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Bulls Island: Where the beautiful and wild things are

Tracy Pou Tracy Pou
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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Hauntingly beautiful, Boneyard Beach is located on Bulls Island in the pristine Cape Romain National Wildife Refuge.

If you mix clear, sunny skies with a cool spring breeze you get the perfect weather cocktail, just right for exploring one of South Carolina's most beautiful and remote places -- Bulls Island. For anyone looking for a different nature and beach experience, Bulls Island is a place you have to see.

The largest of four barrier islands found within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, Bulls is a 5,000-acre maritime forest with fresh and brackish water impoundments and a beach area. The 6.5-mile uninhabited island remains virtually untouched and is home to countless wildlife and endangered species. In fact, Bulls has a world-renowned reputation for its bird life. More than 275 species of birds are found on or near the island. The place is a nature and bird-lovers paradise.

After reading so much about the island before my trip, I was anxious to see the island for myself. My day-long adventure began with a quick run to the store to buy a few last-minute items. Backpack? Check. Insect repellent, bottled water, snacks? Check, check and check. With my supplies loaded up, I was off and headed up U.S. 17 North toward Awendaw's Garris Landing, the public boat dock that services the ferry over to Bulls Island.


Coastal Expeditions offers a ferry to Bull Island.

When I pulled up at Garris, which is about a 45-minute drive from downtown Charleston, folks were already lined up, eager to hop aboard the Island Cat Ferry. Operated by Coastal Expeditions, the Island Cat has ferried passengers to Bulls Island since 1994. That 16-year track record help put me at ease. As a first-time ferrier, I felt that I would be in good hands. With that reassurance in mind, I headed down the dock, fell in line and shivered to the crisp April winds along with everybody else. It was early. Few people were talking. Yet even in the silence there seemed an unstated camaraderie. Although we were strangers, we seemed bonded by the shared curiosity of what lay ahead beyond Sewee Bay. It wouldn't be long before we'd all find out.

"Anybody headed to Bulls Island?" Chris Owens, a naturalist with the Island Cat Ferry called out as he unlocked the gate that led down to the ferry. After a muffled cheer from the crowd, we filed through the gate and boarded the boat. Onboard, we got a quick weather update. Low tide, light winds and a moderate 72 degree temperature. Island Cat Captain Chris Crolley said we couldn't have picked a better day to visit. Looking out at the gorgeous bay, I definitely agreed with him.


The nutrient-rich waters around Bulls Island attract an array of wildlife.

As the Island Cat purred and pivoted through the Intracoastal Waterway destined for Bulls Island, our naturalist guide Chris gave us a quick tutorial on the surrounding area and wildlife. Sometimes called a "24-hour seafood buffet" because of its nutrient-rich waters, the estuary that leads to Bulls Island is home to seagulls, oyster beds and bottlenose dolphins.

We got a quick glance at two of the playful mammals during the 30-minute trip to the island. As the dolphins played peak-a-boo at a rate that was much too fast for a photo op, I put down my camera and took a moment to soak in everything: The dolphins escorting our boat. The warm Saturday sun casting a golden hue on the bay. Birds I'd never seen before soaring overhead. Was I still in South Carolina? Who knew the Palmetto State had such natural, hidden beauty? Just as I ended my pause, we arrived at the island.


Built in 1925, the Dominick House on Bulls Island was a winter retreat for U.S. Senator Gayer Dominick.

Bulls Island was originally called Oneiscau by the Sewee Native Americans who inhabited the island throughout the 1600s and early 1700s. The Sewee tribe hunted and fished the tidal creeks of the area. Remnants of Native American culture can still be found on Bulls Island in the forms of discarded oyster and clam shell mounds called middens.

In 1670, English settlers arrived to the island. Stephen Bull, a leader among them, would later have the island named after him. The history of Bulls is on display at a covered shelter along the main path that leads into the heart of the island. After reading up on the background of the island, I set off on the 1.5-mile trek to the beach.

Along the Sabal palmetto-lined pathway stand red cedar, juniper, wax myrtle and other trees that either I'd never seen or paid attention to. Huge Oak trees dot the area around the island's only house -- an old hunting retreat called Dominick House. Former U.S. Sen. Gayer Dominick built the home around 1925 after he bought Bulls Island as a winter retreat. The Dominick House was once run as an inn for nature enthusiasts. Today it serves as a housing unit for refuge employees and volunteers.


Gators are among the wildlife that make their home on Bulls Island.

During my visit, Dominick was empty. There were no signs of volunteers anywhere on the island -- just a ferry boat full of tourists and nature -- pristine, beautiful and raw.

Perhaps nothing was a truer reflection of that description than the seven-foot alligator I passed on my way to the beach. There she was -- a mama gator sprawled out, sunbathing in one of the island's fresh water impoundments. Her baby, just a stone's throw away, was doing the same thing. Had I not been a little concerned that the pair would rise from their rest and lay out across my pathway, I might have stayed with them a little while longer.

Instead, I took a quick photo and continued my trek. One gator family was enough for one day. I'd have to visit their friends in Alligator Alley, a sand causeway on the island where multiple alligators gather daily, next time around.


The track of a loggerhead female sea turtle can be seen in the sand on Boneyard Beach.

And so I marched on until I finally arrived at Boneyard Beach. It's one of the most beautiful and serene places I've ever seen -- just miles and miles of clear beach decorated with nature's ornaments like sandollars, moon shells and whelk. In fact, the search for sea souvenirs is what drew Renee Talbert of North Myrtle Beach to the island.

"We heard the shelling was great and we're really tired of all the commercial beaches," Talbert said. "It's nice to get somewhere and just be able to look at nature."

The northern end of the beach is truly a sight, with dozens of downed sun- and salt-bleached oak, cedar and pine trees strewn about. Their white color makes them look like bones, which gives Boneyard its name.


Visitors to Bull Island walk along an earthen dike between two fresh water ponds.

What a hauntingly gorgeous place, I thought. As I looked around Boneyard, inhaled the salt air and watched the waves crash ashore, I realized that my day was coming to an end much too soon. If I wanted to make it back to the ferry in time, I'd have to leave the beauty of Boneyard behind for now. I packed up my camera, tucked away the memory of the day and headed back to the boat landing.

After a brisk 45-minute walk, I arrived at the dock, where I met up with the other ferry passengers. Our day would end almost as it began. We gathered again waiting on the Island Cat to take us away. A bit weary, this time around there was a stated camaraderie among fellow adventurers -- all of us sitting on a wooden bench sharing stories of gators, birds and the boneyard. All things beautiful, all things South Carolina. What a perfect end to the day.

The Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge is located at 5801 U.S. 17 North in Awendaw about 20 miles north of Charleston. Bulls Island is accessible only by private boat or ferry. Coastal Expeditions offers several tours to Bulls Island, including a beach drop and a sunrise expedition.

Tracy Pou
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.