Santee National Wildlife Refuge
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Located an easy jaunt off I-95, the user-friendly Santee National Wildlife Refuge (2125 Fort Watson Rd., 803/478-2217, www.fws.gov/santee, daily dawn–dusk, free) actually comprises several federally-run locations on the eastern shore of Lake Marion. It combines hiking and biking trails, history, some of the best inland bird-watching in the state, and even a beach of sorts.
The well-done visitors center (Tues.–Fri., 8 a.m.–4 p.m., first, second, and third Sat. 8 a.m.–4 p.m.) is at the main Bluff Unit of the refuge, with a nice overlook of the lake and an easy walk down to the sandy shore.
A very short drive away is the site of Fort Watson, built by the British on a 3,000-year-old Indian mound, which was then on the shores of the Santee River. Francis Marion caused the British surrender of Fort Watson in 1781 by building a log tower from which to lay down artillery fire. Each October sees a Revolutionary War encampment on-site in honor of the victory.
The Indian mound itself, overgrown with vegetation and the largest known example on the American coastal plain, still remains today, complete with wooden stairs to the top. Don’t bother looking for artifacts, though. There really aren’t any left, and besides, it’s illegal to take any out of the park.
On the south side of I-95 is the Dingle Unit, home to a Carolina Bay and an extensive walking trail. Further to the east is the Pine Island Unit, which you’ll have to drive and hike to. It has a ramp, and is thus accessible by water. Just to the east of Pine Island is the Cuddo Island Unit, which features nearly eight miles of driving and three miles of hiking and biking trails through its rich habitat.
Bird-watchers throughout Santee National Wildlife Refuge will particularly enjoy the rich variety of migratory ducks, geese, and swans who make their way here November–February. A variety of raptors, warblers, and other birds are chock-a-block as well. Keep in mind that during particularly sensitive times of the year, certain parts of the Santee National Wildlife Refuge are closed to protect wildlife. Call ahead.
© Jim Morekis from Moon South Carolina, 4th Edition