Sept/Oct 2020Trekking the Trail By Cindy Thompson
Along the scenic highways and byways of South Carolina, there is an epic sampling of picturesque natural landscapes that you can view right out of your car window. But if you are looking for an off-road, mountains-to-sea adventure, the Palmetto Trail is ready and waiting. So, let’s lace up those walking shoes, fill up our water bottles and get ready for some fun in the great outdoors!
The Palmetto Trail spans more than 350 miles of continuous maintained passages, all the way from Oconee to Awendaw. Linked pathways traverse mountainous corridors, rolling hills, wetlands and coastal causeways, while strategically zigzagging through historic towns and cities along the way. However, developing and connecting hundreds of miles of earthen paths, bridges and boardwalks most certainly did not happen overnight.
A small but industrious team, known as the Palmetto Conservation Foundation (PCF), is laser-focused on building, maintaining and expanding the trail with hopes of one day, soon, completing the 500-mile span. Only 150 miles to go! This PCF crew of twelve strategically manage the Upstate, Midlands and Lowcountry sections of the trail to fulfill this mission. Countless volunteers have flocked in to help, willing to lend a hand wherever they are needed.
“We have a small staff of twelve people, most part-time, who are primarily responsible for all aspects of the Palmetto Trail,” says Midlands Region Trail Coordinator Furman Miller. “These efforts are supplemented by volunteers and other organized groups such as Scouts, church or business organizations and school programs, as well as the occasional professional business. There are currently approximately two dozen regular volunteers who maintain or monitor specific passages to assist the coordinators. Other projects will have volunteers who only work that specific project, be it a construction site or some community support activity. So, volunteer numbers vary.”
Pillars of Success
Representing home base operations in Columbia, Kat Crawford explains that decades of teamwork and team building have led up to this moment. “More than twenty years ago, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation and a small group of visionaries imagined a trail stretching across South Carolina, from mountains to sea, and they went to work. In 1994, the Palmetto Trail became a reality when PCF broke ground on the Lake Moultrie Passage in Berkeley County. The first passage was built on land owned by Santee Cooper and constructed by experts and amateurs alike, many of whom were volunteers.”
Today, thanks to industrious PCF staff and volunteers, the Palmetto trail provides free public access to many of the state’s premier natural areas — and this attracts a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts. There are thousands of Carolinians who regularly walk or stroll along trail segments that are within a short drive from home. Then, there are nature enthusiasts who are drawn to observe native species and study ecosystems. And a big round of applause for the remarkable group of hikers, runners and cyclists who have earned well-deserved bragging rights by completing all the trail passages! From recreational hikers to cross country runners, all of these unique groups are growing in numbers by the day.
And as the trail has grown in popularity, nearby restaurants, hotels and shops have grown in popularity, too. So, these days, PCF staff are wearing a few more hats. They are not only handy with a hammer and chainsaw, they are also pretty good at building successful partnerships.
Miller points out that since the PCF started up in 1989, partnering groups have helped bring the trail from dream to fruition. “Initial easements for the Trail came from government and businesses such as SCE&G, Santee-Cooper, SCPRT, SCDNR, SCFC, Duke Power and USFS, to name a few. The trail route was then slowly expanded through private landowner easements, Rails-To-Trails conversions, and collaboration with local governments for urban passages such as Newberry, Columbia and Spartanburg.”
Miller describes the trail as a “spine” that has connected significant natural landmarks, points of interest and awe-inspiring vistas all the way from the mountains to the sea.
“The SCDNR and the Palmetto Conservation Foundation share a common goal of providing quality outdoor recreational opportunities for South Carolina’s citizens,” says SCDNR Chief of Wildlife Billy Dukes. “Through nearly 1.1 million acres in the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) Program, the SCDNR provides abundant opportunity for hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, hiking and other forms of natural resources-dependent recreation. The Palmetto Trail and similar efforts are outstanding opportunities for our citizens to experience and appreciate the outdoors.”
By connecting rural corridors and nature’s finest gems, the Palmetto Trail is introducing new visitors to cascading waterfalls, rushing rivers, native flora and fauna, coastal ecosystems – perhaps for the very first time.
“The trail currently passes through fourteen counties, three national forests, numerous state and local parks, and many small towns and communities across the state,” says Miller. And efforts are underway to soon add a significant connector in the Upstate and new passages between Columbia and the coastal region.
A New Wave of Interest
Already a natural haven for wildlife, the Palmetto Trail has also become a welcome escape for families seeking fresh air and exercise in wide open outdoor spaces. The migration of new trail hikers was an unexpected surprise for coordinators.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our passages, such as Peak to Prosperity and the Blue Wall Passage, were heavily populated,” says Crawford. “We not only encouraged users to practice social distancing, but to venture out on some of the less populated passages of the trail. Many people started venturing out into the other passages and finding that there was so much more that the trail had to offer.”
“We are proud that we were able to keep the trail open and accessible for visitors during this pandemic,” Miller adds. “The trail definitely saw an increase in users, with some passages seeing exponential increases in hikers and cyclists. We accommodated this growth by increasing the trail presence of our coordinators, adding informational signage to trailhead areas, encouraging social distancing, and providing additional recommendations through our social media.”
According to Crawford, “The best way for people to follow along with updates and events regarding the Palmetto Trail is through our social media sites. We post daily to keep everyone safe and up to date. This is the best place to find information on recent trail damage, volunteer opportunities and special events. Our website (www.palmettoconservation.org) provides trail users with free printable maps of each of our passages, as well as important updates. We have also recently uploaded our trail maps to the Avenza Map App so that users can access our maps without needing Wi-Fi.”
Through social media and blogs, many Carolina residents were able to follow along with world explorer Tom Mullikin and his team as they completed the South Carolina Seven Wonders Expedition in July. As covered in previous editions of South Carolina Wildlife, Mullikin has completed dives in oceans around the world and scaled some of the earth’s tallest peaks. This expedition, navigating each passage of the Palmetto Trail, brought home the importance of natural resources conservation as well as how necessary outdoor exercise is to our overall well-being.
The Seven Wonders expedition also underscores the PCF mission. According to Miller, “We hope that more people will realize what a wonderful asset the trail is and how it benefits both them and the state. We hope that they will help spread the word about the trail and support trail efforts . . . to allow us to continue to maintain and grow the trail for current and future generations to enjoy.”
Cindy Thompson is managing editor of the South Carolina Wildlife magazine.