Driving the ACE Basin

West Side

Begin this driving tour by turning off US 17 onto SC 303 about 10 miles south of Jacksonboro.
After about 2.5 miles the road passes through the tiny town of Green Pond. Along the roadsides just beyond Green Pond look for a variety of lowcountry wildflowers blooming in season such as leopard’s bane, brown-eyed susan, partridge pea, goldenrod and many others.

Picture of Map of ACE BasinThe highway then crosses the upper Ashepoo, just a tiny trickle of water through bottomland hardwoods. In the open areas on both sides of road grow blackberries, elderberries, arrow weed, and across the old bridge on left, native wisteria blooms in spring.

After about another mile turn left onto state road Road 41, also known as Ritter Road.

This road soon crosses the upper Ashepoo again. At the bridge and in the cypress/tupelo swamp just beyond look for red-shouldered hawks, yellow-crowned night herons, and in the spring listen for the ringing songs of prothonotary and hooded warblers. At dawn and dusk the raucous calls of barred owls echo from the dark swamp.

Continue a mile and a half to the little settlement of Catholic Hill, dominated by the quaint St. James Catholic Church. The historical marker in the church yard tells of settlers from Ireland that emigrated to the area and built the first church here in 1832.

Two miles beyond Catholic Hill turn left onto White Hall Road (Road 119). On the right, a cattle pasture dotted with isolated live oaks provides good habitat for blue birds, loggerhead shrikes, cattle egrets, and Mississippi kites. Well off the road on the right, a wood stork rookery has developed in recent years and these large wading birds regularly soar overhead during the spring and early summer.

Farther along the road a white fence on the right leads eventually to the entrance to White Hall, a former rice plantation. The historic house with it avenue of live oaks can be observed from the road but is private property.

After crossing the railroad tracks, turn right onto Combahee Road (Road 66) at the sign for Cuckhold's (locally pronounced "Ker-kel's") Creek landing. To reach the landing, turn left onto the dirt road at a country church. The landing lies just a few yards beyond at a languid eddy on a bend of the creek which eventually empties into the Combahee River. A large beech tree grows on the right of the landing, and on the left a red cedar embraces a water locust. A dense stand of arrowhead lines the far side of the narrow creek.

On leaving the landing take the dirt fork to the left back to the paved road and turn left, crossing the creek. Broken-bank rice fields, dominated by cattails, wild rice and plume grass crowd against the roadway on both sides. In late summer look for the tall pink blooms of seaside mallow, a type of wild hibiscus.

Perpendicular to the road, a canal which probably once served to flood the upper field (on the right) runs straight off the creek through a cypress covered break in the original dike along the creek. The canal passes under the road bed, originally a cross dike during the rice planting days.

The remainder of this driving trail now skirts first the east side and then the west side of the upper Combahee River, once the major rice growing area of the present ACE Basin. Most of this area consists of private plantations, many formerly owned by Nathaniel Heyward, who conducted the state’s largest rice growing operation.

Just past the entrance to Combahee Plantation the road passes through a stand of spruce pine mixed with hardwoods and then crosses a managed wetland growing in giant foxtail grass, smart weed and other waterfowl food plants. This area will be kept dry in spring and summer to encourage growth of these plants, then burned in the fall and flooded to attract waterfowl during the winter. Well off to the right and just visible from the road sits the live oak made famous in the movie "Forrest Gump."

The route then passes the entrance to Bluff Plantation with a spectacular avenue of live oaks behind an ancient brick fence. Continue to the entrance of Cherokee Plantation, a huge private holding, and notice the other old canals used to move water from the tidal river inland to the old rice fields. Eventually hardwoods give way to planted pine as Combahee Road approaches US 17A. Here turn left and after crossing the Combahee, proceed to the little town of Yemassee, a distance of about 7 miles.

At the flashing light in Yemassee, turn left and drive about three-tenths of a mile, then left again just before the double railroad tracks. After less than half a mile, turn right onto River Road and cross the tracks. River Road traces the west side of the Combahee, passing several old rice plantations and eventually ending at US 17.

Soon after crossing the tracks look for U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service signs on the left. These mark the boundaries of the Combahee Unit of the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge. This area of mostly hardwoods offers good birding almost year round, with possible glimpses of deer and wild turkeys as they cross the road. Gated access roads to the refuge can be walked at any time but are closed to vehicle traffic.

After about four miles, the road passes the entrance to Auld Brass Plantation which includes a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The unusual fence suggests Wright's modern architectural style. About 3 miles farther, turn left onto the dirt entrance to the public landing on Sugar Hill Creek.

The open parking area at the landing includes good habitat for painted and indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks and other tropical species in the spring and summer, and along the edges white-throated, song and swamp sparrows in the winter. Among the thick stands of arrowhead along the creek, look for a delicate vine called leather-flower, blooming in mid-spring.

Return to River Road and continue to the left, passing the entrance to Bonny Hall, another private plantation with a large white house and a pecan orchard behind a hedge of holly. Less than a mile beyond, also on the left, note the sign that marks the entrance to the Bonny Hall portion of the refuge. Visitors can walk the entrance road which may yield a variety of songbirds, depending on the season.

A mile or so after the entrance to the refuge, River Road returns to US 17, about 8 miles south of SC 303, where this driving trail started. This trail (about 50 miles total) can be traversed in as little as an hour and a half, or in a half-day or more depending on the number of stops you make.

East Side

Although the majority of the ACE Basin's 350,000 acres are in private ownership or accessible
only by boat, several roadways probe the heart of the basin, offering glimpses of the area’s varied habitats. The route we have chosen requires some backtracking, but return trips present new viewing angles and another chance to observe the abundant wildlife. Because most of the ACE Basin consists of private property, our tour follows public roads with stops at boat landings and other public access points. Older or physically impaired wildlife watchers may easily enjoy the sights and sounds of the wetlands that surround us on this driving tour.

Our journey begins 7 miles below Jacksonboro on US 17 and ends about 60 miles later just a few miles farther south, again on US 17. The entire trip requires at least half a day with plenty of opportunities
to stop and observe the ACE Basin’s unique collection of habitats.

Traveling out of Jacksonboro, turn left off US 17 onto Bennetts Point Road (Road 26). After driving 10.5 miles through mostly mixed pines and hardwoods, park at Brickyard Boat Landing on the right of the roadway. A short walk to the top of the bridge over the Ashepoo River provides one of the few elevated views of the ACE Basin’s tens of thousands of acres of managed wetlands and tidal marshes.

Traveling out of Jacksonboro, turn left off US 17 onto Bennetts Point Road (Road 26). After driving 10.5 miles through mostly mixed pines and hardwoods, park at Brickyard Boat Landing on the right of the roadway. A short walk to the top of the bridge over the Ashepoo River provides one of the few elevated views of the ACE Basin’s tens of thousands of acres of managed wetlands and tidal marshes.

The Ashepoo River bisects the wedge-shaped ACE Basin, while the Combahee and Edisto rivers more or less define the basin's borders. This driving tour crosses only the Ashepoo among the namesake rivers. Swirling beneath the bridge the dark, muddy waters flow seaward (to the right) on the ebb tide and inland (to the left) on the flood tide. Nutrients trapped by this ebb and flow sustain the basin's abundant flora and fauna. Barn swallows nest on the bridge supports, and migrating tree swallows, rough-winged swallows, and occasionally bank swallows and cliff swallows dart and swoop beneath the bridge or rest on the adjacent powerlines. Watch these wires throughout our trip, as birds perch along them like clothespins on a laundry line.

On the right along the brackish river, black needle rush dominates the wet, irregularly flooded landscape. Slightly higher hummocks support thick forests of palmetto, pine, oak and wax myrtle. To the left of the roadway, stretching to the east, the natural environment has been altered to create impoundments where water levels can be controlled. Giant cord grass grows abundantly along the dikes that hold these brackish waters, while thick stands of cattails emerge from the shallows.

The entire vista, on both sides of the road, encompasses just part of the 12,000-acre Bear Island Wildlife Management Area, a state-owned property managed for wintering waterfowl and other wetland wildlife. In the vast expanse of sky above this watery, grassy plain look for soaring eagles, anhingas, wood storks and vultures. In fall and winter active flocks of wigeons, teals, pintails, mallards, black and other puddle ducks crisscross these productive marshes.

One mile from Brickyard Bridge a viewing platform provides a close up view of a managed wetland. The ACE Basin contains some 26,000 acres of managed wetlands, many created during the colonial
rice cultures of 17th-19th centuries. Flocks of waterfowl, wading birds and coots can be seen from this vantage point.

Driving another 1/4 mile along Road 26 we arrive at the main entrance (on the left) to Bear Island WMA. The area offers a variety of public recreational opportunities and a full visit takes several hours (see section on Bear Island WMA). A quick stop at the kiosk allows a view of a variety of wildlife in the wetlands on either side. The many species of waterfowl, abundant in the fall and winter, dwindle mostly to mottled ducks during the remainder of the year. The gate area, however, often provides a good look at herons, egrets, cormorants, coots, willets, yellowlegs, wood storks, terns, gulls and many other birds, dependent on season and water levels. Bald eagles (at least 37 pairs nest in the ACE Basin) regularly soar overhead and perch sometimes in the trees on the far edge of the impoundment to the right of the gate.

Here, as in many of the basin's old rice fields, alligators sun on the banks or float partially submerged, just their eyes and nostrils showing. Blue crabs patrol the shallow edges of the dark waters, and mullet occasionally jump in the canal on the left of the access road. Juvenile saltwater fish and invertebrates ride the flooding tides into impoundments; those capable of tolerating a wide range of salinity survive and grow, establishing a highly productive food chain.

At the edge of this wetland, a water control structure, built of heavy treated timbers, regulates flow to maintain precise water levels. These primitive-looking trunks, developed by the early rice planters for use throughout the coastal area, and needing few refinements in 300 years, can be adjusted to manipulate movement of the tide into or out of the impoundments. Waterfowl managers, by controlling water levels, enhance the growth of wigeon grass and other food plants preferred by wintering waterfowl. Given the basin’s very flat topography, so close to sea level, just a few feet of tidal rise or fall will submerge or drain hundreds of acres in a matter of hours.

Returning again to the paved road, drive 3 miles and follow the road to the right another quarter of a mile to Bennett's Point Landing. On the left, just before the landing is the field station for the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve. This facility provides quarters and dockage for scientists studying the pristine waters of the St. Helena Sound. Adjacent to the landing, B & B Seafood Co. typifies the many small, isolated commercial seafood docks along the South Carolina coast. Across Mosquito Creek (a tributary of the Ashepoo River), acres of saltmarsh stretch into the ACE Basin's National Estuarine Research Reserve. From the landing look for brown pelicans, several species of gulls and terns and, in the fall and winter, such typical saltmarsh inhabitants as horned grebes, red-breasted mergansers and double-crested cormorants.