Wilderness, wildlife, bamboo and fossils: The Savannah you don't know

You know about the Savannah River and raucous River Street; the magnificent squares, cobblestone streets, historic buildings and sites; and the exceptional history tours of Savannah, Ga. Savannah is as deeply steeped in history as a good homemade pitcher of tea is steeped in hot water. What isn't so well known about Savannah, curiously, given its river and coast environs, is that it has exceptional wildlife and nature preserves and outings.

Few know this better than the folks at Ogeechee Riverkeeper, a public advocacy group for the Ogeechee River and the citizens who live and recreate in the Ogeechee River basin. The Ogeechee River Watershed stretches out from around Union Point, Ga., just north of I-20, all the way down to Savannah and the coast. The dark, tea-colored water common to the river system's freshwater streams are why they're known as blackwater streams.

"Southeast Georgia retains a natural beauty throughout its bottomland hardwood swamps to the salt marshes of the Atlantic coast," said Emily Markesteyn, executive director and riverkeeper at Ogeechee Riverkeeper. "This is one of the few places where you can enjoy birds and wildlife, clean waterways and pristine beaches up close and personal."

The Blackwater River Float I did with Wilderness Southeast Wildlife & Nature Tours in the spring is one of my favorite Savannah experiences. Gliding upon the flat, dark waters in a canoe was a primal pleasure. We saw gators, turtles, a couple of woodpeckers, lots of dragon flies, and more critters as we paddled around stout, multiple-trunked cypress trees, many with knobby "knees" at their bases. A white ibis stalked the riverbank shallows on its skinny legs. Myriad birds flew hither and yon but I reveled in hearing them more than in seeing them. The sound of their exuberant song struck an unusually deep chord in me for some reason in this environment.

Sure, you can enjoy Savannah for its history and River Street revelry, but the city's natural assets are plenty reason enough on their own to visit the Hostess City of the South. Below are some of the best outdoor experiences you can have in and around Savannah.

Wilderness Southeast Wildlife & Nature Tours

With offices in Midtown Savannah, Wilderness Southeast Wildlife & Nature Tours is easy to get to for visitors staying in the heart of the city who want to get out into the wild world of the natural Georgia coast. Among the organization's offerings are Wild Island Explorations, Black River Float, Alligators & Others, Salt Marsh by Land & Sea, Salt Marsh Walk, Beaches & Borders, Sailing, Birding, The Forest Fringe, Edible Plants, Explore the Night Sky and The Urban Forest – all led by expert naturalist guides. Wilderness Southeast is primarily a nonprofit that serves local sixth-graders with a program called Fish Gotta Swim, which teaches them the importance of maintaining water quality and introduces them to Environmental Science through classwork and field trips. But Wilderness Southeast's nature tours help the organization highlight the landscape and ecology of Lowland Georgia and encourage lifelong stewardship.

Wilderness Southeast Wildlife & Nature Tours, 3025 Bull St., No. 302, Savannah, Ga., 912-236-8115, www.naturesavannah.org

Oatland Island Wildlife Center

The Oatland Island Wildlife Center of Savannah is actually part of the Savannah-Chatham County Board of Education and used to teach schoolkids about wildlife and also domesticated animals but big people, sometimes called adults, are also welcome to visit. It's home to more than 150 animals from 50 different species that reside along a trail through forest and marsh land just five miles east of Historic Downtown Savannah. The "Wolf Wilderness" features gray wolves, armadillos, flying squirrels, screech owls and various reptiles. Oatland also has cougars, bobcats, bison, alligators and red fox. Its "Georgia Farm" area has cows, sheep, goats, rabbits and more. There's also a picnic shelter, meeting facilities and a gift shop.

Oatland Island Wildlife Center, 711 Sandtown Road, Savannah, Ga., 912-395-1212, www.oatlandisland.org

Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm

One of the least-known but most beautiful jewels of Savannah's natural-world landscape is the 51-acre Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm. Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens is part of the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Ever evolving, this carefully cultivated terrain 10 miles southwest of downtown Savannah has over 70 different species and cultivars of bamboo at the Barbour Lathrop Bamboo Collection; a Water Garden with tropical waterlilies and other plants in a 50,000-gallon water feature that includes a 9-foot waterfall and a shallow bog basin; Crapemyrtle Allee, with its beautiful crapemyrtles lining a 300-foot-long brick path; a Rose Garden with a 5-foot-tall tiered fountain in the center; one of the most diverse collections of camellias in the U.S. at the Judge Arthur Solomon Camellia Trail – and that's just scratching the surface of this exceptional botanical garden. Strawberries, blackberries and blueberries are available to pick on your own during the spring.

Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, 2 Canebrake Road, Savannah, Ga., 912-921-5460, www.coastalgeorgiabg.org

Tybee Island Marine Science Center

Tybee Island is just 18 miles due east of downtown Savannah and the easternmost point in the Peach State. It's generally considered part of the city's metro area, yet the barrier island is a peaceful retreat made of sand and surf, seat oats and sea gulls, oceans and dunes and it's home to the Tybee Island Marine Science Center. The center has lots of interesting educational exhibits and recreated habitats inside but it also offers a number of "Walks, Talks & Treks," including the Marsh Trek through the coastal salt marsh to dig into the sandy mud for fiddler crabs, periwinkle snails and other such critters. There's also the "Sift & Seine," where you get the opportunity to handle a 10-foot seine net in the coastal water to catch, examine and release marine life like several fish species, sea jellyfish and crabs. There are other outdoors adventures available as well.

Tybee Island Marine Science Center, 1509 Strand Ave., Tybee Island, Ga., 912-786-5917, www.tybeemarinescience.org

Sundial Charters

There are also various charter boat excursions available from Tybee. Some of the best are offered through Sundial Charters. It offers custom-designed fishing charters, of course, but also fossil-hunting expeditions, dolphin-viewing runs, waterfront history trips, outings to Lazaretto Creek and its Lazaretto Creek Fishing Community, to Cockspur Island with the Cockspur Lighthouse, and Little Tybee Island. Seeing the local shrimping fleet, dolphin viewing, net casting, and learning about salt marsh ecology and similar coastal activities are inherently part of Sundial Charter outings, which often start at one of Tybee Island's several piers.

Sundial Charters, 1615 Chatham Ave., Tybee Island, Ga., 912-786-9470, http://sundialcharters.com