Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Woods Just Up the Road: Biking the Trails of the Francis Marion National Forest

        Whenever I unload my bike at a trailhead in the Francis Marion Forest, I always imagine it saying “YES!  I was made for this!” It’s not a fancy bike but the wide tires and shock absorbers are perfect for the rough, rooted, narrow trails that transverse the forest.  As I ride past bays, marshes, campgrounds, flooded rice fields and waterways my energy rises. Often the occasional snake, alligator, wild turkey, deer, boar or the myriad of birds are my only companions.  This has become one of my favorite pastimes for high octane exercise, especially in the cooler months.    And a great escape.  On my annual “it’s not the bridge run” ride, I drop racers off at the Cooper River Bridge starting line and head out to my contrarian destination. Even on days when the city is full of visitors, the forest is almost empty despite the easy accessibility of trails just a few miles from Charleston
        The easiest rides are on the service roads that criss-cross the forest.  Among the forest’s 629,000 acres are miles and miles of both surfaced and unpaved roads wide enough for cars and logging vehicles. One of my favorites is reached easily from Hwy. 17 north of Mt. Pleasant by turning onto Forest Road 228, I’On Swamp Road.  You can start biking there and ride 2.5 miles to the entrance for I’On Swamp Interpretive Trail where you should park your bike and go on foot.  It is a fascinating trail through a wetland world along old plantation dikes.  You’ll walk along embankments built in the 1700s that created a patchwork of fields and ditches historically used in the production of rice.  Signs with educational information about history and forest life dot the route.  Alligators are often lolling in the puddles of sunlight. After this one mile walk you can easily ride on the forest road as far as you’d like before doubling back to your car.  Even children or beginners enjoy this excursion.   
        Ready to get off the road and ride for an hour or two?  Head to the South Tibwin Trail near McClellanville which is cooperatively managed by the Forest Service, the SC Department of Natural Resources and Ducks Unlimited. Over the five miles of trails there are hardwood bottomlands, pine uplands, tidal marshes, freshwater ponds and wetlands.  Tibwin Creek is as wide as a river and full of jumping fish.  Ramshackle docks extend over the water and old rice trunks that were used to flood the fields in plantation days are still evident.  Great Blue Herons swoop overhead.  From the wildlife blinds, you might see egrets, eagles, hawks or possibly river otters and bald eagles.  This is billed as a loop trail for biking but it is not well marked with blazes so a map, downloadable from the websites below, is handy.

        My favorite ramble is the Awendaw Connector section of the Palmetto Trail.  Over its seven scenic miles it weaves between Awendaw Creek and the forest. Birds, including the endangered red cockaded woodpecker, are plentiful.  The trail is bike-able but you’ll have to dismount occasionally to avoid thick tree roots or standing water.  You can begin at Buck Hall Landing, the easternmost end of the Palmetto Trail, where there’s a picnic area, fishing dock, bathrooms and a campground.  Or start closer to Mt. Pleasant at Rosa Green Road.  The forest service sign indicating Rosa Green Road says, “Awendaw Creek Canoe Launch” and the launch is truly a marvel of engineering with a wide rail to drag your kayak or canoe down to the water.  Americorp and the other organizations that built this trail have constructed sturdy wooden bridges and benches. Sit awhile.  Eat an apple. Breathe. The sweeping marsh views are straight out of a Pat Conroy novel. If you take an out of town visitor on this trail they’ll never want to leave the Lowcountry.
        A bit longer, the Tuxbury Trail is shared by bikers, hikers and horses and consists of 14 miles of interconnecting trails near Cainhoy.  The habitat is less varied than the Awendaw Connector with some sandy patches.  Sharing the trail with horses could be a problem but I saw no sign of them on my visit.  However, the Wambaw Cycle Trail is a different story. Thinking that “cycle” meant my Schwinn, I optimistically headed there.  But as I drove closer, I had to yield to speeding motorcycles darting across the forest roads.  The “vroom” of engines greeted me in the parking lot where dozens of empty ATV trailers were parked.  Detour! That turned out to be a good day to ride on the nearby forest service roads instead.

         For the tough and hearty who relish a longer bike ride, the Swamp Fox Trail is the answer.  From here the forest stretches widely to the west for many miles. This is where the Revolutionary war hero Francis Marion hid out with his ragtag troops.  It doesn’t take much imagination to picture them here now, especially as the trail descends deeper into the thickest parts of the forest.  Today the Swamp Fox Trail is a 42 mile section of the Palmetto Trail extending from the Hwy. 17 to Moncks Corner.  Any section is an easy walk and a moderately easy bike ride.  A two hour bike ride from the Hwy 17 trailhead will take you to Halfway Creek campground and back, twelve miles round-trip.  The bicycling is fairly easy in this section since it is older and not as rutted with tree roots as the Awendaw Connector Trail. It’s also well marked and easy to follow.  Be forewarned that you might hear gunshots from this trail.  It isn’t hunters.  It’s the forest rifle range located nearby and there is no danger. The entrance to the Swamp Fox Trail is clearly marked on Hwy. 17 if you are headed south but there is no sign if you’re headed north so use the mileage directions on the website to find it.
        Construction of the Palmetto Trail began in 1994 and will extend 425 miles from Buck Hall Landing on the Intracoastal Waterway to the Blue Ridge Mountains when it is finished.  About 300 miles are already completed.  Dane Hannah works for the Palmetto Conservation Foundation as the Lowcountry trail coordinator.  He is single-handedly responsible for the 180 miles of trails from Columbia to Awendaw, sometimes by hacking away overgrowth with a machete.  He boasts that the Palmetto Trail includes more than recreational destinations.  It goes through towns and cities such as Columbia and Santee, and historic battlefields.  You can even plan a biking stop at Sweatman’s authentic barbeque in Holly Hill. 
        Excursions take some preparation.  It is common to find empty map holders or no holders at all on the trailheads so download a map before you go.  The forest is very buggy in summer.  Some trails get quite muddy after rainy weather.  Helmets are a must.  And water of course.  There is little danger from animals although alligators are common on some trails. They are easily scared away if you loudly yell at them “Move out of my way alligator!”  Snakes are often seen.  In one harrowing episode I saw a four foot long snake draped across the path just as I speeded towards and  (yikes!) over it, unable to stop.  It slithered away afterwards.  Since I’m sometimes alone when I go biking, it’s comforting to know that cellphone signals are strong throughout the woods.
        The most important precaution is to have the right equipment.  Road bikes will not do.  When I introduced my friend, an avid road biker, to the Palmetto Trail he insisted on taking his skinny tire bike.  It ruined his experience.  It’s also handy to have at least some gears so beach bikes are not ideal.  You’ll want to change gears in sandy areas or for covering long distances without getting fatigued.

        Biking in the Francis Marion National Forest is an exhilarating plunge into nature.  Speeding through the forest on your own energy, you are immediately immersed into our wonderfully flat Lowcountry.   Despite the similarities in the locales, every outing is different.  Ed Rice introduced me to this pastime and passionately bikes often.  He says, “The seasons always have a little different presentation.  Maybe the leaves changed later this year or there was more rain.  The little glimpses of flora and fauna reveal themselves on each trip and there’s always something new to see.”  He reveled in finding trumpet plant flowers this year in a Carolina bay. He’d been there before but had never seen them until this year. On one memorable outing he and I climbed a fire tower to find a bird box full of peeping baby owls.  Beneath the box, on the metal steps, was a pile of bones from mice and other critters the owls had eaten. 
        I am often surprised by reactions when I tell people who live in the Charleston area that I’ve been biking in the forest.  “What forest?” they often say.  Those who have been there know that it is just up the road and a world away from the ubiquitous strip malls and traffic.  Becoming part of this expansive green world, speeding through the trees, the solitude of the forest, these are the nearby adventures awaiting bikers in the Francis Marion Forest

If you go:

Francis Marion Forest

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  2. Are bikes allowed on Francis Marion Bridge? Im planning a trip in March from south to North Carolina dn that bridge saves me a lot of miles