The Francis Beidler Forest harbors one of the last large virgin stands of bald cypress-tupelo gum swamp in the United States. A significant number of rare and unusual plants and animals are found in this unique natural area. Its five major community types provide habitat for an extremely rich diversity of species.
Part of an 18,000-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, Francis Beidler Forest boasts the largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest in the world. The 3,408-acre pristine ecosystem features thousand-year-old trees and extremely rich diversity of species including Prothonotary warblers that nest in the cavities of cypress tree knees.
The forest is part of the Four Holes Swamp, a 45,000-acre matrix of black water sloughs and lakes, shallow bottomland hardwoods, and deep bald cypress and tupelo gum flats. A 1.75-mile boardwalk offers visitors the chance to walk through this unique and wild sanctuary. The Audubon Society also offers daytime bird walks, night walks, and two-hour kayak and canoe trips through the blackwater swamp in March, April, and May when the water level is high.
Francis Beidler Forest is located about an hour from Charleston and Columbia off Interstate 26 in Santee Cooper Country.
Related: South Carolina Has It All
Hike through Ancient Beidler Forest
Francis Beidler Forest offers two trails, the old-growth virgin forest cypress-tupelo swamp boardwalk, and the newer grassland-woodland trail. Pets and bikes are not allowed on either trail.
A 1.75-mile self-guided boardwalk trail (handicapped accessible) allows visitors the chance to safely venture deep into the heart of the swamp…to see it the way nature intended.
The new trail system meanders through Longleaf Pine, grassland, and woodland habitats being restored by Audubon South Carolina. Free to the public and open from sunrise to sunset, the new trails give visitors the opportunity to explore a new section of the sanctuary. The diverse habitat attracts birds and other wildlife not typically seen on the Beidler Forest boardwalk such as painted buntings, indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, loggerhead shrikes, eastern bluebirds, purple martins, and many sparrow species.
Parking for the trail is located only a few feet from the Beidler Forest gate off Mim’s Road. Be sure to watch the bird feeders for buntings, woodpeckers, and sparrows.
Related: 40 Things Only Southerners Will Understand
Naturalist-guided walks and programs also are available seasonally and by reservation.
Paddle through Ancient Beidler Forest
Now’s your chance to paddle in the still blackwater of a primeval swamp and experience nature as it existed a thousand years ago. The water level is up in Francis Beidler Forest this time of year making it possible to navigate through the largest remaining stand of virgin bald cypress and tupelo gum trees in the world.
Francis Beidler Forest is one of only two old-growth floodplain forests remaining in the state. The other is at Congaree National Park.
When the water level in the floodplain is high enough, the Audubon Center offers guided canoe trips through this ancient forest located within the Four Holes Swamp.
Trips are offered on a regular basis Friday through Sunday. Four-hour trips are scheduled each of the three days at 1 p.m.; two-hour trips are available at 9 a.m. Saturdays.
The tours start from a remote landing on Mellard Lake, one of the swamp’s “holes”. Paddling through this open section of blackwater, surrounded by dense, undisturbed vegetation, you’ll feel totally removed from the rest of the world.
After just a few minutes, you’ll enter the woods, thick with 100-foot bald cypress and tupelo gum trees. It’s not unusual to see a variety of wildlife from yellow-bellied slider turtles to brown water snakes to Prothonotary warblers.
Be aware, paddling through the swamp can be a bit tricky, especially at lower water levels. It helps to have some kayaking experience to maneuver through the floodplain’s narrow passages. In the spring, you’ll want to steer clear of trees covered with Poison Ivy. But it’s a trip unlike any other in the Lowcountry and so worth the navigational challenges.
Related: 5 Things I Learned While RVing The American South
Cost is $30 for adults ($15 for children 8 to 12) for the four-hour excursion; $20 for adults ($10 for children 6 to 12) for the two-hour trip. The price for the tour also includes admission to the Beidler Forest boardwalk.
Reservations are required in advance. These trips are popular, so you’ll want to book early.
As the leaves of the trees are said to absorb all noxious qualities of the air, and to breathe forth a purer atmosphere, so it seems to me as if they drew from us all sordid and angry passions, and breathed forth peace and philanthropy. There is a severe and settled majesty in woodland scenery that enters into the soul, dilates and elevates it, and fills it with noble inclinations.
—Washington Irving (1783-1859), American writer