Next door to the house museum and plantation stableyards is the Middleton Equestrian Center, offering boarding, lessons and trail rides through this stunning Lowcountry landscape.
The one-hour guided tours take visitors along rice fields, through dense forests and open terrain with far-off views of the Ashley River and the adjacent gardens of Middleton Place.
While in Charleston for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition last month, I made a little side trip out to Middleton Place, located 14 miles from downtown off scenic Highway 61. Although I was familiar with the historic plantation, I had never visited the Equestrian Center and its 135 acres of woodlands and ponds.
Our guide, David Holycross, an Indiana transplant who has been riding Middleton's trails for 23 years, helped us mount our horses and then led us down a bridle path thick with pines and hardwoods. The first section of the trail borders Middleton Place, offering views of the main house, springhouse and chapel and famed butterfly lakes.
Before long, we had reached the rice mill pond, a favorite hangout for coots, marsh hens, heron, ibis -and alligators. Lots and lots of alligators. Holycross had just finished telling us it's not unusual to see the prehistoric-looking reptiles in the pond, when we spotted one sleeping comfortably in a nest of dried marsh grass.
A few steps farther along the trail, someone pointed out a gator swimming in the water with just his eyes peering above the surface. Then there were the two sunning themselves on the muddy bank and the six-footer eyeing the innocent coot.
All told, we must have seen a dozen gators as we walked half way around the pond. A warm day at the tail-end of winter was all the enticement they needed to vacate their burrows and come out of hiding. It's an annual phenomenon that reminds me of the College of Charleston co-eds who spread out on blankets all over Marion Square as soon as the temperature hits 65 degrees.
The Middleton Equestrian Center offers horseback riding excursions daily at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. You must be at least 10 years old to ride. Riders ages 10 to 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
Cost of the two-mile trail ride is $45 per person. Reservations are required. To book a tour, call (843) 556-8137. You might not find anyone in the stable office when you call, so leave a message and they'll get back to you.