Thursday, December 25, 2014

Francis Marion National Forest: Palmetto Trail, Awendaw Passage (Blog Hike #500)

Trail: Palmetto Trail, Awendaw Passage
Hike Location: Francis Marion National Forest
Geographic Location: south of McClellanville, SC
Length: 8.6 miles ROUND-TRIP
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2014
Overview: A long but flat out-and-back or shuttle hike featuring wide, grassy Awendaw Creek.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at Francis Marion National Forest’s Buck Hall Recreation Area.  The recreation area’s signed entrance is located on US 17 29 miles south of Georgetown or 23 miles north of Mount Pleasant.  Drive in the paved entrance road, pay the parking fee, and turn left at the first intersection.  Park in the circle-shaped day-use parking area.  If you want to do this hike as a 2-car shuttle, leave your other car at the Awendaw Canoe Launch, which is located off of US 17 on Rosa Green Road 3 miles south of Buck Hall Recreation Area.

The hike: Often called the master path of South Carolina, the route of the Palmetto Trail traces a 500 mile journey across the entire Palmetto State.  The trail starts at Oconee State Park in the state’s northwest corner and heads northeast roughly paralleling I-85 to the Spartanburg/Cowpens area.  From there, the trail turns right and roughly parallels I-26 down the length of the state to its end along the intracoastal waterway north of Charleston.  The segments of the Palmetto Trail are called passages.  For updates on the Palmetto Trail’s continuing construction, visit http://www.palmettoconservation.org/.
            The southeastern-most 54+ miles of the Palmetto Trail pass through Francis Marion National Forest, the smaller of South Carolina’s two national forests.  The forest gets its name from the American Revolutionary War Brigadier General Francis Marion, who earned the nickname “Swamp Fox” for his guerilla-style attacks on the British in South Carolina’s lowcountry swamps.  The name Awendaw comes from the nearby town of Awendaw, a name given to the area by the Sewee Indians.
            The Palmetto Trail’s Awendaw Passage featured here is the trail’s southeastern-most segment.  This hike starts at the trail’s very end, the Buck Hall Recreation Area, which also features a small campground and a major intracoastal waterway access point for boaters.  The trail then follows Awendaw Creek 4.3 miles upstream to the Awendaw Canoe Launch.  If you have a second car in your hiking group, you can leave one car at each end and hike the trail one way.  Otherwise, you will have to do this hike as an out-and-back for a round-trip distance of 8.6 miles.
Palmetto Trail's southeastern trailhead
            From the signed trailhead, the Palmetto Trail starts on a nice boardwalk that passes over a small freshwater swamp.  On the other side of the boardwalk, the trail curves left, and you pass the first of the Palmetto Trail’s many i-shaped paint blazes.  At 0.1 miles, you cross the paved Buck Hall Recreation Area entrance road and reenter the woods on the other side.
            The next couple hundred yards angle around the grassy overnight parking area, which appears through the trees to the right.  This parking area is used by backpackers intent on hiking long segments of the Palmetto Trail.  A spur trail exits left to the recreation area’s campground.
            After the parking area fades into the woods, the trail crosses a couple of wet areas using short boardwalks.  The next 1.6 miles form a horseshoe-shaped route around some private property to your left.  Just past 0.6 miles, you pass under a power line.  This point marks the first of three times you will pass under this particular power line, and I consider the power line clearings to be the only real downside to this hike.
i-shaped Palmetto Trail blaze
            At 0.75 miles, the trail curves left to leave an old road; numerous blazes mark this turn.  Just after passing the 1-mile marker, you cross a private gravel road and its associated power line.  The trail curves left again to pass under the main power line for a second time as it gradually dips into a low area.  Black plastic mesh has been buried under parts of the trail to help combat muddy conditions.  I had no trouble with mud on my hike, but hiking after one of the heavy rains that frequently come through this area might yield a different story.
            1.8 miles into the hike, you complete the horseshoe and arrive at the bank of Awendaw Creek.  Upon reaching the first creek view, what has thus far been a pleasant but unremarkable forest hike starts to really come alive.  If the Everglades in Florida is the River of Grass, Awendaw Creek must be the creek of grass.  Unless you live near the coast, the wet, grassy saltwater marsh extending south and east as far as the eye can see give you that wonderful “I’m not in Kansas anymore” feeling.  This area is close enough to the ocean so that the direction water moves in the creek depends on the tide.  Take your time along the creek and enjoy the views.
First Awendaw Creek view
            The creek stays in view for most of the next 1.7 miles.  Whoever routed this trail segment is a genius: the trail traces the very edge of the marsh so that the wet, muddy, sunny marsh stays in near-constant view on the left yet your feet remain completely dry.  The trail crosses several wooden bridges over marsh inlets, which also give fantastic views up and down the marsh.
Awendaw Creek, looking upstream

Awendaw Creek, looking downstream
            As you proceed west along the north bank of Awendaw Creek, large numbers of palmettos appear in the understory.  Just shy of the 3 mile marker, you cross a large inlet of Awendaw Creek on a fairly new bridge that is labeled as The Time Warner Bridge.  At 3.1 miles, you reach a bench constructed by Jason Stanley as an Eagle Scout Project in 2011.  This bench sits on a sandy bluff that overlooks the meandering creek channel at a point where it comes right to the bluff’s base.  This area offers this hike’s best wildlife viewing.  I saw several aquatic birds, some ducks, and even an orca swimming back toward the ocean.
Awendaw Creek, as seen from bench on bluff
            If you are doing this hike as an out-and-back and find yourself getting tired, then this bench is a good place to turn around: the trail’s next segment heads inland away from the creek.  At 3.5 miles, you pass under the main powerline for the third and final time.  Just shy of 4 miles, the trail arrives back at the creekside bluff, which now stands 15-20 feet above the creek’s water.  Another bench allows more seated creek viewing.
Ramp to Awendaw Canoe Launch
            Just past 4.2 miles, you reach the wooden ramp that leads down to the Awendaw Canoe Launch.  The Palmetto Trail turns right here to leave the creek for good and head deeper into Francis Marion National Forest.  The parking area for the canoe launch is a couple hundred feet ahead.  If you left a second car in the canoe launch parking area, then your hike is over unless you want to explore more of the Palmetto Trail.  Those of us without a shuttle will need to retrace our steps 4.3 miles back to Buck Hall Recreation Area to complete the hike.


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