The network of pathways takes you deep into the swampland that serves as a habitat for a variety of wildlife and rare plants. Observation decks along the trails overlook the creek, offering an ideal vantage point to spot blue herons, wood ducks, osprey, barred owls, Prothonotary warblers, bald eagles and the swamp star — the American alligator.
One trail takes you along the Tailrace Canal that connects Lake Moultrie to the headwaters of the Cooper River. At the northernmost point, the pathway crosses Biggin Creek, where it connects to one of only two remaining sections of the old Santee Canal, built in the late 1700s to provide an easier route to transport cotton and indigo between inland farms and Charleston Harbor.
From there, the Canal Trail connects to the Woodland Trail, a passage that runs atop a steep limestone bluff. The origins of the bluff date back 25 to 35 million years, when the ocean covered this area. The remains of microscopic organisms that lived in the ocean waters formed the fine grain limestone rock known as Cooper Marl.
The high levels of calcium in the rock provide the perfect growing environment for a variety of rare plants that require alkaline soils to survive. The lush vegetation along the 30-foot bluff also includes native species like the southern shield fern.
For a more intimate perspective of the swamp, you can rent a canoe and paddle the creek’s black waters. A marked canoe trail meanders through the wetlands, dominated by beautiful bald cypress trees, and around small islands featuring sweetgum, laurel oak and red maple.
A mile and a half into the paddle, you’ll reach a section of the historic canal. It took some 700 laborers seven years to dig the 22-mile waterway using picks and shovels. Back in the day, boats traveling the canal were pulled along by mules and horses using 10-foot-wide towpaths cut on both sides. The towpaths are now overgrown with vegetation, but you can still navigate through the historic channel.
Boat rentals are $3 for 30 minutes. For more information on Old Santee Canal Park, call 843.899.5200 or visit oldsanteecanalpark.org.