By David Kuczkir
The Lowcountry is truly a unique place. A low-lying coastal area stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to Hilton Head Island, the Lowcountry is replete with virginal barrier islands, rare and exotic wildlife, and resplendent waterways.
The juggernaut of these waterways is the Ashley River, a South Carolina State Scenic River. Ashley’s 24,000-acre historical district, with 130 historical national landmarks, is one of the largest in the country. The network of waterways is an all-year playground for canoeists and kayakers. What’s more, paddling Ashley is tantamount to traveling back to the days when everyday life depended on the ebb and flow of the tides.
The 36-mile Ashley River is tidal and flows from her swampy headwaters in Berkeley County, South Carolina, to the famed steepled city, Charleston. In February 2014 the conservation organization American Rivers anointed Ashley a Blue Trail. According to American Rivers Senior Director Gerrit Jöbsis, “A Blue Trail is a waterway adopted by a local community that is dedicated to improving family-friendly activities, such as fishing, paddling, and wildlife-watching, and conserving riverside land.”
The Ashley River Blue Trail (ARBT) is 30 miles in length, from Sland’s Bridge to the mouth of Towne Creek, and is split into the north and the south trails.
The sweet spot of the ARBT, and of the river, is a 15-mile swath between Drayton Hall, a pre-Revolutionary plantation, and Bacon’s Bridge. Paddling upriver, the first six miles is a no wake zone, home to three world-renown riverside plantations: Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, and Middleton Place.
The 1738 main house on Drayton Hall, framed in romantic early-English gardens, is remarkably the only intact plantation house on the river. The 24 other significant plantations were either burned in the Revolutionary or the Civil Wars, or destroyed in the 1804 hurricane or the 1886 earthquake.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, founded in 1672, has the oldest naturally landscaped gardens in America. Thick with flowering camellias, azaleas, crape myrtles and fragrant magnolias that pop throughout the seasons, the gardens are the birthplace of the American tourism industry.
Middleton Place was established in 1755. Visitors from around the globe pay homage to the symmetrical Butterfly Lakes (twin lakes that resemble butterfly wings) and the meticulously manicured gardens. The Garden Club of America has called the 65-acre oasis “the most important and most interesting garden in America.”
The river affords gorgeous vistas of the gardens, and of the Drayton house.
The Ashley River Heritage Trail (ARHT), a trail within a trail, is a 5.5-mile float between Middleton Place and Bacon’s Bridge. “It stretches into the upper reaches where the water’s skinny, more suitable for paddlers,” explains Jöbsis. The surroundings are intimate, dimmed by the canopy of massive oak boughs snaking out over the slow-flowing, tannin-colored water.
The ARHT showcases eight archeological sites comprised of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century shipwrecks and landings that are all exposed at low tide.
Near the northern terminus lies a well-preserved 1697 trading town, Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site. Archeological digs are ongoing. The 1757 fort is the best preserved tabby fortification in the country. Portage along the bank then explore this unique historical landmark.
Both trails only scratch the surface of Ashley’s repertoire of things to do and see. According to Jöbsis, “The great thing about the Ashley is it’s tidal.” Plan the tides right and you can cover a lot of river in one day. Jobsis’ enjoys paddling Ashley’s myriad of creeks, “They are an excellent sanctuary for paddlers from motorboats and allows one to get lost among the tidal marshes.”
If you Go:
The 55-room Inn at Middleton Place is located on the scenic Ashely River. Rooms have fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling windows that afford sweeping vistas of the Ashley and of the sunrise. Call 800-542-4774, 843-556-0500 or e-mail [email protected]
Outfitters and Guides
Charleston Kayak Company provides guides and outfitting services for kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding. Also offered is a unique guided-kayak tour of the Blackwater Cypress Swamp (Nov thru April). Call 843-628-2879 or e-mail [email protected]
Flow Info: NOAA Tide Predictions for the Ashley River
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