It's been more than 150 years since rice was grown along the Savannah River on lands now managed by the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Today, those same rice fields continue to be flooded and drained to provide feeding, roosting and nesting habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds and other wildlife.
One of the best places to see the wetland boarders is along the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive off S.C. 170. Meandering four miles through a portion of the refuge's 6,000 acres of freshwater impoundments, the drive offers visitors an effortless way to enjoy this stunning Lowcountry landscape.
Many of the earthen dikes enclosing the freshwater pools were originally built by slaves and Irishmen in the late 1700s and early 1800s. You also will see some of the handmade wooden rice field trunks used to control the flow of water between the Little Back River and the impoundment system. Instead of rice, smartweed, redroot and millet now flourish in the fields, providing native and migratory birds with a smorgasbord of avian fare.
At the entrance to the one-way drive near an exhibit shelter are several beautiful live oaks that bordered the Laurel Hill Plantation home. The only structural remains of the plantation are a few bricks.
Further along you'll enter the historic property of the former Recess Plantation. To the left is a seven-foot deep brick cistern used to collect rainwater. It is the only remaining relic from the plantation era. A 300-foot long trail will take you to a hardwood hammock featuring exotic Chinese parasol trees.
The drive also goes by the 5.5-mile Diversion Canal and a number of freshwater pools. This time of year, you'll find a greater variety of waterfowl and other wintering birds in the impoundments.
Those willing to bike or hike can venture into other areas of the refuge's 29,000 acres. About 40 miles of intersecting dikes are open to the public. Later this week, I'll tell you about a couple of the trails I rode during a recent visit to the refuge.
You can pick up a map of the trails at the Visitor Center, located on U.S. 17. While you're there, spend a few minutes watching the short video about the refuge and check out the cool wildlife exhibits.
Before you go, download the Guide to Birding in South Carolina and learn more about the state’s diverse habitats that attract an impressive 437 bird species.
For more information and directions to the refuge, click here.