Francis Marion National Forest Overview
Francis Marion is a national forest under construction, and the contractor is Mother Nature. On September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo's 135-mile-per-hour winds pummeled the forest, uprooting or snapping in two enormous old trees covering tens of square miles. Most young trees survived the devastation, and today, visitors can witness nature's fascinating rebuilding process.
Lying along South Carolina's Intracoastal Waterway, this verdant 250,000-acre forest boasts a rich variety of wildlife habitat and offers excellent opportunities for bird-watching, nature study, photography, and fishing. Otters, beavers, coyotes, bobcats, black bears, and possibly even panthers make their home in Francis Marion.
Ample hiking and mountain biking trails offer excellent means to enjoy the backcountry, as do bridle paths for horses and rough roads for motorcycles and ATVs. Rivers, lakes, and ocean beckon fishermen. Buck Hall Recreation Area, situated on the grounds of an old plantation along the Intracoastal Waterway, features campsites, picnic sites, and boat ramps and attracts wildlife viewers, anglers, and crabbers.
For those who really want to rough it, Francis Marion encompasses four wilderness areas with no facilities except for a single trail. Travel through these areas isn't easy but offers extraordinary rewards, such as the chance to see alligators, bald eagles, and some 250 species of birds.
A word of caution: Summer brings punishing heat and humidity and more soul-sucking bug life than you'll want to deal with. Visit instead in the cool of late fall through early spring.
Hike the Swamp Fox Trail
This National Recreational Trail, built in 1968 by Boy Scouts, was named for Francis Marion, a Revolutionary War general who was nicknamed "the Swamp Fox" because of his ability to harass British troops and disappear into the swamp like a fox. This hiking and mountain biking trail runs along old railroad logging trams and traverses a variety of habitats, from mature longleaf pine stands to bottomland hardwood drains and evergreen shrub bogs. Fans of flora should keep their eyes open for carnivorous pitcher plants, meadow beauty flowers, and orange millwort. And don't be surprised to see a white-tailed deer or wild turkey cross the trail.
Wheel through a Swamp
Biking through Francis Marion allows you to pedal mile after mile through deep woods, swamps, and other remote wild places. Single-track trails at Francis Marion offer bikers two challenges. The first is distance. In this part of the South, you better be ready to log some miles, because many of the bike trails don't offer the same level of technical challenge as those in the mountains. The other challenge is keeping your eyes on the road. It's all too easy to forget to watch what you are doing and become distracted by the beauty surrounding you. If you're a serious cyclist, give the Wambaw Trail a spin. This 40-mile, somewhat strenuous trail is peppered with technically challenging stretches, like the infamous sand pits.
Paddle Black Water
Francis Marion is a paddler's paradise, from salt to "black water." The black water, which is actually the color of strong tea, results from the tannin in the trees that grow in or near the water. Plenty of out-of-the-way black water at Francis Marion offers an idyllic escape for canoeists or kayakers, with miles of watery trails. Wambaw, Wadboo, Huger, French Quarter, and Echaw Creeks are all slow, sleepy creeks perfect for a day of quiet exploration and nature watching that might include an alligator sunning himself on a log. Sea kayakers (as well as power boaters) can take advantage of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and cruise up and down the South Carolina Coast.
Fish for Fresh or Salty Prey
Francis Marion is one of the few national forests that cater to both fresh- and saltwater anglers. You can fish secluded creeks, big rivers, small ponds, or the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The Santee River offers good boat fishing for beam, striped bass, crappie, catfish, and shad. Several small ponds provide good fishing for bass, bream, and catfish. Guilliard Lake, an old oxbow off the Santee River, offers 10 acres of fishing for a variety of species. Huger, Nicholson, and Turkey Creeks teem with big shellcrackers. And the lower portion of the Santee River along with Awendaw Creek and the Intracoastal Waterway provide saltwater fishing for red drum, spot, and catfish. Get the idea?
Bird a "Top 100" Roost
A long stretch of Francis Marion runs along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, and just across the waterway lies the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The American Birding Association rates this bird-watching nirvana, 64,000 acres of salt marshes and islands, one of the top 100 birding sites in North America. The forest itself also offers endless opportunities to observe hundreds of species in a variety of habitats, ranging from upland forest and hardwood swamp to maritime forest, salt marsh, and managed wetlands. Some 300 species of migratory and nonmigratory birds have been documented on the forest, including the bald eagle, the swallow-tailed kite, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, and the wood stork. Bring your binoculars and plenty of film.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication