South Carolina’s Old 96 District has the Cure for a Serious Case of Cabin Fever
In early January, there was snow in the Lowcountry. Followed by snow in the Upstate. Snow darn near everywhere, in fact. Preceded and followed by more cold, cold, rain, even colder rain and generally lousy conditions for what seemed like forever in the weeks following New Year’s. Nothing to do but bundle up and stay in the house under a blanket, eat soup and binge-watch the latest “must-see” series on Netflix. Or maybe something with fewer swords and cussing and naked people. Some HGTV maybe, if that’s your thing. A week of that can be kind of fun. Two weeks and I’m climbing the walls, so when temperatures finally began to climb back in the 60s, I climbed into Old Blue and “lit out for territories” to see if could find any hints of spring.
In this case, the territory I had in mind was the “Old 96 District” tourism region along South Carolina’s western border. If you are of a mind to get outside and get some sunshine after a dreary two weeks spent inside, this region offers an amazing number of options for outdoor-oriented adventures. Hiking trails and biking trails and natural opportunities galore, not to mention fishing and hunting. There’s also plenty to see and do on the history, heritage, arts and culture side of things (from theatrical productions at the Abbeville Opera House, to the beautiful hand-made and -fired “Edgefield-style” pottery revered by collectors around the world), but with three major lakes (Greenwood, Russell & Thurmond) and thousands of acres of the Sumter National Forest’s Long Cane Ranger District within its borders, not to mention the more than 5,600-acre Macalla WMA up in Abbeville County, the region has earned its reputation as an outdoors-lovers paradise.
For this trek, I had in mind checking out a smaller and less well-known DNR property, tiny Stevens Creek Heritage Preserve and WMA down in Edgefield County near the community of Modoc. Stevens Creek is mainly known for a rare “relict” plant community that includes some plant species that have likely been growing in this location (and very few other places) since the Pleistocene era. In fact, preservation of this plant community was the primary reason the property was protected as a S.C. Heritage Preserve back in the 1970s. Needless to say, it’s a popular destination for serious botany-minded folks, but mainly in the springtime and summer, when rarities like the Miccosukee gooseberry (Ribes echinellum), spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum) and shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) are in bloom.
My mid-winter leg-stretcher born of cabin fever wouldn’t involve photographing any rare plants, but despite the lack of greenery and flowers, there’s still something starkly beautiful about the bare woods in winter that I really like. Plus, after two weeks of basically vegging on the couch, what I was really interested in was a good cardio workout, and a briskly-paced hike on the 1.9-mile loop trail down the steep bluff to the banks of Stevens Creek and back would fit the bill perfectly.
With the late afternoon sun fading fast, I struck a fast pace from the trailhead, passing quickly through the relatively open pine woods and starting down the steep run of switchbacks that takes you through some rocky ridges and across tiny streams on the way to the banks of the main waterway of Stevens Creek. At this point, the creek is a wide braided channel running roughly parallel to the larger Savannah River. The woods were quiet and serene, and the creek low, with large sandbars exposed in the main channel above the new bridge on Garrett Road. I love this type of terrain, where the piedmont comes to a crashing halt at the fall line, giving way to the flat swamps of the coastal plain.
The rocky ridges, with moss-covered boulders erupting from the ground everywhere you look, will make you think for a minute you’re in the foothills of the Upstate. After a peaceful half-hour or so sitting on a bluff overlooking the river, I followed the loop around and back up the winding route to the top of the hill. By this time, the shadows were getting longer, and the day’s welcome warmth was fading, but I was still able to work up a good sweat on the steep trail. A great escape on a (lately) rare warm winter day before heading back to the Lowcountry and a rainy/cold forecast.
Gallery of additional photos -- click to see the next one:
To reach the trailhead, I took Highway 230 north out of North Augusta for about 15 miles, turning left onto the winding two-lane blacktop of Garrett Road (Route 88) and then traveling another eight or so miles to the trailhead (on the right just after the new bridge crossing the creek). You can also reach Garrett Road from the Clarks Hill/Modoc direction. Additional directions can be found on the SCDNR Public Lands Web Page. The property is also enrolled in the SCDNR’s WMA program, and fishing and hunting (in season) are allowed.
Side Trip: The Winchester Museum at the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield
Nature is great, solitude is even better, and a great hike is an end unto itself. But if you find yourself exploring the more civilized reaches of Old 96 District, perhaps with the whole family in tow, the headquarters of the National Wild Turkey Federation in the quaint Southern town of Edgefield (home to 10 S.C. governors, including Strom Thurmond) is a great place to visit.
For starters, the sprawling campus boasts a couple of nice walking trails of varying lengths, so it makes for a great place to get in a walk after some time spent in the car. Second is the Winchester Museum of the Wild Turkey, which is a really neat thing to see. If there’s a turkey hunter in your group, it’s an absolute must-stop. An aficionado could spend several hours exploring the museum’s multiple displays of beautiful hand-made turkey calls of every description and reading about the history of the noble bird's near extinction in the U.S. and amazing recovery story. Kids will get into the museum’s many interactive exhibits as well, including the chance to “ride along” in a realistic full-size U.S. Forest Service helicopter on a prescribed burning mission.
I couldn’t get over the artistry and skill embodied in the turkey calls, many hand-carved wooden ones, but also calls crafted from natural materials such as the shell and carapace of a river turtle. It is truly an amazing folk art form, and the collection of calls at the museum is second to none in the world. The diorama featuring the rocket net reminded me of the three-part story I wrote last year detailing the ongoing research into the movements of these fascinating birds at the SCDNR’s Webb Wildlife Center. The nature nerd in me also really enjoyed the fantastic dioramas detailing the physical traits and habitats of the six species of wild turkey (Did you know there were six? Well there are!), as well as the interactive panels with information about all of the many habitat conservation and research projects that NWTF supports in North America. There’s just a whole lot of really neat stuff to see here, which is probably why the museum averages more than 10,000 visitors a year, including numerous school groups, as well as people who come to take advantage of the many classes and seminars on conservation and land management offered by the center.
Gallery -- More images from the NWTF Headquarters & the Winchester Museum (click to see next image):