Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Caw Caw Interpretive Center: Habitat Loop (Blog Hike #674)

Trail: Habitat Loop
Hike Location: Caw Caw Interpretive Center
Geographic Location: west of Charleston, SC
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: February 2018
Overview: A loop hike around a former rice plantation, partly through shady forest and partly through sunny marsh.

Directions to the trailhead: From the west end of I-526 at US 17 on the west side of Charleston, take US 17 west/south 10 miles to the signed entrance for the Caw Caw Interpretive Center (also signed as Caw Caw County Park) on the right.  Turn right to enter the Center, pay the small entrance fee, and drive the gravel main road to the parking loop at its end.  Park here.

The hike: Although you would hardly know it by driving through this area today, South Carolina’s lowcountry was the center of the New World’s rice production for more than 200 years.  Firmly established by 1720, South Carolina’s rice industry relied heavily on slave labor, and rice plantation work was some of the worst around.  On point, water-borne diseases, sunny hot fields, venomous snakes, and alligators killed up to one-third of the slave population every year.  Nevertheless, rice production in South Carolina remained very profitable: a slave could produce up to six times his market value in rice each year.  Thus, the state remained the United States’ largest producer of rice until the 1880’s.
            In the 1870’s and 1880’s, the end of slavery in America, a series of damaging hurricanes, a decline in soil productivity, and increased competition from Gulf states such as Louisiana led to the collapse of South Carolina’s rice industry.  Over a couple of decades rice production in South Carolina declined by 97%, which changed South Carolina’s low country from one of the most prosperous regions in the country to one of the poorest.  Today the former rice plantations are reverting to marsh and forest, and parts of two former rice plantations and a former tea plantation make up the Caw Caw Interpretive Center.
Caw Caw Interpretive Center is one of three properties owned and managed by Charleston County Parks that feature extensive trail systems, the other two being Wannamaker County Park and Palmetto Islands County Park.  Among these three parks, Caw Caw is my favorite.  The trail system at Caw Caw Interpretive Center features several short loops that pass through the parking area, but the best hike in Charleston County may be the 3.6 mile Habitat Loop described here.  The Habitat Loop spends about 2/3 of its distance in shady woods and the remaining 1/3 in sunny former rice fields, and it constitutes a grand tour of all that Caw Caw Interpretive Center has to offer.
End of concrete path near gift shop
Because the Habitat Loop does not pass through the parking area, your first objective is to get to the Habitat Loop.  From the parking area, walk northwest on a concrete path between the Center’s two main buildings, and pick up a trail map at the Center’s gift shop.  The gift shop building also contains some interesting exhibits that make for good browsing before or after your hike.  Pass Kiosk #2 on the right, but keep walking northwest past the butterfly garden and a bench to where the concrete path turns to gravel.  At the next intersection, turn left, following signs for the Swamp Sanctuary.
The trail turns to dirt as the freshwater marsh (former rice fields) comes into view through the trees on your right.  Just shy of 0.2 miles, you reach the major trail intersection that is your access point for the Habitat Loop.  The trail going sharply left leads directly back to the parking area, while the trail going sharply right will be our return route.  To begin a counterclockwise journey around the Habitat Loop, angle slightly right to begin a two-track dirt trail.  A blue trail marker is attached to a concrete post here, and it is the only such trail marker you will pass on this trail.
The trail makes a sweeping left curve through bottomland hardwood forest that features plenty of spruce pine, chestnut oak, and sweetgum trees.  I passed a park maintenance crew working to clear some recent ice storm damage in this area.  At 0.7 miles, you need to turn left where a trail marked “staff use only” continues straight.  The Habitat Loop passes several of these “staff only” trails, and of course it is best to leave them for use by the park’s maintenance staff.
Hiking a wide old road
In another 500 feet, you reach another trail intersection, where you need to turn right to stay on the Habitat Loop.  Although the trails at Caw Caw are well-maintained and easy to follow, the Habitat Loop’s route is poorly marked.  Thus, that trail map you picked up at the gift shop comes in handy at intersections such as this one.
1 mile into the hike, you cross the park entrance road and reenter the woods on the other side.  Although the scenery remains of the bottomland hardwood variety, the trail’s character changes from a wide two-track old road to a narrow root-laced dirt path.  The path had been cleared of leaf-litter on my visit and remained easy to follow.  Vehicle and railroad noise filter in from the right.
Narrow dirt path through bottomland hardwood forest
At 1.25 miles, you reach Kiosk #9, where you return to the wide old road.  More staff only trails are found in this area.  Soon you reach a bench that gives your first clear view of the tidal marsh and former rice fields, a preview of the scenery to come.  This bench makes a nice place to sit and have a trail snack near the midpoint of this hike.
First tidal marsh view
At 1.6 miles you reach Kiosk #8, where the Marshland Trail exits left and offers an opportunity to cut this hike’s distance roughly in half.  For the full tour, continue straight to enter the tidal marsh on a man-made dike.  Notice the first of several wooden water control structures built in the dike here; they are used to raise and lower water levels in the various ditches and marshes that comprise the former rice fields.
Water control structure
The next 1.2 miles pass through sunny marsh with open water on either side, so wear a wide-brimmed hat for sun protection.  When I came here on a seasonally warm afternoon in late February, I saw an alligator and an egret in this marsh, and the fish were literally jumping out of the water: they would fly 2 feet into the air before plopping back into their watery home.  Turn right at Kiosk #7 to stay on the Habitat Loop along the perimeter of the old rice field.  A controlled burn had recently been conducted here to free the tidal marsh of invasive species.
View of former rice fields/tidal marsh
After passing an interesting high bench with wheels, at 2.7 miles you need to turn right, cross the main ditch on a wooden bridge, and then turn right again.  Soon you leave the sunny marsh and reenter the forest before passing Laurel Hill, a former slave community, on the left.  At 14 feet above sea level, Laurel Hill occupies the highest land in the preserve, and a brief detour to the left will allow you to explore the community’s ruins.
Swamp forest boardwalk
            Staying on the Habitat Loop, at 3.1 miles you reach the western end of the Center’s swamp forest boardwalk, which the Habitat Loop uses to get across the swamp forest.  The periodically inundated swamp forest features some nice tupelo and cypress trees, and I saw several turtles sunning on logs.  At the east end of the boardwalk, turn right to quickly pass Kiosk #3 and close the Habitat Loop.  A left turn and 0.2 miles of retracing your steps return you to the parking lot to complete the hike.  The gift shop building features some interesting exhibits on this land’s plantation history, and you should pay it a visit on your way out if you did not do so earlier.