The lure of big, picture-worthy fish has made South Carolina’s Lakes Marion and Moultrie a favorite destination for trophy-seeking anglers. It’s no wonder given the number of state-record holders hauled from its legendary shallow waters.
But the adjoining Coastal Plain reservoirs, also known as the Santee Cooper, Lakes for the two rivers they connect, offer much more than just world-class fishing. Home to Santee State Park, Santee National Wildlife Refuge and two passages of the mountains-to-sea Palmetto Trail, the scenic lakes and surrounding forests and wetlands provide a stunning backdrop to go boating, kayaking, camping, hiking, hunting, mountain biking and birding.
Built during the Great Depression to provide electricity to rural South Carolina and a navigable route from Columbia to Charleston, the Santee Cooper Lakes were part of the largest land-clearing project in US history. In 27 months, 9,000 workers cleared 171,000 acres of swamp and forest, excavated and moved 72 million cubic yards of earth and poured 3.1 million cubic yards of concrete.
The complex 162-mile waterway system included the two huge lakes, 42 miles of dams and dikes, a hydroelectric powerhouse and a navigation lock that at the time was the highest single-lift system in the world.
An engineering marvel, the 180-foot by 60-foot Pinopolis Lock is capable of raising boats 75 feet from the Cooper River to Lake Moultrie, South Carolina’s third largest lake. Each October, Fisheagle Wildlife Tours offers guided excursions through the historic lock, allowing visitors to experience the eight-story elevation change.
While most of the cleared timber from Lake Moultrie was cut, milled and sold, trees with no resale value were burned or tied down to stumps, providing habitat for trophy crappie, largemouth bass, bream and catfish. Fish migrating from the sea to spawn upstream in the Cooper River can pass into the lake through the Pinopolis Lock or a special fish lift in the St. Stephen dam.
Most of the stumps in Lake Moultrie are located along the shoreline. The rest of the lake varies from 10 to 30 feet in depth.
Lake Marion is a different story. Timbering in the reservoir – the largest lake in South Carolina – was interrupted by World War II, leaving the lake bed filled with thousands of stumps, dead tree trunks and live cypress trees. When the dam across the Santee River was completed, striped bass that had come up from the sea to spawn became trapped in the lake. Surprisingly, the landlocked stripers adapted to the freshwater environment and continue to thrive today.
Lake Marion’s head waters extend almost to the confluence of the Wateree and Congaree rivers, an area that includes the beautiful Sparkleberry Swamp, a submerged cypress and tupelo forest popular with kayakers.
A number of outfitters offer paddling trips in the two lakes, as well as Sparkleberry Swamp. Fishing guide services also are available in both lakes.
Whether you’re looking to fish, paddle or just cruise around the lake, you’ll find several marinas and outfitters offering a wide range of rentals boats, including kayaks, canoes, jon boats, pontoons, deck boats, houseboats and Jet Skis, as well as stand-up paddleboards.
Santee Cooper Country is also a renowned birding area. Nearly 300 resident and migratory species have been spotted in the Santee National Wildlife Refuge, a 13,000-acre preserve along the north shore of Lake Marion. The refuge offers miles of hiking and biking trails, along with a 7.5-mile wildlife drive, allowing visitors to explore four different areas of the preserve, one of which contains an ancient Santee Indian burial mound.
Across the lake from the refuge is Santee State Park. It offers camping, hiking and biking trails, two boat ramps, a fishing pier and pontoon boat tours of Lake Marion’s flooded cypress forest.
The Palmetto Trail offers more opportunities to hike through the beautiful Atlantic Coastal Plain terrain. The Lake Marion Passage skirts the lake’s north shore while the Santee Passage winds through picturesque farmlands.
With so much to do, you’ll want to stay awhile. Accommodations in the area include a wide range of options from campsites, cabins and resort campgrounds to rental homes, bed-and-breakfasts, and hotels.