Altamaha River Paddling Guide
The turbulent confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers near Hazelhurst marks the beginning of the Altamaha River. Occasional bluffs along its southern shores corral the river eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. No dams interrupt the river's massive flow, resulting in a richly diverse habitat for native plants and animals, including fish species unique to this watershed. Though the river is large, bottomland swamps, creek tributaries, and islands offer opportunities for more intimate exploration, particularly as the bluffs recede and the river drifts through the lower Coastal Plain to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean near St. Simons Island.
MAPS: Hazlehurst North, Grays Landing, Baxley Northeast, Altamaha, Tison, Altamaha Southeast, Glennville Southwest, Jesup Northwest, Doctortown, Jesup East, Ludowici, Everett City, Darien, Altamaha Sound (USGS); Wheeler, Montgomery, Jeff Davis, Toombs, Appling, Tattnall, Long, Wayne, McIntosh, Glynn (County); GADNR Canoe Trail
US 221 TO ALTAMAHA SOUND (DARIEN)
Class: I; Length: 124.1 miles; Time: Up to 2 weeks; Gauge: Web, phone; Level: NA; Gradient: Less than 1 foot per mile; Scenery: B-
DESCRIPTION: The Altamaha is the culmination of one of the largest river basins of the Atlantic Seaboard, with a watershed of 14,400 square miles covering one-quarter of the land mass in Georgia. Its waters maintain a cloudy gray-green hue even in high water due to dams upstream on the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers that filter out the muddier sediment of the Piedmont. The river gets a violent start due to the angle, volume, and velocity with which its two massive tributaries meet. There is no rapid here, but paddlers should be wary of boiling currents that may be barely perceptible from the surface.
For its first 68 miles before crossing US 301, the river's course is more winding than it is farther downstream. Tan-colored sandbars and expansive natural beaches abound at lower flow levels and can be found on the inside of most turns and the downstream side of many islands. These provide excellent sites for camping, picnicking, or merely sunning. Sandy bluffs shaded by beautiful stands of live oak and mockernut hickory occasionally buttress the river's southern shore, and offer good camping sites during high-flow periods when the sandbars are submerged. They are also home to unusual stands of vestigial white pine trees, left behind when their brethren followed the climate change north. The surrounding bottomland swamp forest is composed of overcup oak, water oak, cypress, sweet gum, water hickory, elm, ash, and red maple. Vegetation on the riverbank also includes silver maple and willow, among others.
With a width of 300-350 feet at its inception, commercial navigation is possible along the entire length of the Altamaha though most modern-day traffic comes from recreational powerboats that tend to concentrate around public boat ramps. Bullard Creek Wildlife Management Area sits on river right for the first 17 miles from the confluence almost all of the way to Deen's Landing. One of the most jarring intrusions upon the natural beauty of the Altamaha lies at US 1, where a nuclear power plant is prominently visible from the river. The plant and smatterings of fishing shacks are the most notable distractions from the native forests, swamps, and wildlife.
Downstream of US 1 at Morris Landing, the river passes the 3,500-acre Moody Forest Natural Area on river right. A joint project of the Nature Conservancy and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, this parcel protects one of the last known stands of old-growth longleaf pine and blackjack oak. The sloughs bordering the river here are home to tupelo cypress trees over 600 years old, a reminder of what the forests looked like prior to the wholesale lumber harvest that occurred in the early twentieth century.
The entrance of the Ohoopee River marks the approximate beginning of Big Hammock WMA on river left. Below the GA 121 bridge, islands are more numerous and dozens of feeder streams and sloughs, especially in Long and Wayne Counties, tempt off-river exploration into the adjoining swamps. On these side trips the abundant wildlife of the Altamaha is more easily spied. The river's wide floodplain forms a protective habitat for a distinctive ecological community that includes alligators, deer, and endangered species such as the gopher turtle, and eastern indigo snake. Among the ducks, egrets, and ibis that frequent the wetlands, the rich tapestry of birds that nest here includes rare bald eagles, osprey, swallowtail kites, and redcockaded woodpeckers. Wildlife below the surface of the water is similarly lush; mussels and freshwater fish mingle with saltwater species that use the river as a spawning ground in the spring. William Bartram's path crossed this landscape multiple times, his appreciative eye lingering to document the wide variety of life forms he encountered. One plant species that managed to elude his scientific survey is the herbaceous Dicerandra radfordiana, a light-purplish flowered mint that is unique to the Altamaha's banks-it grows in only two locations worldwide, both along the Altamaha.
Back in the main channel, the sandy ridges increase in size, reaching up to 100 feet above the river before they culminate at Doctortown. This is the only sizeable town on the shores of the Altamaha and is home to a pulp mill that monopolizes river views at the crossing of US 301. The industrial plant and other signs of development (including a pre-Civil War railroad bridge above a partially submerged paddle wheel) quickly recede as paddlers enter the lower river. The river's 51-mile course from here to the ocean is protected by a 300-foot scenicriver corridor that buffers the river from development. Commercial pine forests, common in the area, are not visible from the river.
For the remainder of its journey through the Coastal Plain, the river loops in great horseshoe arcs. Banks on this lower section of the Altamaha are generally low, averaging 3-5 feet with an incline varying between 30 and 70 degrees. The cypress trees are larger than those upstream, and sweet gum, tupelo gum, and swamp black gum trees are plentiful. Shrub growth includes black willow, water elm, silky dogwood, alder, swamp privet, and swamp palm.
As the Altamaha moves south through McIntosh and Glynn Counties, the streamside and swamp flora changes somewhat, reflecting the tidal influence. In normal rainfall years, the ocean stills the river's current by the time you reach Altamaha Park. As the river nears the Atlantic Ocean a series of large islands splits the channel. These comprise several wildlife management areas that offer good options for camping, including Lewis Island, which hosts the state's oldest and largest known grove of bald cypress trees. The surrounding terrain shifts from swamp forest to marshland; vast virgin gum and cypress swamps were destroyed in the early 1800s to convert the floodplain to rice plantations. Particularly in the refuges, many of the old rice dikes are maintained to provide winter protection for migrating waterfowl. Cypress and gum trees grow in small, isolated stands in the marsh, surrounded by a watery carpet of tall grasses. Throughout the marsh, small creeks, rivers, and sloughs cut labyrinthine paths to connect larger water courses, offering fascinating paddle trips abounding in wildlife.
On the Class 1 Altamaha, the primary dangers are powerboat traffic and getting lost in off-river explorations. The river's width varies from 350 feet at the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers to 500-550 feet in Long and Wayne Counties to 660-700 feet before splitting around the islands in lower McIntosh County. The current is moderate to slow. Access is good; bordering counties the Georgia DNR are promoting and developing the Altamaha Canoe Trail, which links access sites, local facilities, and waypoints of cultural interest. In the delta area, intricate and confusing networks of waterways combine with access points located off the main river channel to demand well-practiced map and compass skills. Good planning is essential for any trip into the delta and should take into account the ebb and flow of the tide.
SHUTTLE: To reach the final take-out at Darien, take Exit 49 from 1-95, turning to the east on GA 251. Where the road ends at US 17, turn right and proceed into town. Turn right onto the last road before crossing the bridge; the boat ramp is on the left. Upper access points are shown on the maps. Some access points are located on sloughs and are not visible from the river. Take bridge crossings into consideration when selecting access points for your trip so as to minimize shuttle driving distances; only four bridges cross the river. Local outfitters provide shuttle service, which can be helpful in locating the best access points and negotiating dirt roads that become challenging when wet.
GAUGE: The river is floatable year-round even in periods of drought. USGS gauges provide levels at Baxley and farther downstream at Doctortown. Sand bars, good for camping sites, disappear at levels above 6 feet. High water opens up the opportunity for paddling within the adjoining swamp forests, but danger increases when swift current passes through trees and bushes; skill in maneuvering your craft under these circumstances is required. Call the Waycross Fisheries Office at (912) 285-6094 for more information.