Secret spot off the beaten path: Skidaway Island

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

Trails on Skidaway Island wind through maritime forest and past salt marsh, leading to a boardwalk and observation tower.

Some spots are on the beaten track for a reason. Skidaway Island State Park is hardly a secret, with its well maintained trails and full-service campground conveniently close to Savannah. An oasis of that cheerful, unassuming, salt-of-the-sea charm that characterizes the Lowcountry, it provides just the ease and restoration people are looking for. 

Yet for me personally, Skidaway was off the beaten track simply because in all these years I’d never been there. So on a recent sunny but chilly day I stashed a few snacks in a daypack and set out to explore. After walking all six miles of trails, here is my report: if you took the highlights of Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge and condensed them into one neat little package, that would be Skidaway. Of course, this means there isn’t as much room to roam, and you will be crossing paths with more people on the trails. But if what you seek is a laid-back stroll through a park-like environment of beauty without the ruggedness, this local gem is on point. 

What charmed me most about Skidaway was the boardwalks — nine of them, as indicated by little symbols on the map, bridging sloughs and stretching over salt flats. I love a good boardwalk: the weathered gray look of the wood, the sun-baked warmth, the hollow clunk when you walk over it. A boardwalk means wetlands, and what’s not to love about traversing these fascinating environments without the bother of getting muddy or stepping on a reptile’s head? Boardwalks are good for babies and dogs. An observation tower in the middle of the marsh offers commanding views toward Skidaway Narrows, while other trails take you right to its shores. Picnic tables and pioneer shelters in the woods invite youth-group adventures, and interpretive signs explain the history and wildlife.

Long before this was a leisure environment, mastodons and giant ground sloths roamed Skidaway, as evidenced by the fossil record. Ancient Timucua Indians fished and left their middens — often still visible as piles of old bleached oysters and clams with cedar trees growing out of them — including several rare “ceremonial shell rings.” Rather than just being prehistoric trash piles, this type of midden was heaped up seemingly with great care into symmetrical mounds that had center chambers swept clean of debris. Early European settlers raised cotton, indigo, corn, cattle and hogs on the island, and the biggest and most prosperous plantation was Modena, a name still remembered today. 

During the Civil War, batteries were built here to defend the “back-door” creeks leading into Savannah, and the remains of these earthworks can be visited on the trails. After the war, Skidaway was abandoned until formerly enslaved people took up a new life alongside Benedictine monks who established a monastery and school for Black children. Later the remote, bridgeless island became a hideout for moonshiners; one of their busted-up stills has been left with an interpretive sign. Union Camp timber company — one of many Northern industrial interests that moved in to appropriate the ruined South after the War — consolidated its holdings on Skidaway, then made a bargain with the state: build a bridge so we can develop a massive 4,500-acre gated golf community, and we’ll give you 500 acres to turn into a state park. Hands were shaken, papers signed, and in 1975 Skidaway Island State Park became the token public accessory to big private development.

Such has been the life story of one gorgeous little scrap between land and sea in the Lowcountry. You can review all this as you’re walking, taking note of the vestiges, or you can forget all that and just enjoy whatever peace you find in the present. It’s your adventure — make it whatever you want it to be. LL

How to get there

Make a weekend of it by renting one of three camper cabins at Skidaway Island State Park. Rates are $140 per night or $980 per week.

Location: 52 Diamond Causeway, Savannah (15 miles south of downtown)

Mode of transport: Foot

Cost: $5 entrance fee

If you go: Bring the babies and dogs

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