Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw
With its stunning expanses of saltmarsh and luxuriant sub-tropical jungles, Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is one of the finest gems of public land in Beaufort County. Conveniently located off Highway 278 between Hilton Head and Bluffton, there’s nothing “off the beaten track” about it. Yet it is big and beautiful enough to contain “secret spots” for everyone who cares to explore it. Don’t be afraid! Strike out over the sand flats at low tide; bushwhack through the woods in winter; pick along the marsh edge at evening and find a tree from which to watch the sunset. The great thing about the refuge is it’s big enough to discover new areas all the time, yet small enough that you can never truly get lost.
The furthest shore is White Point, a nearly 8-mile round trip from the parking lot. Along the way, you cruise through tidal flats crawling with fiddler crabs and populated by wading birds. You ride in coastal forests and piney woods — the former a spectacular mass of vegetation with palmettos sprouting between twisty live oaks, the latter a grand and peaceful place subject to prescribed burning. The biodiversity on this little island is extraordinary, as migratory butterflies and songbirds comingle with resident varmints and reptiles. You pass through every sort of habitat Pinckney has to offer on the way to White Point.
At last you reach trail’s end, dropping your bike and clamoring down a little bluff to the shoreline. Opening before you is the Chechessee River where it spills into Port Royal Sound, a wind-ruffled expanse across which lies Parris Island. As you begin to round the curve of the point, to your right are Skull Creek and Hilton Head Plantation. These tamed places are but a short crow’s flight away; yet you stand worlds apart, enjoying the wild solitude of the refuge and the exhilaration of the workout it took to get here.
Perhaps White Point was named for the glare its fine sand and bleached oyster reefs throw off when viewed from the water. Strolling along it is a sensory experience: the crunch of sand and clattering of shells underfoot, the briny breeze, the sun’s warmth even in January. Patches of high ground have been colonized by cedar, oak and palmetto trees, while the open spaces are carpeted with beautiful flowing grass that shines a delicate yellowgreen. On the inland side, mudflats stretch back to the main body of Pinckney. These estuaries are the nursing grounds for critters of every stripe, and a gentle influence invites you to lay that body down and take a nap in the sun. Do it! A little mud and grit never killed anyone. You’ll need the energy to haul back and find a hearty meal somewhere because the salt air takes it outta you. Cheers to public lands!
How to get there
Location: Pinckney Island
Mode of transport: Bike
Directions: Grab a map in the parking area and follow Main Road, taking a left at the crossroads and another left where a sign says White Point. Ditch your bike where the trail ends and proceed on foot.
If you go: Check the tides and plan to be there at dead low so you can explore the beach. Also, be aware of how long you linger — some parts of the trail can get flooded on the incoming.