Off the beaten path

I love Indian summer.  The daytime temperatures are perfect, the humidity is low, and it’s just cold enough at night to enjoy an extra-snuggly blanket, without having to turn on the heat.

It’s also the best time of the year for hiking and paddling.  South Carolina has one of the best state parks systems in the United States, and we are fortunate to have three here in Sumter County:  Poinsett State Park, Manchester State Forest and Woods Bay State Natural Area.  Of the three, Woods Bay is probably the least well-known and least visited, but naturalists may find it to be the most interesting.  In addition to being a beautiful area, it is also one of the mysterious Carolina Bays, of which only a relative few are left.

No one really knows how old the Carolina Bays are, or how they were formed.  Ranging along the East Coast from Delaware to northern Florida, all of them are shallow, elliptically shaped and geographically aligned in a NW/SE direction.  Their origin is a mystery, but one long-held theory was that they were the result of a comet or meteorite strike.  This is not universally accepted by scientists, but has made its way into the folklore of the areas where they exist—for example, Lake Waccamaw,
NC, where my family lived for generations, is the largest Bay lake, and the natives are
still referred to as “The People of  the Fallen Star.” 

Carolina Bays, aerial view. Photo: Clemson University.

Rich in biodiversity, the Bays are home to a variety of wild flora and fauna not often seen in other places, including the loblolly, sweet and red bay trees that gave them their name (by definition, a true “bay” is connected to another body of water; either that, or it’s this hideous racket that my beagle sometimes makes in his dreams).  Explorers can also come upon carnivorous plants such as Venus’ flytrap and trumpet pitcher, but don’t freak out—they eat insects, not animals or people!  With a boardwalk, nature trail and canoe rentals available, Woods Bay Natural Area is a wonderfully quiet and unspoiled place to explore our part of the Carolinas, and imagine it as it was in the days before the area was settled.  With patience and a little luck, you may even see an alligator or two, heron fishing for a meal, or a prehistoric fish species such as the bowfin.  By the way, fishing is allowed, but not hunting, and leashed dogs are welcome.  It’s also a great place for beginning hikers, as the trail around the mill pond is definitely easy, unlike the moderate and challenging ones found at Poinsett and especially Manchester, which require a bit more muscle and wind.  Non-hikers can enjoy a leisurely walk, as well.

Woods Bay is about 25 miles from the city of Sumter; take US 378 East to SC 53 and follow the signs.  The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and admission is free.  For more information, please click here or call the Swan Lake Visitors Center at (803) 436-2640, or toll-free at 1-800-688-4748. 

And happy trails to you!

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