From the tidal creeks and estuaries of the Lowcountry to the rugged mountain wilderness of the Upstate, South Carolina offers a diversity of stunning landscapes to explore and enjoy.
But six areas have been deemed so unique and extraordinary that they have earned the designation of National Natural Landmark. To qualify for the prestigious designation, a site must be one of the best examples of a particular ecosystem or geological feature.
Managed by the National Park Service, the National Natural Landmark program was created in 1962 to encourage the preservation and public appreciation of America’s natural heritage. To date, 602 sites in the country—a third of them privately owned and closed to the public—have received the designation.
In South Carolina, all six sites are open to visitors, with trails or tours that allow you to experience these special places. Below are the six National Natural Landmarks in the state:
Francis Beidler Forest
Part of an 18,000-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, Francis Beidler Forest boasts the largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest in the world. The 3,408-acre pristine ecosystem features thousand-year-old trees and an extremely rich diversity of species, including Prothonotary warblers that nest in the cavities of cypress tree knees.
The forest is part of the Four Holes Swamp, a 45,000-acre matrix of black water sloughs and lakes, shallow bottomland hardwoods and deep bald cypress and tupelo gum flats. A 1.75-mile boardwalk offers visitors the chance to walk through this unique and wild sanctuary. The Audubon Society also offers daytime bird walks, night walks and two-hour kayak and canoe trips through the blackwater swamp in March, April and May when the water level is high.
Francis Beidler Forest is located about an hour from Columbia and Charleston off I-26.
Stevens Creek Natural Area
Part of the Stevens Creek Heritage Preserve in Edgefield, the 141-acre parcel features a unique combination of plants typically found in mountain coves or in more southern ecosystems. Even more extraordinary, the plant community is believed to have been here since the latter part of the Pleistocene or the last Ice Age. This kind of old-growth forest is unusual in an area with a long history of human development.
Owned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the Stevens Creek bluff and its coves are home to 15 rare plant species, including the Florida or Miccosukee gooseberry, a small, perennial shrub only found here and Lake Miccosukee in Florida. Other species rarely seen in South Carolina include false rue anemone, shooting star, southern nodding trillium, green violet and lance-leaved trillium, as well Webster’s salamander, a dark brown, zigzag-striped terrestrial salamander.
A 1.9-mile moderately difficult loop trail takes you to a ridge overlooking the beautiful river valley where you’ll see outcroppings of rock covered in ancient species of moss and lichen. From the hilltop, you’ll descend to the river banks lush with many of the rare plants.
Congaree River Swamp
The 21,811-acre swamp—located within Congaree National Park—is the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Flooding from the Congaree and Wateree rivers provides the nutrients to sustain one of the tallest temperate hardwood forests in the world. This unique ecosystem has been designated both an International Biosphere Reserve and a Globally Important Bird Area.
More than 20 miles of hiking trails offer visitors the opportunity to explore the floodplain and its national and state champion trees. The most popular is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop featuring an elevated section that winds through the old-growth trees and a low boardwalk that takes you through a primeval bald cypress and tupelo forest.
You can also paddle your way through the swamp on the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail running 15 miles along the blackwater tributary all the way to the Congaree River. If you don’t have your own kayak or canoe, several Columbia outfitters offer rentals as well as guided trips on the trail. The park also offers an array of educational programs, including an off-trail day hike to some of the champion trees and a night hike on the boardwalk.
John de la Howe Forest
At just 118 acres, this old-growth oak and pine forest is the smallest of the National Natural Landmarks in South Carolina. Protected against fire and timbering since 1797, it is one of the best remaining examples of this type of forest in the Piedmont.
The land is located near Bordeaux, South Carolina, within Sumter National Forest. It was originally owned by Dr. John de la Howe, who settled in the area in the 18th century and left instructions in his will for his estate to be turned into an agricultural farm and school for orphaned children. The Natural Landmark designation marker, along with his crypt, can be found on Tomb Road.
The 200-year-old oak-pine stand predominantly features shortleaf and loblolly pines and white oak with various hickory species as well as yellow poplar, southern red oak, red maple, sourwood, black oak and elm trees.
Flat Creek Natural Area and Forty Acre Rock
Set in an area of the state where the Sandhills meet the Piedmont, Flat Creek Natural Area and Forty Acre Rock contain the largest remaining undisturbed granite flat-rock outcrop in the Carolina Piedmont. Within its 684 acres you’ll also find more than a dozen rare, threatened or endangered species, including nodding trillium and green violet.
A 5-mile out-and-back trail takes you past a waterslide, a small waterfall and a beaver pond before reaching the namesake rock, which actually encompasses just 14 acres. In addition to offering a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside, Forty Acre Rock provides habitat for lichens, mosses and the rare pool sprite that blooms in the winter and spring in water that collects in crevices and depressions on the rock’s surface.
St. Phillips Island
Once the beachside getaway of billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, St. Phillips is one of a very few barrier islands along the South Carolina, Georgia and north Florida coast that remains in a virtually undisturbed state. It also features a series of ancient sand dune ridges unique to the entire Atlantic coast. Tucked between St. Helena and Capers islands, St. Phillips was never colonized, timbered or developed like so many other barrier islands.
To ensure it remained in its pristine state, Turner placed the island under a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy. The state of South Carolina purchased the property in 2017 and it is now part of the state park system. Although St. Phillips is accessible only by boat, visitors can take a tour of the island with Coastal Expeditions and explore its beaches and virgin forest along four miles of trails.
The five-bedroom home Turner built in 1979 is available for rent through Hunting Island State Park, which manages the island. Although the Turner House is closed to the public except for rentals, visitors taking a tour of the island can walk around the property and enjoy the ocean view from its fishing pier on days when the house is unoccupied.