From the pristine coastal waters of Cape Romain to the longleaf pine forests of the Sandhills, South Carolina’s eight national wildlife refuges preserve a diversity of habitats that serve as home to a stunning array of wildlife.
If you’re the type of traveler that enjoys basing getaways and vacations on the kind of destinations that offer unparalleled wildlife and landscape photography, you might want to consider visiting these public lands.
Below are the eight national wildlife refuges located in South Carolina:
1) Savannah NWR. Once the growing fields of lucrative 18th-century rice plantations, the 3,000 acres of freshwater impoundments along the Savannah River now serve as rich habitat for a wealth of wildlife, including migratory waterfowl, wading birds, and alligators. The refuge’s self-guided Laurel Hill Wildlife Tour will take you over four miles of earthen dikes, through hardwood hammocks and past freshwater pools where you’ll have the chance to view the wildlife. The best birding is from October through April. Alligators are seen most often from March through October. Trail maps are available at the visitor center if you want to bike or hike other areas of the refuge.
2) Pinckney Island NWR. Located just outside of Hilton Head Island, the refuge started out as a plantation that was later turned into a game preserve. It is made up of a half-dozen islands, but only the largest – Pinckney Island – is open to the public. A popular birding destination, it features a diversity of habitats accessible by a gravel road that runs the length of the island and connects to a network of hiking and biking trails. One of the star attractions in the 4,053-acre refuge is Ibis Pond, a rookery of great flocks of ibis, egrets, and herons. Another must-see spot is White Point, offering a spectacular view of Daws and Parris islands. Free guided shuttle and bike tours are offered regularly. Click here to register.
3) Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin NWR. Created by the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers, the ACE Basin is the largest undeveloped estuary on the Atlantic Coast. What once was fertile grounds for rice cultivation was preserved as hunting retreats by Northern industrialists. Today, the refuge protects 12,000 acres of a 350,000-acre ecosystem that includes pine and hardwood forests, cypress and tupelo swamps, tidal marshes, creeks, barrier islands and pristine beaches, supporting an incredible diversity of wildlife. Visitors have the opportunity to hike and bike on miles of dirt roads, dikes and trails, visit an antebellum plantation home, and hunt, fish, and kayak on the public lands.
4) Cape Romain NWR. The longest continuous stretch of protected coastline on the Atlantic, Cape Romain encompasses 66,287 acres of maritime forests, salt marshes, fresh and brackish water impoundments, tidal creeks, and sandy beaches. Its extensive array of wildlife includes more than 290 species of birds. The best way to explore this unique ecosystem is to take a tour with Coastal Expeditions, Cape Romain’s sole concessionaire. The outfitter offers a variety of excursions to the refuge, including guided kayaking and hiking trips, boat tours to two historic lighthouses, and ferry service to Bulls Island, the largest of Cape Romain’s four barrier islands. The most popular destination on the island is Boneyard Beach, a section of shoreline that has suffered years of erosion, leaving the sun-bleached remains of trees littered across the sand.
5) Waccamaw NWR. A diversity of wetlands is what makes this refuge a standout. From historic rice fields to black water river swamps to alluvial floodplain forests, the coastal river ecosystem offers habitat for a number of endangered and threatened species, anadromous fish, forest wildlife and an extensive array of migratory and resident birds, including swallow-tailed kites, osprey, wood storks, white ibis and prothonotary warblers. The 29,000-acre refuge includes sections of three rivers – the Waccamaw, Great Pee Dee and Little Pee Dee – and a large portion of Sandy Island, a wildlife preserve accessible only by boat. Recreational offerings include boating and kayaking in the refuge’s rivers and creeks, freshwater fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking, and birdwatching.
6) Santee NWR. The 13,000-acre refuge on the north shore of Lake Marion serves as a major wintering area for ducks and geese, and a stopover for neotropical migratory birds, raptors, shorebirds and wading birds. In addition to offering excellent birding opportunities, it’s a popular fishing destination for trophy-sized catfish, crappie, and striped bass. The visitor center can be found in the Bluff unit, one of four designated areas of the refuge. It includes the Santee Indian Mound, a ceremonial temple and burial site dating back more than 1,000 years. The 30-foot-high hill went on to be used as an outpost by the British during the Revolutionary War. The refuge also features nearly 40 miles of hiking and biking trails located in all four units, kayaking trails, and a 7.5-mile wildlife drive. Seasonal hunting for white-tailed deer and wild hogs also is permitted.
7) Carolina Sandhills NWR. Once barren and badly eroded with few populations of wildlife species, the 47,850-acre refuge was restored into a rich habitat for plants and animals that once lived in the Carolina Sandhills. The rapidly-diminishing longleaf pine forest has been brought back in the refuge, providing a home for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. You can find this species in cavity trees marked with a white band. A wildlife drive and hiking trails provide access to wetlands, upland pine forests, and lakes. In the Oxpen area, you’ll find an observation tower offering a panoramic view of lakes, fields and thousands of acres of forestland. It’s a good spot to view grassland birds and raptors. If songbirds are on your checklist, try the Woodland Pond Trail. The refuge also offers seasonal hunting and several lakes for fishing.