Secret spot off the beaten track: Donnelly WMA

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

Between Beaufort and Charleston lies the great wilderness of the ACE Basin. Comprising the watersheds of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Rivers (which form the acronym ACE), it is one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the eastern seaboard—a million acres of forest, marsh, swamp and barrier island beach. Most of the ACE Basin is private, but a few public tracts allow for wider recreational use. 

One of these is Donnelly Wildlife Management Area, primarily managed for hunting deer, turkey, dove, waterfowl and small game. But it also has the 2.2-mile Boynton Nature Trail, and in the offseason its many miles of dirt roads are great for hiking, biking and birding. On a recent spring day I decided to explore it by bike, fanning out over roads with names like Turkey Hill, Pineland and Rattlesnake before finishing with the Boynton route. 

My first cool sighting was a pair of fox squirrels — one all black, the other gray and white with a black head. Slower and bulkier than the more common Eastern grays, fox squirrels look like tiny tree bears with bushy tails; whenever they make a flying leap, the branch they land on seems about to crack under their weight. I watched the pair for some time, then pedaled on through an ever-changing yet mostly unremarkable landscape. Piney woods were getting their annual prescribed burn; here and there logs still smoked on a bed of charred needles. Scraggly swamps were just beginning to leaf out. Brackish wetlands had clumps of new green grass growing in among the dry winter browns. These former rice fields once produced great wealth during the plantation era, but as history flowed on they were purchased by sportsmen who continued to manage them as hunting retreats. I’ve always found it ironic that some of the best conservation happens thanks to those who actively want to kill wildlife, whereas the worst destruction is wrought by those who seem oblivious to wildlife’s existence. 

Eventually I made my way to the nature trail, which begins at the former Boynton Home, now a tumble-down affair grown over with vines. Hikers were advised not to enter it for safety reasons and because the colony of endangered Rafinesque big-eared bats living inside was not to be disturbed. Just past the house the trail descended to a rice field where a few brave tourists had ventured several hundred yards from their cars to look for alligators through binoculars. I peeled off down a rugged side road to have my picnic lunch alone on the banks of a beautiful tupelo swamp peppered with blue flag irises, and that was the last I saw of the tourists. 

I had actually been on the Boynton Trail once before, years ago on an early exploratory mission of the Lowcountry. That time I actually did it on foot, a little late in the season for comfort; the mosquitoes were thick and so were the gators. I had nearly completed the 2.2-mile loop — much of it at a run to avoid getting devoured by bugs — when I came around a bend to find a giant alligator completely blocking the trail. He was so gargantuan that both his nose and the end of his tail were hidden in the reeds on either side of the dike between two canals. I did not want to have to backtrack, so I whistled from a distance, and to my surprise he obligingly slid into the water to let me pass. At the time I thought myself very clever, but fifteen years and many gator encounters later, I know that the whistle wasn’t even the point — it’s simply the nature of most gators to be non-confrontational. When I got to the same spot this time, there were plenty of big healthy ones sunning themselves along the canals, and they all jumped in the water to avoid me if I even so much as looked at them too hard.

For those who don’t fancy a close pedestrian encounter with reptiles, there is also a driving tour of the Donnelly that allows for observation at a comfier distance. Enjoy!

Donnelley WMA has two designated nature trails and miles of dirt roads for hikers and bicyclists.

If you go

Where: Colleton County

How to get there: Take U.S. Highway 17 towards Charleston and turn right onto Donnelly Drive. Follow the dirt road a half-mile to the information kiosk on the left, where you can pick up maps and instructions for both the driving tour and the Boynton Nature Trail. 

Travel tips: Check online for scheduled hunts when the property is closed. There is no hunting on public lands in South Carolina on Sundays. 

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