Secret spot off the beaten path: Palachucola

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

After 15 years of adventuring around the Lowcountry, I thought I knew every local option — the wildlife refuges, nature preserves, state parks and public lands. But when a friend mentioned he was going hunting in the Palachucola, I was astonished to discover I’d missed a spot.

Three spots, as a matter of fact. The Palachucola Wildlife Management Area adjoins two additional tracts — the Webb and Hamilton Ridge, all three managed by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources — to form a huge contiguous swath of timbered land fronting the Savannah River. All these swamps, forests, dirt roads and wild places remained unknown to me, and if they weren’t the most pristine or remarkable habitats in the Lowcountry, at least they were quiet. Apart from hunters, nobody goes to Palachucola. It occurred to me that there might be other little gems I’d overlooked within an easy day or half-day trip, so I challenged myself to find them — and that’s how this series was born. 

Just outside the limits of Palachucola is Stokes Bluff Landing, a country boat ramp with a little sandy beach on the Savannah River. The road to get there seems empty until just before it dead-ends in water, when suddenly homes and trailers crop up like an algae bloom. The boats and junk strewn around the yards give it a river-rat, fish-camp feel, with ramshackle docks among the cypress knees and a rope swing hanging off a big tree on the bank. There’s even an unofficial campsite, something I normally like to see; but in this case the beer cans and trash littered around two faded tents appear uninviting. I hear a sleepy cough from within and keep a distance.

Once inside the Palachucola, all is isolation and silence. (Notwithstanding distant reports from the rifle range.) Wildlife abounds here: deer, hog, wild turkey, snakes, turtles, fox squirrels, many kinds of birds, populous frogs and butterflies galore. I have a new adventure buddy today, a rescue dog named Shaka, and we cover ground on foot through the low-bottoms and piney woods. The last summer wildflowers complement the first fall foliage. On a trail marked “Pea Patch” we find a big field of turnips planted as fodder for the deer, their new leaves glowing with an almost unnatural green in the diffused light. It’s a balmy overcast Sunday with that sort of heavy, lazy air that’s not hot but not exactly cool either — fall in the Lowcountry.

This house near Garnett is called Mistletoe Grove (locals know it as the old Tison place). Rueben Tison, a successful planter, built it in 1832 as a summer retreat.

Soon we come to a “safety zone” where shooting is prohibited. A big white plantation-style house stands behind a grand spreading live oak and a sign announcing it as “Mistletoe Grove.” A hunter’s check station is set next to a little old-timey tin-roofed cabin. This is our turnaround point, and I’m just starting to feel the Sunday afternoon lounge vibes, when we scare out two deer bedded down next to the road—Shaka takes off! Gone into the trackless brush. I whistle the whole way back but she doesn’t reemerge; luckily it only takes a few minutes of canvassing the dirt roads in my truck to find her, covered in mud and giving me an errant look from the swamp. This incident will certainly go on her permanent record, but I guess a wayward adventure buddy is better than none at all. LL

How to get there

Location: Garnett, South Carolina

Mode of transport: Foot or bike

Directions: Follow signs (or your GPS) to Stokes Bluff Landing off Highway 321 between Hardeeville and Estill. Just before it dead-ends at the river, there is an unmarked dirt road to the right that leads into WMA lands. Alternatively, you can follow directions to Palachucola Range and start your explorations from there.

If you go: Check for scheduled hunts during fall, winter and spring, when the area may be closed. There is no hunting on Sundays on any public lands in South Carolina.

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