Open daily, dawn until dusk. Free admission. No pets. Access is by water only; fees may apply.
Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge, the second barrier island south of Tybee Island and fifteen miles southeast of Savannah, is one of the few nearly unspoiled natural areas in Georgia. It has over 10,000 acres of salt marsh, coastal forest and dunes, parts of which are open to the public for hiking and nature-watching, and as a destination for kayaking excursions.
Visiting Wassaw Island
The Fish & Wildlife Service administers Wassaw as a National Wildlife Refuge (See official website). The refuge is made up of three islands, separated by tidewater creeks that in turn cut off the refuge from Skidaway Island to its immediate west.
Wassaw Island, the largest of the three islands, fronts on the Atlantic Ocean, bordered by Ossabaw Sound to the south and by Wassaw Sound to the north. Seven miles of beach, behind which is a low ridge of dunes and old growth forest, form a barrier between the ocean and the salt marsh of the island’s interior.
Two smaller islands – Little Wassaw and Pine – on Ossabaw Sound lie behind the larger Wassaw Island. These are largely made up of salt marsh and interconnecting creeks, with occasional hammocks of oak and palm.
Hiking and nature-watching are the main draws at Wassaw, either along the beach, or the 20 miles of trails crossing the sea-facing barrier ridge. Only the ocean-side portion of the refuge is open to the public; the interior is off-limits at all times. This map shows the areas open to the public, with hiking trails also marked.
The public parts of Wassaw NWR are open year round, with the exception of two several-day periods in fall, when deer hunts are conducted. At these times the island is closed to the general public. See the Fish & Wildlife Service’s website for more information.
Wassaw is open for day use only, camping is not allowed. Permitted activities include biking on the trails, picnicking and swimming. Surf and saltwater fishing are allowed, but freshwater fishing in the several ponds is not.
Getting To Wassaw Island
Access to each of the islands of the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge is possible only by boat. There is no road access.
Private boat Visitors may launch their own boats to travel to Wassaw, most conveniently from either of the marinas at Isle of Hope or Skidaway Island, or from the public ramp next to the Skidaway Island bridge, just off Diamond Causeway.
Landing and unloading is permitted at the dock on Wassaw Creek, but mooring is not allowed. Moor off the south or north ends of the island instead.
Charter boat Private boat charters are one of the easiest, though not the cheapest, ways to get to Wassaw Island.
For a party of up to 6, expect to pay around $300-$400 for a 4-5 hour excursion, or about $100 per hour for longer trips. See details of boat charters to Wassaw Island
Guided tour Full-day guided kayak tours of Wassaw are available, suitable for people with kayaking experience and the physical endurance for a lengthy paddling trip. Expect to pay $100-$120 per person. See details
Kayak rental Alternatively, you can rent kayaks and make the trip yourself. Details of Tybee and Savannah area kayak rental companies
Be mindful of the distance to be paddled from the nearest kayak launch spots. Do not attempt a self-guided kayak trip to Wassaw Island without appropriate experience and knowledge of the area.
Wildlife, Ecology & History
Wassaw wildlife refuge has an especially rich variety of birdlife: wading birds, birds of prey, egrets and herons, seabirds and ducks, and many smaller species too abound, with the spring and fall migrations offering especially good times to birdwatch.
Several freshwater ponds lie between the dune ridges, home to a population of alligators. Deer, feral pigs and other animals can also be seen on Wassaw Island.
Wassaw Island is an important nesting spot for the loggerhead turtle, several dozen of which use its beach every year to bury their eggs. A conservation program is in place to help ensure the turtles’ breeding is successful. Volunteers collect data on the number of turtles laying and hatching, and move unsafely positioned eggs to a better part of the beach.
Although Wassaw Island may appear to be an entirely unspoiled piece of nature, it has not escaped human influence. Ecologically, perhaps the most signficant impact on the island has been the introduction of whitetail deer to the island. Feral pigs too roam the forests, often disturbing nests and other wildlife. Squirrels were also released on the island, and can still occasionally be seen there today.
Some management practices are employed to control the island’s environment. Managed burning of its vegetation reduces the risk of lightning strikes starting uncontrollable and destructive wildfires during the dry summer season. Limited hunting of the deer aims to restrict growth of the population.
There are also a few permanent structures on Wassaw Island. Battery Morgan, a concrete and tabby fort, was built into the dunes that once stood at its northern end around the time of the Spanish-American War. Together with Fort Screven on Tybee Island, the battery formed part of the United States coastal defense system.
Several small buildings were also erected in the inner upland part of Wassaw Island by the original owners of the land. This area is closed to visitors.