Many Palmetto Moons ago, the Waccamaw River met the Great Pee Dee, thereby creating a sweeping stretch of sandbar called Sandy Island. Steeped in mystery and wild beauty, the island is owned by the Nature Conservancy, which oversees the 9,000-acre wildlife preserve, a rich ecosystem where rare plant life as well as screech owls, great blue herons, swallowtail kites, endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and other animals live. If you enjoy bird-watching, fishing, hiking, environmentalism or just seeking a quiet respite from the oft-frantic pace of the mainland, Sandy Island should be on your bucket list.
It is also home to about 50 descendants of enslaved Africans, master cultivators who worked the rice plantations that once thrived on the island. These heirs now own the land of their ancestors and proudly carry on the Gullah way of life handed down to them, an ethic defined by hard work and simple living. Though they carefully guard their privacy, some islanders offer private tours of their homeland for those interested in the Gullah culture and local history. Visitors are also warmly welcomed for services at New Bethel Baptist Church, founded in 1880 and the only church on Sandy Island.
Navigating the Island
If you want to experience Sandy Island, you'll need to go by boat. In fact, the island's children are ferried to the mainland to catch a school bus each day. The Preserve opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. Study the maps on the Nature Conservancy's website when planning your visit; print one out and keep it handy as you'll be on your own once you get there. While there is cellphone service on Sandy Island, it can be spotty.
"A census taker got lost on the island a few years back and wasn't found until the next morning," said Laura Herriott, a life-long resident who offers tours of the island. "It's bigger than you think and the trails look a lot alike, so it's not hard to lose your way."
There are landings along the Waccamaw River that provide access to the preserve:
Sandy Island Landing - One mile south of Brookgreen Gardens. Turn west at the Sandy Island Landing sign on U.S. Highway 17.
Wacca Wache Landing - From Charleston, take U.S. Highway 17 through Georgetown and Pawleys Island toward Garden City and Myrtle Beach. Turn left onto Wachesaw Road (sign for landing at intersection) and go 2.4 miles to the landing.
Samworth WMA - Take Highway 701 to Plantersville. Turn east at Plantersville General Store onto SSR 52 for approximately six miles. Turn east at Samworth WMA sign on SSR 52.
Yauhannah Landing - Take Highway 701 to Plantersville. Turn east at Plantersville General Store onto SSR 52 for approximately six miles. Turn east at Samworth WMA sign on SSR 52.
If you venture into the residential section, you'll see the former two-room schoolhouse where island children were once educated, a small fire station, a church and a handful of old graveyards. The best way to see these sites and get some cultural perspective, however, is by participating in a local tour.
Things To Do
The Nature Conservancy encourages visitors to enjoy all aspects of Sandy Island Preserve: the trails, forests and wetland habitats. You are welcome to hike the mapped nature trails, fish, picnic and observe wildlife. The newest addition is a two-mile loop on the south end of the island, which offers prime views of longleaf pines and Pocosin Bay as well as interpretive trail signs. Seasonal hunting is offered in designated areas with the proper permits, and archery hunting is sometimes permitted in the upland forests. Such rampant natural beauty makes this a photographer's paradise. Pull out the camera and take as many pictures as you like, but do respect the privacy of the island's residents.
Be aware that there is no running water and restrooms are at a premium, with the only public facility offered inside Pyatt's General Store, a small privately-owned business near the docks on the residential side. Inside, you'll find a few provisions as well as Gullah sweetgrass baskets and a few other heritage gift items. Owner Rommy Pyatt also offers tours through his business, Tours de Sandy Island.
For an insider view, arrange for a private tour ahead of time. This includes your boat ride to the island and a private showing; home-cooked meals are sometimes optional and highly recommended. If you'd like to stay the night, Herriott offers a bed-and-breakfast in her grandparent's former home, Wilma's Cottage. It can also be rented for the day if you'd like a home-base with a few creature comforts and perhaps a snack of Herriott's freshly prepared pimento cheese and bread pudding.