Gators are masters of disguise. These reptiles average between eight and eleven feet long and are often hunted and sold by locals. Photo by Elvis Santana

The scaled head of a predator drifts through the water like the tip of an iceberg. He wanders closer toward the boat and blinks his beady, black eyes at the passengers. For a moment he lies motionless, and you could mistake him for a brown, misshapen rock. Yet when the tour guide throws a morsel of food toward the water, the alligator rapidly raises his monstrous body and snatches the food out of the air. Then the giant reptile smoothly sinks back down into the murky water and glides away, his tail shifting back and forth behind him like a snake.

This encounter is one of many you can experience in the swamps of the South. Whether by car or boat, with a professional tour or on your own, you can explore a legendary part of the United States.

Atchafalaya Swamp
One of the largest swamps in the United States is the Atchafalaya Swamp in Louisiana. This swamp encompasses the wetlands where the Atchafalaya River and the Gulf of Mexico meet. The water is filled with bald cypress trees stretching toward the sky. Throughout the swamp you can find bayous (stagnant rivers) and marshes (wet sections of land not fully covered with water). One traveler, Kimball Hanson, remembers the swamp as “an area with tons of animals—like a type of little safari.”

This swamp is so popular that the History Channel created a reality show called Swamp People that follows the lives of Cajuns hunting alligators in Atchafalaya. To see this impressive swamp for yourself, you can drive across an 18-mile bridge that stretches over the wetland and connects small Louisiana towns. You can also rent a boat to explore by yourself or take a tour with the Atchafalaya Experience tour company.

Honey Island Swamp
Another Louisiana swamp lurks near New Orleans in the Deep South: the Honey Island Swamp. Cajun Encounters, a local tour company, can take you on a boat ride through the swamp. Your boat will move through the dense marshland so you can have time to observe—to hear the birds calling out and to glimpse the wild boars hiding in the underbrush on patches of almost dry land.

You may even encounter the legendary Honey Island Swamp monster or, as the Cajuns call him, Tainted Keitre. First sighted in 1963 by Harlan Ford, this creature is said to be around seven feet tall. With gray hair, red eyes, and webbed feet, he is the legendary Bigfoot or Loch Ness monster of the swamp.

The Everglades
The Everglades is probably the most well-known swamps outside of Louisiana. Lying in the southern part of Florida, this swamp starts at the Kissimmee River near Orlando and flows into the ocean at Florida Bay. The Everglades is set apart from other swamps by their most prominent feature: the sawgrass marsh. To see this marsh up close, take a tour with Kissimmee Swamp Tours. The tour takes you on an hour-long airboat ride through the Everglades. Sawgrass sticks up from the water in long, yellow patches. You might first think it is solid ground, but once your boat inches into the grass, you’ll realize you’re still gliding on water.

Through the bundles of grass you may see an alligator diving for lunch or an endangered bird settling back into the yellowed straws. You may even see a beautiful tropical hardwood hammock—a series of trees growing in freshwater bogs.

Near the Everglades is Florida Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands, where the fresh swamp water and the salty ocean water meet. Florida Bay contains about a hundred keys, or small islands, that are mainly made up of mangrove forests. Sea grass grows in the bay, attracting animals like sea turtles and manatees. The Ten Thousand Islands, on the western side of the peninsula, boasts one of the largest groves of mangrove trees in the world. To see Florida Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands, you can take a boat tour offered by the Everglades National Park, or you can rent a boat and explore the waters yourself.

Whether you are determined to take a photo of the swamp monster, or you are interested in observing the  wildlife, come and have an adventure among the swamps of the South.

—Courtney Moyer