A visit to South Carolina's “Holy City” to experience Charleston’s culinary scene and unparalleled Old-world charm is a top-of-the-bucket-list trip for travelers around the world, but for those seeking outdoor adventure, this region’s wilderness areas are also simply amazing.
Text and photos by David Lucas
The boneyard beach at the north end of Bulls Island, a remote, 5,000-acre paradise just a scant 20 or so miles from the hustle and bustle of South Carolina’s premiere tourist destination, is very cool.
Literally. If you visit the island during the sweltering South Carolina summer, the beach is about the only place to catch a cooling breeze and avoid the clouds of mosquitos, no-see-ums and horse flies prevalent in the island's interior spaces, so on a recent trip to Bulls, when most of my fellow travelers aboard the Coastal Expeditions ferry hit the island’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dock, they didn’t waste any time heading for the Beach Road, a sandy 1.5 mile trek that cuts across the middle of the island.
I’d get there eventually too, but first I wanted to check out some of Bull’s inland areas. Mainly I wanted to see how much they’d changed since the last time I was here, nearly a quarter century ago. Back then (around 1995), the island was just beginning to recover from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Hugo, and I was a twenty-something aspiring magazine writer hoping to write a story about the famous red wolf colony being raised here at the time. Between 1987 and 2005, twenty-six red wolf pups were born on Bulls Island.
That day I met another twenty-something named Chris who had just recently started piloting the Bulls Island Ferry. Chris talked nonstop about the surrounding saltmarsh and barrier island ecology the entire way out in a way that amazed me – not just for the breadth of knowledge it displayed, but for his unbridled and unstoppable enthusiasm. Today, Captain Chris Crolley is the owner of Coastal Expeditions, one of the most well-respected outfitters involved in the absolutely booming business of showing locals and visitors the wild side of the magical Historic Charleston tourism region by boat, kayak or paddleboard. The company still runs the Bulls Island Ferry under contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In the intervening years, Charleston itself has morphed from a charming and genteel -- if somewhat down at the heels -- backwater into one of the premiere tourist destinations in the United States, known around the world for events like the annual Spoleto Festival, for its historic architecture, ante-bellum plantation houses, old-world charm, and a dazzling array of fine (and rough) dining and drinking establishments.
In fact, Charleston has become a veritable Paris on the Ashley (and Cooper), and just recently, the area’s Ashley River Historic District was deemed a “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But what’s less well-known (but no less amazing) are all the fantastic opportunities for outdoor recreation that adventurous travelers can take advantage of in the region. If you are planning a trip to the region you’ll want to make the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website your first stop. Regardless of your travel agenda, the site is brimming with recommendations and ideas. It’s a one stop shop for all the region has to offer. And a day trip to Bulls Island is a great way to see one of the most pristine spots on the East Coast.
Outdoor adventure-wise, in this area, its all about getting out on the water. There’s fishing, of course, and area charter captains would love to put you on a red fish, flounder or sheepshead inshore or head out to the open ocean for some mahi or tuna. Paddling is also a major draw around these parts, with miles and miles of easily accessible saltmarsh and shoreline to explore within sight of Charleston Harbor or on the islands, not to mention blackwater paddles just a few miles inland. If hiking or biking’s your thing, you’ll want to hit the trails at the Francis Marion National Forest, or the adjacent Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
Bulls Island is a part of the refuge, and a trip here will give you that delicious Robinson-Crusoe feeling that comes over you when the ferry boat pulls away and it’s just you and a small bag of supplies for the rest of the day. On the ferry trip over, our group had about 40 people in it. That sounds like a lot, but spread out over 6,000 acres along maritime forest trails and lagoons and several miles of beachfront, you’d be surprised how alone you can get in a place like this – if solitude is what you crave (and who doesn’t these days). Turn off that cell phone. At least turn off the ringer and use it strictly as a camera for the day. You have 6 hours before the last boat returns to pick you up, drink it in.
With all that in mind, after checking out the Dominick House (built by the property’s previous owner, financier Gayer Dominick, as a winter retreat for his family) I layer myself in a lightweight longsleeve shirt and pants sprayed liberally with 100% DEET, and with a protective cigar lit and clenched between my teeth, split off from the rest of the group headed down the beach road and strike off by myself down the Summerhouse Road towards the “Turkey Walk” trail.
This plan is on the advice of our Captain for the Day, Wil Christenson. Christenson is an irrepressible fount of knowledge with a Masters Degree in marine biology to back up his, Captain’s License and years of experience as a guide and expedition leader. His freewheeling Q&A seminar on the ecology of the Refuge and the surrounding area on the way back and forth from the island alone is worth the price of a ferry ticket ($40), and he knows Bulls Island like the back of his hand. Per his counsel, I’m hoping to see some alligators along the dike that splits the freshwater pond on the island’s western side.
Capt. Wil's directions were spot-on. After a brief stop to take some pictures of an interesting old family cemetery, almost as soon as I make the turn towards the pond, I spot the telltale low, dark shape of a gator crossing the dike up ahead. In just a couple hundred yards, I’m in a spot where it’s obvious the gators regularly hang out – the air is thick with their musky smell. Several of them sit close to the bank, as unconcerned by my proximity to them as I am nervous about it. Either they are very used to posing for the camera, or don’t see enough people to view them as a threat. Either way, they are happy to sit still by the bank while I get some closeups, instead of taking off for deeper water.
Soon the trail turns back to woods, and I am marveling over how much the island’s interior has grown and changed post-Hugo trip. On that last trip every interior trail was pretty much the same – sun-baked and shadeless, with towering walls of early-successional plants and vines bordering either side. That habitat was actually a windfall for the island’s small game population (and the translocated red wolves who made their living off them). The difference, 25 years later, is remarkable. Maturing pines once again dominate much of the overstory on the island’s wooded areas, though underneath, the oaks and other maritime species are still thick. It will be some years yet, before towering pines shade out the rest of the understory plants, leaving a cool, dark, yet open interior. I’m told that before Hugo, it was possible to stand in the island’s center and see water on either side, so open was the ground under the massive overstory of longleaf. Hard to imagine, and I hope I live long enough to see it that way again.
That’s part of the beauty of a place like this. The natural processes at work are ancient and play out over the course of decades, or even centuries. Completely the opposite of the rapidly changing landscape driven by human development that is evident everywhere now in the unprotected parts of the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Those ancient processes are evident on the beach as well, where at long last I’m able to shed my long pants and long-sleeved shirt (necessary for the inland areas) and enjoy the breeze and a refreshing dip in the ocean. The boneyard beach is fantastic – nearly deserted, and I spend the next hour or so exploring and taking picture after picture. The feeling solitude so powerful I’m actually surprised and a little excited when I see one of my fellow day-trippers or spot their footprints in the sand.
On the way back to meet the 4 PM boat, I stop in some open fields to watch as hawks, red-winged blackbirds and – I’m pretty sure – a pair of swallow-tailed kites perform aerial maneuvers all around. The island’s interior is a buffet for them, just as the surrounding creeks and ocean are for the shorebirds lining the shell rakes and sandbars.
Before I get to the dock I take a detour down the “Midden” trail, which follows the edge of a high bluff overlooking the saltmarsh and Summerhouse Creek. The middens are great piles of oyster shells left by the island’s earliest human inhabitants, the Sewee Indians. As I sit on a strategically placed bench, resting after 5-6 miles of hiking and looking out across the marsh, I see the ferry approaching, and realize what a great vantage point this must have made for the natives who wintered here to be able to see any vessel approaching from the landward side. Always occupy the high ground – even if you have to build it up yourself out of oyster shell.
On the ride back, Capt. Wil again entertains and enlightens us with detailed descriptions of what we are seeing and did see, but in truth, like me, most of the other day-trippers are a little sunburned and weary. Quiet. Maybe it’s from all the hiking, but I like to think it also has to do with having just been in an incredibly unique and relatively untouched part of the world. It’s the kind of experience you don’t come by every day – if you’re ever in Charleston, I urge you to take advantage of it.