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Secret Spot off the Beaten Path: Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

The oddest thing happened to me in the Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve. But before I tell you about that, let me describe the preserve itself.

Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve was established to protect South Carolina’s most endangered reptile: the gopher tortoise.

There are lots of places like this in South Carolina, but most of them are private — hunt clubs, pine tracts, farmlands. The novelty of Tillman Sand Ridge is not that it’s so breathtakingly beautiful, but rather that it’s public. Here in these quiet woods and sand roads, you can roam free without fear of getting arrested or shot at. Hounds roam free too, which relates to the odd thing that happened.

It was a cold winter morning when I first visited Tillman Sand Ridge, a location so lonely there was no one even on the road to get there, let alone in the preserve itself. After passing through an eerie black floodplain forest and parking at a primitive gate, I struck off down a dirt road crosshatched with turkey tracks. Longleaf pines towered over an open understory, and the crisp winter sun turned the wiregrass soft gold and feathery looking. This sort of habitat once covered most of the Southeast before it was logged and replanted with commercial pines. I passed sections of cypress bottom — the preserve fronts the Savannah River — and numerous dens of the large land-dwelling gopher tortoise. It was wonderfully silent.

Suddenly I caught a flash of two tails in the wiregrass, which at first I took to be deer. But then I saw they were dogs. I froze. I’ve heard that hunting hounds — which are often released to track scents and picked up later via radio collars — are not aggressive toward humans because they haven’t been trained as guard dogs; they only care about their quarry. But I didn’t feel like testing that theory out here alone and miles from anywhere. The dogs were upwind so they hadn’t detected my presence — the time was now to either find a stick or climb a tree.

You never know what you are going to run into at Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve.

OK let’s face it, at this stage in my life I’m not sure I could shimmy up a limb-less trunk if my life depended on it. I would probably just get gored by that wild boar or torn apart by those hounds. So it was with a resigned feeling that I glanced about and started towards a none-too-promising oak.

Would you believe that out of the millions of trees around, this particular one had a board pegged to it and spike driven in for climbing? I clambered up incredulously and watched as the hounds made their way off through the wiregrass without ever even noticing me, oblivious to the miraculous stroke of luck that was unneeded to save my life.

That was the odd thing that happened at Tillman Sand Ridge … and the rest was just happily unremarkable.


How to get there

Location: Tillman, S.C.

Mode of transport: Foot

Directions: From the little village of Tillman (at the junction of Highways 336 and 321) turn onto Sand Hills Road. After a few miles go left onto B&C Landing road, which dead-ends in a primitive boat ramp. Just before that is an entrance to the preserve. Or you can continue on Sand Hills Road to several other entrances on your left.

If you go: Make sure there are no scheduled hunts happening. Look for gopher tortoise burrows, holes in the ground with a pile of excavated sand around them, which also provide habitat for many other species.