Rising from springs near the rolling red clay hills of the South Carolina Piedmont, the Edisto River begins its slow, winding journey across the flatlands of the Coastal Plains through one of the largest protected wetland ecosystems on the Eastern Seaboard.
For 250 miles, the scenic stream drifts uninterrupted past a wild and primordial landscape of towering pines, moss-draped oaks and flooded cypress/tupelo forests, creating oxbows, sloughs, riffles and pools on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the longest free-flowing blackwater river in all of North America and one of the longest in the world.
The Edisto is labeled a blackwater river for its distinctive tea-colored hue created by tannins leached from the decaying leaves of trees and vegetation that grow in the vast floodplains along the river's edge.
Named after the Edisto Indians who first inhabited its shores, the Edisto once served as a trade route for early colonists transporting goods from the uplands to the coast. Today, it's a treasured recreational destination enjoyed by anglers, kayakers, birders and campers.
As much as 85 percent of the forests and wetlands on the Edisto's banks and floodplains have been preserved, supporting a wide variety of wildlife, including nationally threatened and endangered species like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Southern Bald Eagle and Wood Stork.
The Edisto Basin also is home to 87 different types of freshwater fish and 120 saltwater species. Favorite targets include largemouth bass, striped bass, redbreast sunfish, black crappie and catfish. Anglers have reeled in several other notable species, among them anadromous striped bass, American shad, shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon and American eel.
The river's two upper sections - the North Fork and South Fork - travel through remote, rural forestlands, meeting near Branchville to form the 119-mile Main Stem of the Edisto.
In 1987, a 62-mile stretch of the Main Stem was designated the Edisto River Canoe and Kayak Trail. South Carolina's first paddling trail, it features numerous points of interest and access sites along the way, providing paddlers a variety of single and multiday trip options. One of the most popular is the 21-mile passage between Colleton and Givhans Ferry state parks.
For visitors who don't have their own boats, several Lowcountry outfitters offer kayak rentals and guided tours on the Main Stem. The bucket list trip among them is Carolina Heritage Outfitter's self-guided 20-mile, two-day canoe excursion offering overnight accommodations in one of three unique tree houses. The cozy bungalows are built 14 feet above the riverbank in the largest private wildlife refuge on the river.
Trips are also available on the less traveled, more narrow and challenging North and South forks. Each year between April and October, the Bamberg County Chamber of Commerce offers free shuttle service to different sections of the river. Kayaks are not provided, but they can be rented from Edisto River Adventures.
The Lowcountry outfitter also offers kayak and tubing trips in the unspoiled ACE Basin, designated one of the "Last Great Places on Earth" by The Nature Conservancy. The coastal wetland wilderness - named after the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers - lies in the center of what was once South Carolina's lucrative rice industry. In the mid-1700s, the ecologically rich land bordering the rivers was diked for rice cultivation. Some 12,000 acres of rice field impoundments still exist today in the tidal areas of the river system.
Farther upstream, the Edisto passes through the braided bottomlands of Four Holes Swamp and the Audubon's 16,000-acre Francis Beidler Forest, the world's largest old-growth cypress-tupelo swamp and a renowned birding destination. Each spring when the water level is high, the Audubon Society offers visitors the opportunity to kayak among the 1,000-year-old trees. The naturalist-guided trips range from two to four hours and take paddlers deep into the heart of the forest.