Backroads Guide to Carolina Lowcountry

Here's how to plan your time in this delightful area between Charleston and Beaufort.
Gary D. Ford

While the land area of the ACE Basin is small enough for a weekend trip, the natural beauty of this great, green place in the South Carolina Lowcountry will make you want to linger longer. Walking trails, canoe trips, nature tours, and more await.

Stop First in Walterboro
If you're driving along I-95, your first glimpse of the ACE Basin comes in the middle of this small city that lies on the area's northern edge. Walking trails of the Great Swamp Sanctuary meander alongside Ireland Creek. It's a great place for birding. Call (843) 549-9595, or visit www.walterboro.org.

Beside the Sea at Edisto Island
From U.S. 17, turn south on State 174, cruise slowly through the small town of Adams Run, and then follow the road about 25 miles to ocean's edge. Edisto Beach State Park features 4 miles of nature trails and programs. Loggerhead turtles nest on the island's sandy beaches. Edisto Beach Golf Club is open to the public at Fairfield Ocean Ridge Resort. You can shop, dine, and sunbathe. For general information, call the Edisto Chamber of Commerce, at 1-888-333-2781, or visit www.edistochamber.com.

Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge, Donnelley and Bear Island Wildlife Management Areas
You'll find the best views of these Lowcountry gems deep in their hearts. At all three, walking trails take you deep into forests, fields, and tidal marsh.

At the refuge's visitors center (off State 346), you can tour its headquarters, Grove House, built about 1828. It's one of three antebellum houses remaining in the area and was once the seat of a rice plantation. Cooler days in late fall, winter, and spring are the best times to walk the trails of the refuge and wildlife management areas. Bring binoculars (and insect repellant) for great birding in those seasons. For more information call the refuge at (843) 889-3084, or see www.acebasin.fws.gov.

Take a Guided Tour
You can put your feet up and see much of the ACE Basin with several vendors who provide guided excursions into the area. Beaufort-based Ace Basin Tours is one. Tours aboard the 38-foot Dixie Lady pontoon boat wind through marshes and around sea islands for about three hours. Call (843) 521-3099, or visit www.acebasintours.com.

Paddling the Acronym
The Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers, along with scores of other tidal creeks, slip through the silence of forests and marsh. Many choose the Edisto, which is the longest free-flowing blackwater stream in North America. The Edisto River Canoe & Kayak Trail Commission has marked a 60-mile trail, with several put-in spots, including one each at Colleton State Park and Givhan's Ferry State Park. The commission offers guided educational river trips. Call (843) 549-5591, or visit www.walterboro.org.

You'll also find several commercial liveries in the area. One is ACE Basin Outpost, located right on U.S. 17 at Joe's Landing on the Ashepoo River. It offers rentals, sales, lessons, and tours. Call 1-800-785-2925.

Driving Great Roads
The way paddlers love canoeing the ACE Basin, others love driving its two-lane roads. They glide beside the white fences and green pastures of old plantations, penetrate deep forests, and step above thick swamps. Glance at the thick forests along roadsides, and you'll often see the dikes of relic rice fields now overgrown by forests.

Take it slow; wildlife may be crossing just ahead in a bend of the road. I once slowed down for a wild turkey to strut across State 26, one of the best roads to drive. From deep forest it rises over relic dunes and ends at Bennett's Point on Mosquito Creek. There you'll find science and fresh shrimp. Biologists of the National Estuarine Research Reserve study shoreline life.

Other beautiful two-lane drives are those I like to call "Sabbath roads" that pass alongside historic country churches. They include State 21 (turn off U.S. 17/21), which pauses at Old Sheldon Church Ruins, lovingly preserved by St. Helena Episcopal Church in nearby Beaufort. State 174 turns south off U.S. 17 and passes by Trinity Episcopal, housed in an 1880 edifice. Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island occupies an 1830 structure, while the 1818 Old First Baptist Church houses an African American congregation.

Another African-American congregation worships at St. James the Greater, an 1826 church on what locally is called Catholic Hill. Follow State 303 south of Walterboro and turn right on State 41.

What To Do on Rainy Days
In Walterboro stroll through fine arts and crafts, all made by South Carolinians, in the South Carolina Artisans Center, which is housed in a rambling Victorian house. At Ravenel, the Caw Caw Interpretive Center houses exhibits on the rice culture and natural history of the area. Outside, 8 miles of interpretive trails and a boardwalk provide access to marshes and swamps.

The Edisto Island Museum relates the story of this sea island, while the Edisto Island Serpentarium features about 500 reptiles on display.

Give a (Loggerhead Turtle) Mom a Helping Hand
Botany Island Beach ranks as one of the premier nesting sites in South Carolina for loggerhead sea turtles. This year, females lumbered ashore and dug at least 200 nests. The nonprofit Botany Community Conservation Sea Turtle Project always needs volunteers, especially during hatching time in late summer. Call the project coordinator, Meg Hoyle, at (843) 869-2998. The organization also accepts tax-free donations at 2231 Devine Street, Suite 100, Columbia, SC 29205.

Where To Stay
You'll find several chain motels, such as Hampton Inn, along I-95 in Walterboro. Edisto Beach State Park features cabins and campgrounds. Elsewhere on Edisto Island, Fairfield Ocean Ridge Resort offers vacation villas, with off-season rates at 20% less than the published online, on-season rates. Rates range $180-$760. Call toll-free 1-877-296-6335, or visit www.fairfieldvacations.com. Several realty companies offer rentals. For complete listings call Edisto Chamber of Commerce, 1-888-333-2781, or visit www.edistochamber.com.

Many visitors choose to headquarter in Charleston or Beaufort and then drive into the ACE Basin for the day. Beaufort is much closer--about 30 miles south of the area. Several chain motels are available, along with small inns housed in historic structures such as the Beaufort Inn ($165-$285). Call (843) 379-4667, or visit www.beaufortinn.com. Rates at The Rhett House Inn range $135-$245. Call (843) 524-9030, or visit www.rhetthouseinn.com.

Note: Visitors fill Beaufort-area lodging for graduation ceremonies at nearby Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot, which are held most weekends of the year. You can often find accommodations at the last minute, but it's good to call well in advance.

For more information on Beaufort visit www.beaufortsc.org.

Where To Dine
In Beaufort, fill up on stone-ground grits and other breakfast foods at Blackstone Deli & Cafe ([843] 524-4330), or choose pastries and gourmet coffees at Firehouse Books & Espresso Bar ([843] 522-2665). Several restaurants line Bay Street, among them the elegant Saltus River Grill ([843] 379-3474).

On Edisto Island, our choice is The Old Post Office ([843] 869-2339), located at 1442 State 174. You'll want to write home about the shrimp and grits.

In Walterboro have a soda at the fountain at Hiott's Pharmacy ([843] 549-7222) on Washington Street downtown, and don't miss the boiled peanuts at Woods Brothers Store ([843] 844-2208) on U.S. 17 near Green Pond.

For general information on the area, contact the Lowcountry & Resort Islands Tourism Commission at 1-800-528-6870, or visit www.southcarolinalowcountry.com.

"Backroads Guide to Carolina Lowcountry" is from the October 2005 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.