching as far as the eye can see and offering occasional glimpses of minks, otters, and alligators floating in the shallows. If you take the Kingfisher Loop, it’s just under a mile.
The Little Black Rock Trail, meanwhile, provides a look of the different maritime forests in the park. If you hike north and go west, you’ll follow along Little Black Rock Trail, while hiking northeast will take you along the east marshes, looping around at the Diversion Canal.
The Plantation Island Trail meanders through the inland area of the wildlife refuge, briefly traveling along the Diversion Canal on the eastern side. This hike wanders through a hardwood forest ecosystem, which is an extension of the river where cypress, black gum, and water tupelo trees grow from the soggy wetlands.
As its name implies, wildlife is abundant on the refuge. “Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is known as being the place for viewing American alligators,” Ochoa says. “However, the reason they're so plentiful here is because they benefit from the habitat that is managed for native and migratory birds, especially waterfowl.”
Ochoa’s tip: Alligator viewing is best when the weather is neither too hot nor too cold.
For bird watching, plan to hike the trails between October and April, when on an early morning you’ll be greeted with a symphony of bird calls. Winter is the best time for viewing large flocks of ducks, including ring-neck ducks, northern shovelers, gadwall, and pintail. Wander the Kingfisher Pond Recreation Area and scope out songbirds such as prothonotary warblers and American redstarts. In spring and fall, the bird sanctuary teems with feathered friends who splash in birdbaths and perch on feeders.
“The waterfowl in the winter are a big draw, especially when a rare canvasback or Eurasian widgeon makes an appearance,” says Ochoa. “In the summer, we're known for a breeding population of secretive purple gallinules poking around in the marsh, and swallow-tailed kites soaring high in the sky.”
Additional information: Mosquitos are plentiful in summer, so sure to bring bug spray. Parking is available at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. Take Oglethorpe Avenue east to the Talmadge Memorial Bridge (US-17) and follow the road for 7 miles. The Visitor Center will be on your left. The Visitor Center is closed Sunday and holidays. Parking for Laurel Drive is further down US-17. You’ll turn left after 0.5 miles onto SC 170 West. Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive entrance on your left in 2.5 miles.