You won’t go far along this trail without encountering some kind of wildlife — broad-winged hawks, migratory ducks, wading birds, turtles, maybe even a gator or two.
One of several trails open to hikers and bikers in the 29,000-acre preserve, the Tupelo Trail starts on a wide gravel connector path that runs alongside the main diversion canal just north of S.C. 170.
This time of year, the canal is flush with waterfowl making their way south for the winter. At the one-mile mark where the canal turns west, the trail goes from gravel to grass, flanked by managed impoundments on one side and marshland on the other.
Another mile or so up the road, you’ll take a hard-right to the east following the Vernezobre Creek on an old plantation dike. That’s when the ride gets bumpy. Crossing the unaltered dike, it’s a narrow pathway over what seems like a million roots, some big enough to bounce you out of your saddle.
Befitting its name, the trail is shaded by beautiful tupelo trees, along with bald cypress and massive live oaks more than 150 years old. When I visited the refuge earlier this month, the cool fall temperatures kept the mosquitoes at bay. If you visit in one of the warmer months, come armed with insect repellant. It can get mighty buggy in the swamp.
At the end of the dike, the trail enters an upland forest continuing about a half-mile before it ends at the picturesque Kingfisher Pond.
On the return trip over the grassy section of trail, we saw several birds of prey soaring overhead in search of a meal. Riding back on the gravel road on the other side of the canal, we came upon two large alligators sunning themselves along the bank.
We hadn’t gotten 20 feet from the reptiles before the smaller of the two launched itself into the drink, keeping only its eyes above the water. The big fella also slid into the water, but refused to move from the edge of the grass even as we walked passed it. When you’re eight feet long and can snap your jaws with a force of 2,125 pounds, you don’t need to retreat.
Trail maps can be found in the trailhead parking area across the street from the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive exit. Or pick one up at the Visitor Center on U.S. 17. Want more details about the refuge? Click here.