Secret spot off the beaten path: Tupelo Trail

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

Tupelo Trail

The first time I did the Tupelo Trail, it didn’t even exist yet. The woods were there, and the pretty little swamp, but no path had been blazed through them. I was on a bike ride with my friend and sister through the open, grassy dikes of former rice fields, when I convinced them to turn down an intriguing path that led into a mysterious swamp. After passing through a beautiful cypress bottom, the trail petered out to a game trace, then to trackless woods. As I refused to backtrack, we found ourselves tramping through brush and struggling over logs with bikes hoisted on our shoulders. “I think we’re about to come out!” I kept insisting. They were pissed. We started seeing “No Trespassing” signs for a hunt club, and by the time we finally emerged behind the shooting range there were still several harrowing miles on shoulder-less Highway 17 back to my truck. I had to take them out to Burger King to appease them, but I’ve never fully lived it down — they don’t consider me vindicated just because now there’s an official blazed trail put in by the government through our same basic route.

Each April, swamp irises (aka blue flags) bloom in the floodplain of Tupelo Trail. Contact can cause skin irritations, so maybe just look, don’t touch.

Bushwhacking is no longer necessary, yet the Tupelo Trail remains a well-kept local secret. The upland forest is home to wild hogs, deer, bobcats and all sorts of smaller varmints, a quiet place to walk in cooler months. Reedy marshes of the former rice fields teem with chattering bird life and some of the biggest granddaddy gators around; go there when you want sunshine and open space. But the standout portion of the walk remains the little swamp that charmed me all those years ago, where an absolute eye-feasting spectacle occurs each spring with the blooming of the irises. These gorgeous wild “blue flags” sprout up among iridescent green shoots across the floodplain, adorning grand fluted bases of the tupelo and cypress trees. Interplay between blue sky reflected in standing blackwater, all the new greens of spring, and showy indigo flowers with yellow patches is sublime. Just make sure you don’t go on days reaching 80 degrees — you will be stepping over coiled cottonmouths or hearing them drop from trees, and that’s if the path isn’t blocked entirely by a stretched-out alligator. Consider yourself warned.

Don’t go on days reaching 80 degrees — you will be stepping over coiled cottonmouths or hearing them drop from trees…”

How to get there

Location: Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, Hardeeville

Mode of transport: Foot

Directions: There are two entrances. From Kingfisher Pond off Highway 17 outside Hardeeville, you start in upland forest and follow white blazes to the Tupelo Trail junction. Continue with red blazes to the swamp before coming out to former rice fields. Or start with the rice fields by parking at the trailhead on Highway 170 before the bridge to Port Wentworth. Grab a free map and follow the road straight back toward the distant tree line before turning right into the swamp.

If you go: Pick your time of year carefully. April is the month for swamp irises, then as the weather warms the trail will be full of gators and snakes. Cool weather hiking is preferred but check for scheduled hunts.


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