Paddle the South Fork of the Edisto at Aiken State Park

By:Marie McAden


If you’ve never canoed a blackwater river, you owe it to yourself to experience the dark side of paddling. Floating through desolate swampland under a thick canopy of moss-covered cypress and tupelo trees, you’ll feel like you’ve ventured into primordial grounds light years from civilization.

At Aiken State Park you can rent a canoe or kayak and paddle a remote section of the Edisto River, the longest free-flowing blackwater stream in North America. Cost for the rental is $15 and includes shuttle service.

The South Fork of the Edisto runs along the northeastern edge of the 1,067-acre state park. A 1.7-mile stretch of the river has been designated a canoe and kayak trail.

If you float the entire route, it will take you three hours to make it from put-in to take-out. Paddling at a leisurely pace cuts the trip time in half.

When the river level is low, navigating this narrow, twisty section of the South Fork means you’ll be dodging strainers and downed trees somewhere along the way.

From the launch site, the slow-moving current takes you lazily through the wetlands, parading you past beautiful bald cypress and big-bottomed tupelos. Because this area floods, the buttressed lower trunks grow wide offering the tree stability in standing water.

It’s the tannin released by decomposing plant matter from the trees that gives the river its reddish-brown hue. Despite its blackwater designation, the water is actually quite clear, just tinted the color of tea.

Along with fallen tree limbs hanging over the river, you may encounter several submerged trunks stealthily hidden just beneath the surface. At high water levels, you’ll float right over the logs without so much as a bump. But at low water, it’s easy to get stuck on the debris.

The Edisto flows 250 miles from its beginnings in Saluda and Edgefield counties to the Atlantic Ocean at Edisto Beach. The longest and largest river system completely contained by the borders of South Carolina, it rises in two main tributaries—the North Fork and South Fork—from springs under the state’s Sandhills region just to the south of the Piedmont fall line.

Flowing mostly through rural areas, it provides paddlers with an escape from reality. On the Aiken State Park canoe and kayak trail, you won’t see any man-made structures until you reach the take-out.

The park offers kayak and canoe rentals at 10 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays, and 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. For additional information, click here or call 803.649.2857.

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