One for the Road
Text and photos by David Lucas
The Edisto Nature Trail in the ACE Basin town of Jacksonboro, S.C., packs a lot of natural and historical punch into a short walk.
It’s tempting to take the boardwalk trail straight to view overlooking the river at the Edisto River Trail in the ACE Basin town of Jacksonboro South Carolina. It’s pretty, for one thing, you’d be hard pressed to find a more picturesque view of the lower part of the Edisto than the one at the end of this leisurely 15 minute walk through a variety of wetland habitats. I could stay there watching the river go by for hours, and if you’re passing through Jacksonboro on the way to points south (Hilton Head, Savannah) or north (Edisto Beach, Charleston) and in need of a quick leg-stretcher, there’s no better spot.
But if you have a bit more time to spend, there’s also a loop trail that will take you through about 1.5 miles of mixed wetlands and some upland forest. It’s a nice little hike, and one I was eager to get the chance to take again.
The last time I was here, scouting it out with Al Segars, the SCDNR’s stewardship program coordinator for the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) for an article in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, Hurricane Mathew had recently blown through the Lowcountry, and what we found that day on the trail’s inner loop was a big mess of downed oaks that made the trail all but impassable. But a few weeks ago, on a trip to Charleston, I was pleased to see a parking lot full of cars at the trailhead (located just past the Edisto River Bridge on U.S. Highway 17). Cleanup efforts organized by the property’s owner, WestRock, a global paper products company, have been ongoing, and the trail is again open for visitors.
One thing that’s neat about this trail is that, over the course of a pretty short walk – less than a mile if you go straight to the river overlook – you’ll see an overlapping mix four different types of wetland habitats. Floodplain wetlands are common adjacent to large river systems, are subject to frequent (though intermittent) flooding and support stands of cypress and tupelo trees. Concave lowland areas known as depressional wetlands hold water for longer (kind of like small ponds), and support a wide variety of plant types. In the case of the Edisto Nature trail, dwarf palmetto, ironwood and laurel oak are abundant tree types. Nearly level wetlands, on the other hand, are broad flat areas that flood less deeply than these other types, drying out considerably in the spring and summer. These types of areas are often cleared and used for agriculture or for growing trees, and on the Edisto trail support pines, sweetgums, red maple and black gum trees. Lastly, disturbed wetlands are pretty much just what they sound like. They play a significant role in the history of this place.
Photo gallery: There's a timeless, somewhat spooky vibe to the sites and sounds you'll find on the interior trail's narrow paths. Bird and animal calls are common at dawn and dusk, but at midday, a stillness takes over the landscape. Can you imagine slogging through these flooded trenches to bring out load after load of limestone?
Many of the wetland areas in this region have been disturbed quite a bit over the years, and evidence of human activity and industry (aka fascinating history) can be found throughout the property. Did you know that phosphate mining was once a booming industry in the Lowcountry of South Carolina? It sure was. And while much of it occurred on the sea islands, long, shallow pits were also dug on parts of the mainland (especially in the aforementioned depressional wetlands) in order to get at the rich limestone deposits laying just beneath the surface. Phosphate had a number of industrial uses and was also used as a fertilizer for crops. The long, straight trenches where these mines were dug are separated by banks made from the spoil material, which is where cart tracks or narrow-gauge rail tracks were laid to haul out the valuable mineral. I’m always struck when walking the trail at Edisto by the similarity between those paths/trenches and the ones at the SCDNR’s Congaree Creek Heritage Preserve outside Columbia. At Congaree Creek, the trenches are what remains of shallow pits where clay to make bricks was mined beginning in the early 1900s. The phosphate mining trenches are strikingly similar. The two properties share another historical similarity. A dirt road adjacent to Congaree Creek HP was once part of the Old Cherokee Trail, which later became one of the first Colonial-era roads from Charleston into the backcountry, “Old State Road.” At the Edisto Nature Trail, a wooden sign near the parking lot points out an overgrown section of the old “Kings Highway” roadbed that eventually was supplanted by U.S. Highway 17.
And long before phosphate, there was rice production here. Prior to the Revolutionary War, Jacksonboro, and indeed the entire surrounding area, was a major hub for inland rice production, including along the Edisto River. In the modern era, logging became the dominate industry in the area, and the trail itself was dedicated by the Westvaco company (now WestRock) in the 1980s.
There’s a lot to see here, packed into a pretty short loop trail that can be power-hiked in less than an hour (if you want to work up a sweat) or enjoyed at a more leisurely pace over the course of a morning or afternoon. Bring sturdy shoes with a good tread — flip flops are a poor match for oak roots and sweetgum balls, and some of the narrow sections of boardwalk winding through the old phosphate pits can be slippery —and, if visiting in spring or summer, plenty of mosquito repellant. You can make it to the river and back in about a half-hour if your hurry, but why would you do that? Pack a lunch, turn off your phone and spend some quality quiet time at the end of the boardwalk. You’ll be glad you did.