With all the attractions the Lowcountry has to offer, Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge may not get the attention it deserves. It may be just off U. S. 17 and 20 miles north of Charleston – but it’s a world away from civilization. In fact, the most popular activities take place on Bulls Island, accessible only by ferry or private boat.
What’s the draw?
Time spent at the 66,306-acre refuge – a maritime forest, salt marshes, fresh and brackish water impoundments and barrier islands – will almost certainly yield a memorable outdoor adventure.
Begin your experience at the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center on the mainland; you can learn about the vital ecosystems protected at the refuge and adjacent Francis Marion National Forest. One highlight is a viewing area where four red wolves can be seen. This is especially true at feeding times (3 p.m. Thursdays and 11:30 a.m. Saturdays). Red wolves have long been on the endangered species list but are now making a comeback in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the N.C. coastline. Two of the wolves at the Sewee Center came from the N. C. refuge.
Nearby is the landing where the concession-operated ferry takes you to Bulls Island, an uninhabitated 5,000-acre barrier island. The ride takes 30 minutes. Through Nov. 30, it leaves the mainland at 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.; it returns from Bulls Island at noon and 4 p.m.
The island has two hiking trails – the 1-mile Middens Trail, which passes by the remains of Native American shell mounds, and the 2-mile Turkey Walk Trail, which runs through a forest of live oaks and palmettos and past a salt marsh. Near the trail’s end is a wildlife viewing platform.
Boneyard Beach is a photographer’s dream. The beach gets its intriguing name because it is strewn with the twisted, sun-bleached limbs of oaks, pines and cedars. The setting is so popular with shutterbugs that special Sunrise Photography Expeditions are scheduled March-December. (Dates for 2016: May 28, June 25, July 23, Aug. 27, Sept. 24, Oct. 22, Nov. 5 and Dec. 10.)
Sharp-eyed beachcombers might be rewarded with some nice souvenir shells. Cast your line in the surf for a chance at spotted sea trout, flounder and black drum (S. C. fishing license required). Birdwatchers can have a field day, with nearly 300 different species reported as having been seen at the refuge; the refuge website provides a print-at-home bird checklist. Seabirds and songbirds are common during summer; in winter, the refuge is home to the largest population of American oystercatchers on the Atlantic coast. And yes, stay away from the alligators that bask at the ponds.
When you’re there, remember, you’re on your own: Dress comfortably and bring your own food, water and insect repellent. Carry a timepiece: You don’t want to miss the ferry.
Two lighthouses stand on a small island at the northern end of the refuge. A 65-foot conical tower was built in 1827; a 150-foot octagonal lighthouse was erected in 1857. The beacons can be visited on special naturalist-led Historic Lighthouse Tours offered May 22, June 26, Oct. 9 and Nov. 10. As the boat travels through the estuary to the lighthouses, you’ll learn about the surrounding ecosystem. Tours go inside the towers, but not up. Call the office for additional details about what to expect and helpful suggestions about how to prepare for the trip.
Hours at Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center (www.fws.gov/refuge/sewee_center) are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Contact Coastal Expeditions (www.bullsislandferry.com) to make reservations for the regular ferry to Bulls Island or to reserve space for the Historic Lighthouse or the Sunrise Photography tours. Ferry cost: $40; $20 for 12 and younger.
Refuge info: www.fws.gov/refuge/Cape_Romain.
The Bull Bay Nature Festival: From the Forest to the Sea (www.bullsbaynaturefestival.org) is scheduled for May 21. This collaborative effort has special activities taking place at the refuge, the Sewee Center, Francis Marion National Forest and Hampton Plantation State Historic Site.
Tour the World War II aircraft carrier Yorktown moored at Patriots Point, along with the destroyer Laffey and submarine Clamagore (www.patriotspoint.org; admission charged).
The Charleston Museum, which opened in 1773, is America’s first museum (www.charlestonmuseum.org; admission charged); it also oversees two national landmark houses open for tours.
Shop and stroll the City Market (www.thecharlestoncitymarket.com) for a uniquely Charleston experience; it’s one of the oldest public markets in the country. It’s four blocks long, is partly open-air and located downtown on Market Street, between Meeting and East Bay. Many eclectic restaurants are in or near the market, including Food for the Southern Soul ’Cue-Osk (www.foodforthesouthernsoul.com) and Caviar & Bananas (www.caviarandbananas.com).
Upcoming events include the Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival (April 24) and the 4th of July Blast at Patriots Point. The major warm-weather magnets are the famous arts extravaganzas Spoleto Festival USA (May 27-June 1; www.spoletousa.org) and Piccolo Spoleto Festival (May 27-June 12; www.piccolospoleto.com).
Area info: www.charlestoncvb.com.