Except for a few simple amenities – like restrooms, picnic tables, small piers – Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge has only one attraction: nature. The refuge covers more than 45,000 acres and is one of the best sites in the Southeast for viewing a longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem.
What’s the draw?
Carolina Sandhills NWR is also a premiere site for viewing red-cockaded woodpeckers. It has the largest population of this endangered species on Fish & Wildlife Service lands. Birdwatching and wildlife photography are two favorite activities here and steps have been taken to facilitate both. At the Oxpen area, an observation tower – really a handicap-accessible ramp leading to a viewing platform – provides an expansive overview of the lakes, open fields and forest. It’s an excellent vantage point to see the woodpeckers and more than 100 other species as well. The “tower” is a relatively new feature of the refuge and can be reached easily by vehicle.
A variety of easy hikes lead you through different areas of the refuge. The Woodland Pond Nature Trail is a 1-mile loop around Pool A, passing through wetlands and a stand of upland pine. Near that pool is the quarter-mile Longleaf Pine Trail. The 0.6-mile Pine Barrens Gentian Trail runs along an old logging road and ends at Lake 12. There you can connect with Tate’s Trail, the longest walk in the refuge; it stretches 3.5 miles and provides plentiful opportunities to view wildlife.
A variety of birds are commonly seen at Carolina Sandhills, early spring through early fall, along with numerous species of wildflowers. Varieties found around the ponds differ from those found in the open fields, which in turn vary from those found in the woodlands. April through September is also the ideal time to spot butterflies and dragonflies.
Though nature and hiking trails are closed to bicycles, the refuge has 100 miles of sand and gravel roads open to cyclists. Some stretches have steep hills to provide challenging workouts.
An easy way to enjoy the sights and sounds of the refuge is in the car. The same roads open to bikes are open to cars. Use of ATVs, however, is not permitted anywhere on the refuge.
Picnic tables are located on the south side of Martins Lake and at Lake Bee.
Another pastime associated with the Oxpen area is fishing – but with a twist. Fishing at this lake is allowed only for visitors younger than 16, or for a maximum of two adults accompanied by a youth. Fishing is open to everyone, regardless of age, at all other pools within the refuge except Martins Lake (S.C fishing license required). Only boats with electric motors are allowed on the lake; swimming and wading is not permitted.
Hunting white-tailed deer, rabbits, raccoons, wild turkeys, quail and mourning doves is permitted at the refuge during specific seasons. (A signed refuge permit is required for all hunts and must be carried.)
Cheraw State Recreation Area, north of the refuge, offers many water-related activities on Lake Juniper. Canoe, kayak and paddle boat rentals are available. Swimming, hiking and camping are other attractions. Moonlight canoe floats are scheduled for June 18, July 16, Aug. 20 and Sept. 17. (Info: 843-537-9556 www.southcarolinaparks.com).
The refuge is open daily from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset. Admission is free. All areas of the refuge are open to foot traffic except those near Martins Lake marked “Closed” for the protection of waterfowl and shorebirds. Visitor station hours: 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. If you’re taking children with you, download special print-at-home activity sheets from the website. Info: www.fws.gov/refuge/Carolina_Sandhills; 843-335-8350.
No large cities are close to Carolina Sandhills NWR, but surrounding small towns have some worthwhile attractions.
To the west, in Kershaw, is Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve, affording pleasant walks highlighted by wildflowers and small waterfalls (at www.scgreatoutdoors.com, click Lancaster County on the map). A convenient burgers-and-fries restaurant is Kathy’s Garden of Eat’n on South Hampton Street (U.S. 601).
To the south, in Hartsville, are the Kalmia Gardens of Coker College (www.kalmiagardens.org), developed during the Depression and open to the public free of charge since 1935. The Midnight Rooster (www.midnightrooster.com) gets good reviews for food and ambiance.
North of the refuge is Pageland, whose annual Watermelon Festival is July 15-16 this year (www.pagelandwatermelonfestival.com). It features rides, music and fireworks. And, of course, melon-related events.