If you’re looking for a relaxing vacation, filled with breathtaking scenery and minimal human interaction, this is the place for you. Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge is home to all kinds of life, and all types of environments. From beautiful beaches, to giant sand dunes and salt marshes, you’ll have a hard time running of places to explore.
Before you go though, there are some things you should know. If you go unprepared, you may run into unexpected problems during your visit. I’ve put together a list of the most important information, and hopefully it’ll help you plan and make the most of your trip!
1. About the Refuge
Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last relatively undeveloped coastal barrier islands in Georgia, and it serves as a safe haven for many different animal, insect, and plant species. Its environment is especially hospitable to migratory birds, nesting sea turtles, and American alligators.
The 10,053-acre area became a National Wildlife Refuge on October 20, 1969, and has since been protected by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The island is made up of salt marshes, maritime forests, mudflats, tidal creeks, rolling dunes, and approximately 7 miles of undeveloped beaches.
Refuge visitors can partake in various recreational activities, such as fishing, bird-watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, biking, seashell hunting/beachcombing, and photography. The best time to visit for bird-watching is during spring and fall migrations, and if you visit in summer, you may very well see the tracks left behind from endangered loggerhead sea turtles, who briefly came ashore to lay their eggs.
2. Getting There
Getting to the refuge can be difficult and expensive. It’s only accessible by boat, and since the Fish and Wildlife Service does not provide transportation, that leaves only three options.
Using your own boat:
Private boats are allowed at Wassaw NWR, and that makes getting there much easier for some people.
There are a few different places you can launch your boat from. The most common places are from the local marinas in the Savannah area, such as the Skidaway Island Marina, and the Isle of Hope marina. The public ramp near Skidaway Island Bridge is also an option. The dock on Wassaw Creek is available for landing and uploading, but mooring is strictly prohibited, so keep that in mind. Instead, you can moor just off the north and south ends of the island.
Making arrangements through charter services:
Another option, for those of us who are not so fortunate to own a boat, is to pay for passage from people who DO have a boat. There are quite a few different charter services and private boat captains who operate out of local marinas, and some of them offer passage to Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge. (for a price) A few of these are:
A boat excursion to Wassaw Island with Savannah Coastal EcoTours:
- Length – 6-7 hours
- Cost – $380 for 1-4 people, $95 each additional person
- Description – Trips to the South End of the island disembark at the federal dock on the mainland side of the island and include a .67 mile guided naturalist hike through the maritime forest and over a 35 foot storm event dune to the Atlantic side. Your group can either return the same way to the dock, or hike along the beach to the south end of the island (about 2 miles) and be picked up there. South end pickup will require wading in the water up to knee deep. A visit to the North End includes the remains of Spanish American War Fort Morgan as well as the north end boneyard beach. Trips here require wading through water up to knee deep.
Wassaw Island Excursion with Sundial Charters:
- Length – 4-5 hours
- Cost – $475 per boat for 1-2, plus $20 for each additional adult and $10 for each additional child (ages 0-16)
- Description – “Great trip to Wassaw Island yesterday with Captain Rene! We stopped for Dolphins on the way and hiked the pavilion trail on the island. Beautiful nature preserve. More Dolphins and birding on the way home made for an amazing afternoon! Captain Rene made sure we were happy and comfortable the entire time and took time to stop anytime we wanted to see something up close. Great trip that has become part of our annual vacation!” — Sara T. March, TripAdvisor
Boat excursion to Wassaw with Wild Island Exploration:
- Length – 2 hours, 3 hours, 4 hours, full-day
- Cost – 2 hour tours from $280 for 1-2 people, 3 hours tour from $340 for 1-2 people, 4 hour tours from $400 for 1-2 people, and full-day tours from $600 for 1-2 people. In each case, an extra $25 ($40 for the full day tour) is payable per extra person, with a maximum of 6.
- Description – A 2 hour trip takes you through the creeks, sighting dolphins, osprey, and perhaps a bald eagle. With 3-4 hours, you can step ashore onto the wide beaches of Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge or Ossabaw Island. On these islands, you’ll enjoy beachcombing, with your WiSE guide there to explain the beautiful and strange items that have washed ashore. You’ll enjoy, bird watching, photography, or exploring the magnificent maritime forest and sheltering sand dunes. With the luxury of a full day, you can venture to the wild beaches and creeks of Ossabaw Island, and possibly even St. Catherine’s Island.
Yes, you can kayak to Wassaw NWR, and it’s an amazing experience. Having said that, they are full-day tours, and are only suitable for people with kayaking experience, and extensive physical stamina. There are a couple local tour companies that offer guided kayak excursions. They are:
Sea Kayak Georgia excursion to Wassaw Island:
- Length – 6 hours
- Cost – $95 per person
- Description – Bring sunscreen, sun hat, plenty of drinking water for each person, and a picnic. In cool weather a rain jacket and pants will protect from water and wind. We are happy to provide a picnic lunch for an addition per person fee. You will need to be comfortable outside for 6 hours, paddling for a majority of the time. We will stop on a beach or island to explore and to picnic. Leave from Tybee and create a journey on the open sea. This adventure on the high sea takes in several prime surfing spots along the way. The swell crossing Wassaw Sound can be spectacular.
Savannah Canoe and Kayak excursion down the Wilmington River to Wassaw:
- Length – 6-7 hours
- Cost – $135 per person
- Description – Paddle and hike… the Georgia Coast’s most pristine barrier island. It’s a straightforward go-with-the-flow paddle down the Wilmington River, into Wassaw Sound, and to the island. Designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1969, the ten thousand acres include beaches with rolling dunes, live oak, and slash pine woodlands. Enjoy a hike on the interior trails before stopping for lunch on one of the beaches of Wassaw.
3. When to Go
Admission to Wassaw NWR is free, which is a great thing for those on a budget. (especially considering the price of getting to the island) The refuge is strictly for day use, and is open from sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week, unless otherwise posted on the islands official website.
4. What to Bring
The island is virtually untouched, and minimally developed. You won’t find many modern day comforts. Things such as restrooms, drinking water, cell phone reception, public trash services, and shelter from inclement weather are unavailable, so you must plan accordingly. Here’s a brief list of items that often come in handy when visiting undeveloped areas:
- A first-aid kit
- Filled reusable water bottles
- Water filtration system (LifeStraw, SteriPen, Iodine Tablets)
- Sunscreen (not chemical sunscreen – it’s killing our reefs)
- Bug spray
- Map of area
- Bag (for trash)
(Here is the map of Wassaw NWR)
Wassaw Islands beaches are wide, gently-sloped towards the sea, and composed mainly of fine-grain sand. They are home to many different organisms, such as whelks, oysters, ghost shrimp, mole crabs, and various species of algae.
Washed up on shore, you’ll find tons of seashells, making it an especially exceptional island to go beachcombing on. Just like the rest of the island, the beaches of Wassaw NWR are undisturbed and undeveloped. They’re also relatively unfrequented, so chances are you won’t see many other visitors.
The barrier island refuge provides protection and habitat for hundreds of different animal, insect, and plant species. These include piping plovers, American alligators, wood storks, white-tailed deer, wild boar, bald eagles, egrets, peregrine falcons, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, and more. The island is a great spot for nature observation and birdwatching all throughout the year.
Several endangered species frequent the refuge, perhaps the most famous being the loggerhead sea turtle. These beloved sea creatures have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act for over 40 years, due to accidental capture in fishing gear, habitat destruction, climate change, and exposure/ingestion of plastics. You can find them on the beaches of Wassaw NWR from late spring through summer, as they come to shore to nest.
Pets aren’t allowed on Wassaw Island. They are strictly prohibited from being brought to the refuge, leashed or not. This rule is in place to protect the native wildlife and habitat, which are both fragile, and easily disturbed.
It’ll also ensure your animals safety. Remember, there are some pretty big predators on the island – big enough to easily harm your pet.
One of the most popular activities on Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge is photography. It’s no surprise why, either. The island is packed with scenic areas, from the coastal beach, to the rolling dunes, the maritime forest, and the vast salt marches. Add that to the abundant amount of wildlife, and you have yourself a nature photographers dream.
9. Leave No Trace
As you should when traveling to any delicate ecosystem, practice the principles of Leave No Trace. This includes leaving nothing behind, including biodegradable material such as apple cores and orange peels. These items may seem harmless, but they can affect the ecosystem in many ways, so remember to pack it in, pack it out.
In an effort to protect the area and its inhabitants, the refuge has created some guidelines. Some of them are common sense, others are a bit more specific, and may impact your trip if not taken into account. Here’s the list:
- The refuge is open during daylight hours only; overnight use and/or camping (including campfires) are not permitted.
- Some areas may be closed seasonally to protect wildlife from human disturbance. Such areas are posted “Area Beyond This Sign Closed.”
- Feeding, capturing, or harassing wildlife is strictly prohibited unless authorized by permit.
- Launching, landing, or disturbing of wildlife by aircraft (drones) on the refuge is prohibited.
- Dogs, cats, and other pets are not permitted on the refuge.
- Picking or cutting vegetation is prohibited.
- All of the refuge’s archaeological and natural resources are protected. Artifact hunting/collecting is not allowed.
- Shell collectors are asked to take no live shells and to limit collecting to a handful.
- Hikers and bicyclers are encouraged to stay on marked trails.
- The refuge, unless otherwise posted, is open to hiking, biking, wildlife observation, interpretation, environmental education, and photography. It is also open, in certain areas and times of the year, to hunting and fishing; review refuge hunting and fishing regulations for details.
Wassaw NWR encourages legal hunting. They think of it as a healthy pastime that it often necessary on wildlife reserves, in order to deal with species overpopulation.
The refuge offers two, three-day hunts annually. One is for primitive weapons, the other for firearms. With the purchase of a $25 refuge hunt permit, any properly licensed hunter may participate. Here is this years hunt schedule, and here’s a list of all refuge-specific hunting regulations.
Another popular activity at Wassaw NWR is fishing. It draws in a good number of visitors every year, and as long as you’re fishing legally, it’s a welcome hobby. Fishing is permitted at the refuge, but only in certain areas, and it’s important you know where.
Places you can fish:
In the estuarine waters adjacent to the refuge, you’re free to fish year-round, from sunrise to sunset.
Places you can’t fish:
Freshwater fishing in refuge ponds is prohibited, always.
Depending on what you’re planning to do at Wassaw island, you may need a permit. If you’re only going to hike or observe wildlife, you should be safe without one. That being said, there are a few specific cases in which a permit is necessary. There are two permits available on the island.
First is the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex Annual Hunt Permit. It’s required that anyone 16 or older who is planning to hunt obtains this permit. It allows access to all “non-quota”, general public hunts on Wassaw NWR. Annual Hunt Permits are $25, non-transferable, and valid only for refuge hunts scheduled during the current hunt year. You can purchase one here.
The second is called a Special Use Permit. (SUP) It’s recommended that you begin the process of acquiring an SUP at least one month before your trip. You can do so by contacting refuge management. You must obtain one if you’re planning to participate in any of the following activities:
- Biological Research/Specimen Collection
- Commercial Filming
- Commercial Tours or Activities
- Special Events
- Access to areas normally closed to the public
- Any other activity the general public is prohibited from doing
14. Hiking & Biking
Wassaw NWR is an ideal destination for hiking and biking. With 20 miles of dirt roads and 7 miles of coastline, there are plenty of scenic areas to wonder about. You’re free to use any of the public areas for hiking, but it is preferred that you stay on trail. Bicycling is allowed only on marked trails. Here is a trail map of the island.
Visiting Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge is a one of a kind experience.
The beaches are pristine, the wildlife is abundant, and the trip is filled with many chances for peace and quiet. Hopefully this list answered some of your questions and helped you prepare for your visit to the refuge. Now that you know what you’re getting yourself into, I have no doubt you’ll have a exciting, safe trip.
Hi, I’m Ash!
I’m a laid back traveler who loves experiencing new things and spontaneity. My favorite hobbies are hiking, gardening, skincare, and all things tea.
My biggest goal is to spread the word about sustainable travel and show everyone how easy it is to partake in. If you wanna learn more about that or get to know me better, feel free to click here.