Occupying pretty much the entire area between Beaufort  and Charleston , the ACE Basin—the acronym signifies its role as the collective estuary of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers—is one of the most enriching natural experiences America has to offer. The Basin’s three core rivers, the Edisto being the largest, are the framework for a matrix of waterways criss-crossing its approximately 350,000 acres of salt marsh.
It’s this intimate relationship with the tides that makes the area so enjoyable, and also what attracted so many plantations throughout its history (canals and dikes from the old rice paddies are still visible throughout). Other uses have included tobacco, corn, and lumbering.
While the ACE Basin can in no way be called “pristine,” it’s a testament to the power of nature that after 6,000 years of human presence and often intense cultivation the Basin manages to retain much of its untamed feel.
The ACE Basin is so big that it is actually broken up into several parts for management purposes under the umbrella of the ACE Basin Project (www.acebasin.net ), a task force begun in 1988 by the state of South Carolina , the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and various private firms and conservation groups.
The Project is now considered a model for responsible watershed preservation techniques in a time of often rampant coastal development. A host of species, both common and endangered, thrive in the area, including wood storks, alligators, sturgeon, loggerheads, teals, and bald eagles.
About 12,000 acres of the ACE Basin Project comprise the Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge (8675 Willtown Rd., 843/889-3084, www.fws.gov/acebasin , grounds open daylight–dark year-round, office open weekdays 7:30 a.m.–4 p.m.), run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The historic 1828 Grove Plantation House is in this portion of the Basin and in fact houses the refuge’s headquarters. Sometimes featured on local tours of homes, it’s one of only three antebellum homes left in the ACE Basin. Surrounded by lush, ancient oak trees, it’s really a sight in and of itself.
This section of the Refuge, the Edisto Unit, is almost entirely composed of impounded rice paddies from the area’s role as a plantation before the Civil War. Restored rice trunks—the tidal gates used to manage waterflow into the paddies—are still used to maintain the right amount of water in the impounded areas, which are now rife with birds since the refuge is along the Atlantic Flyway. You may not always see them, but you’ll definitely hear their calls echoing over the miles of marsh. (Speaking of miles, there are literally miles of walking and biking trails throughout the Edisto Unit, through both wetland and forest.)
To get to the Edisto Unit of the Hollings/ACE Basin NWR, take U.S. 17 to Highway 174 (going all the way down this route takes you to Edisto Island) and turn right onto Willtown Road. The unpaved entrance road is about two miles ahead on your left. There are restrooms and a few picnic tables, but no other facilities of note.
You can also visit the two parts of the Combahee Unit of the Refuge, which offers a similar scene of trails among impounded wetlands along the Combahee River, with parking. It’s further west near Yemassee. Get there by taking a left off U.S. 17 onto Highway 33. The larger portion of the Combahee Unit is very soon after the turnoff, and the smaller, more northerly portion about five miles up the road.
About 135,000 acres of the entire ACE Basin falls under the protection of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (www.nerrs.noaa.gov/acebasin ). The South Carolina DNR also runs two Wildlife Management Areas, Donnelly WMA (843/844-8957, www.dnr.sc.gov , Mon.–Sat. 8 a.m.–5 p.m. year-round) and Bear Island WMA (843/844-8957, www.dnr.sc.gov , Mon.–Sat. dawn–dusk Feb. 1–Oct. 14), both of which provide rich opportunities for birding and wildlife observation.
Over 128,000 acres of the ACE Basin Project are permanently protected through conservation easements, management agreements, and fee title purchases. While traditional uses such as farming, fishing, and hunting do indeed continue in the ACE Basin, the area is off-limits to the gated communities, which are sprouting like mildew all along the Carolina coast. Because it is so well defended, the ACE Basin also functions like a huge outdoor laboratory for the coastal scientific community, with constant research going on in botany, zoology, microbiology, and marine science.