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Wild Carolina: Three Days in South Carolina’s Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge

Marie Johannemann Marie Johannemann
Whether they’re checking out the newest restaurants or enjoying a stay at a bed-and-breakfast, contributing writers share their unique insight and stories from exploring the Palmetto State.
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It is a landscape of unparalleled beauty—a 22-mile stretch of pristine coastline where freshwater rivers and streams meet the open sea.

It is a landscape of unparalleled beauty—a 22-mile stretch of pristine coastline where freshwater rivers and streams meet the open sea creating one of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet.

Protected from development for more than eight decades, the 66,306-acre wildlife preserve serves as habitat for some 293 species of birds, 36 different kinds of mammals, 24 types of reptiles and 12 varieties of amphibians.   

One might expect to find a wilderness so unique and unspoiled in one of the far corners of the world. And that’s what makes the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge so extraordinary. This natural wonder is just 20 miles from Charleston.

Bordering the small fishing villages of Awendaw and McClellanville, Cape Romain is both remote and accessible. It is one of South Carolina’s beautiful and wild places—geographical treasures tucked among towns and cities from the Upstate to the Lowcountry.

Because most of the refuge is made up of wetlands, bays and creeks, it can be reached only by boat. Coastal Expeditions—Cape Romain’s sole concessionaire—offers a variety of ways to experience this delicate and dynamic environment, including guided kayaking and hiking trips, photography excursions, boat tours and a ferry service to Bulls Island, the largest of Cape Romain’s four barrier islands.

The Charleston-area outfitter’s premier eco-adventure is the three-day Dominick House Expedition, offered one weekend a month from October through May. A large, 1920s hunting lodge on Bulls Island serves as base camp for an exploration of the refuge, led by a team of experienced and knowledgeable naturalists.           

Our first exploratory outing on the island was to Boneyard Beach, the most visited and photographed spot in the refuge.

Destination: Bulls Island

On a Friday morning in the last days of spring, 12 exuberant explorers met at the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center in Awendaw to embark on an adventure of a lifetime. After a brief overview of the Cape Romain ecosystem, we made our way to Garris Landing and boarded a comfortable passenger boat for the 30-minute ride to Bulls Island.

Within minutes, we had left behind all signs of civilization and were cruising through a maze of channels lined with oyster beds and spartina grass. Our guide stopped several times to point out birds and talk about the estuarine environment including the pungent Lowcountry pluff mud produced by decaying marsh grass and marine life. Throughout the weekend, we would be regaled with other fascinating anecdotes about the area’s habitats, wildlife and changing landscape.

Once at the lodge, we received our room assignments and gathered in the main dining room for a hearty lunch prepared with locally sourced produce. All of our meals, including afternoon appetizers and snacks, were enthusiastically devoured by our hungry group.

Our first exploratory outing on the island was to Boneyard Beach, the most visited and photographed spot in the refuge. Wracked by the constant battering of the surf, this span of shoreline features the sun-bleached remains of massive live oaks, eastern red cedars, palmettos and pines that were once part of the island’s maritime forest.

Covered with water at high tide, the beach along the island’s northeastern point is constantly changing as the ocean takes its toll, slowly stripping trees of their bark and exposing their root systems. In time, the toppled, weathered trunks become part of the ecosystem, providing habitat for acorn barnacles, oysters and mussels.

Strewn among the arboreal skeletons were other drifters brought in by the sea—starfish, sand dollars, horse conchs, shark-eye moon snails and lettered olive sea snails. The incoming tide also unearthed prehistoric pottery left behind by Native Americans who inhabited Bulls Island more than 2,000 years ago. An ancient midden, or shell heap, on the south side of the island provides more evidence of their residence.

The wildlife preserve serves as habitat for some 293 species of birds, 36 different kinds of mammals, 24 types of reptiles and 12 varieties of amphibians.

Nature’s Rhythm

Breathtaking during the day, Boneyard Beach takes on an otherworldly aura in the moonlight. An hour before dawn each morning, a guide led a trek to the eroding shore, offering us the rare chance to see the haunting silhouettes in the dead of night. As the sun rose, the sky turned hues of red, orange and gold, sending gulls and terns on their morning hunt along the coastline.

The end of the day offered an equally awe-inspiring adventure. In the evenings after dinner, we would cruise around Bulls Bay to watch the sunset, look for dolphins and observe shorebirds and seabirds roosting on a sandbar at the edge of the Atlantic. While visiting the site, we were treated to the aerial courtship antics of black skimmers, witnessed horseshoe crabs mating and saw several curious loggerhead turtles pop their heads out of the water.

In between our daybreak and twilight jaunts, we explored the beach, salt marsh, maritime forest and shallow fresh and brackish ponds that provide critical habitat for a phenomenal diversity of birdlife, including the endangered wood stork and threatened piping plover.

One of only 20 Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network sites in North and South America, the refuge draws the largest wintering population of American oystercatchers on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and harbors a nesting rookery for brown pelicans, terns and gulls.

We left Bulls Island Sunday afternoon in agreement: we could have stayed longer. Three days of exploration brought endless discoveries in this changing, dramatic landscape so full of life, of things we had never seen before. We’d be back. In the meantime, we have countless stories to tell of our weekend in the wild.

Find more hidden beaches along the South Carolina coast.

Marie Johannemann
Marie Johannemann
More from "Marie Johannemann"
Whether they’re checking out the newest restaurants or enjoying a stay at a bed-and-breakfast, contributing writers share their unique insight and stories from exploring the Palmetto State.