You could set off on your own to explore South Carolina’s most beautiful outdoor places. Or you could take an ecotour with an experienced guide and learn what makes these natural treasures so unique.
Below are some of South Carolina’s best ecotours:
1) Salt Marsh Discovery with Commander Zodiac – Hilton Head Island. The choice tour company of National Geographic, the BBC and the Discovery channel, Commander Zodiac features a fleet of rigid inflatable boats that put you closer to nature. The 90-minute salt marsh tour takes you into tidal estuaries where you’ll learn about the delicate ecosystem where dolphins often come to feed – exhibiting a behavior unique to the area known as strand feeding.
2) Kayaking the Outback with Outside Hilton Head – Hilton Head Island. Boasting more certified master naturalists than any outfitter east of the Mississippi, this nature-focused guide service offers a one-of-a-kind 4.5-hour excursion to a remote island that could serve as the set of a “Survivor” show. The Outback tour starts with a scenic boat ride to Page Island, offering you the chance to see dolphins and other wildlife in the Lowcountry waters. After a brief exploration of the island, your guide will lead you on a leisurely paddle through the pristine creeks on the backside of Daufuskie Island.
3) Bulls Island Paddle and Hike with Coastal Expeditions – Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Led by an experienced naturalist, you’ll paddle through stunning Class 1 wilderness to beach at Bull’s Island in the Cape Romain Refuge, one of the most pristine stretches of coastline on the East Coast. From there, you’ll set off by foot to explore the wildlife-rich barrier island and its famed Boneyard Beach. Along the way, your guide will identify birds and native plants and tell you about the ecosystem of the island and the surrounding saltwater estuary. The excursion will end with a relaxing boat cruise to the mainland on the Bulls Island Ferry.
4) Capers Wildlife Exploration with Barrier Island Eco Tours – Capers Island. On this 3.5-hour naturalist-guided boat excursion, you’ll learn about the diverse wildlife that lives in the Lowcountry’s salt marshes and tidal creeks. On the way to Capers, your guide will stop to pull up nets and habitat traps to offer you an up-close look at some of the marine creatures that live below the surface. Once on the island, you’ll have about 90 minutes to explore the upland forests, freshwater ponds and the island’s natural beach.
5) Sandy Island/Cypress Swamp Tour with Black River Outdoors – Murrells Inlet. Paddle the beautiful Waccamaw River and experience one of the finest blackwater tributaries in the Southeast. As you make your way down the slow-moving river, your guide will take you into a narrow creek that leads to Sandy Island, a 9,000-acre wildlife preserve that claims title to the largest undeveloped freshwater island on the East Coast. After disembarking, you’ll take a 45-minute walk through a longleaf pine forest to reach a Carolina Bay that serves as home to rare carnivorous plants. Wildlife sightings may include alligators, snakes, nesting osprey, great blue herons and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.
6) Congaree National Park Big Tree Hike – Columbia. It’s the champion trees that are the stars of South Carolina’s only national park, and there’s no better way to learn about these arboreal wonders than to take a five-mile hike through the old floodplain forest with a biologist and volunteer naturalist who has been walking these woods for more than 40 years. The Big Tree Hike, led by John Cely, takes you off-trail in search of some of the park’s acclaimed trees, including the tallest known specimens of five species of oaks and a loblolly pine measuring more than 170 feet tall. As you walk among these majestic freaks of nature you’ll learn about the extraordinary diversity of plant and animal species that live in their midst.
7) ACE Basin Kayak Tour with Kayak Charleston – Charleston. Go paddling in the ACE Basin – one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the Atlantic Coast – with Ralph Earhart, author of “Kayak Charleston.” The ACE is named after the free-flowing Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers that create the coastal plain watershed known for its natural beauty and diversity of unspoiled habitats. On his 2.5-hour Ashepoo trip, you’ll explore Horseshoe Creek, in the heart of the ACE Basin, traveling downstream past salt marshes through the canals of an old rice field. Up the creek, you’ll paddle through a tree-lined section of magnificent bald cypress and hardwoods covered in Spanish moss.
8) Canoe/Kayak Tour of the National Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest – Four Holes Swamp. Within the wildlife sanctuary’s 18,000 acres is the largest remaining stand of virgin bald cypress and tupelo gum trees in the world. The hauntingly beautiful forest features trees that have survived a millennium in the primeval swamp. In the spring when the water level is high, the Audubon Society offers guided canoe trips on the placid blackwater. As you paddle through the narrow passages of the ancient floodplain, look for a variety of birds, including the striking Prothonotary warbler that nests here in the spring.
9) First Sunday Expeditions with Patrick McMillan – Lake Jocassee. Jocassee Lake Tours offers a monthly boat tour led by the Emmy Award-winning host of the popular ETV nature program “Expeditions with Patrick McMillan.” On these incredibly fascinating journeys, McMillan will take you to see some of the features that make the Jocassee Gorges such a unique ecosystem. As you cruise around the lake, you’ll view breathtaking mountain scenery, dramatic waterfalls and an abundance of bird life.