South Carolina is not known for its snow, but, with a little imagination a desperate hiker can have a white Christmas with some solid white stuff that never melts and only requires regular shoveling to find one’s car during a hurricane.
During the last global warming spell much of coastal South Carolina, (starting just east of Columbia, the state capital), was under the ocean on a vast continental shelf. As a result, today this entire area is basically a long stretch of brilliant white sand with pine trees on top. Being of a practical turn of mind, to build rural roads in this part of South Carolina people just scrape the pine trees off, dig about a foot or two down to the more compacted sand underneath, and then drive on it.
The end result is a forest of well maintained pine plantations with WHITE sand roads and big patches of WHITE sand out among the pine needles, which, when the cold wind picks up, reminds you a lot of the forest covered in light snow you get up north when the weather is very cold and clear. Welcome to a white Christmas done Southern Style.
Location: Sand Hills State Forest in South Carolina, adjacent to Sand Hills Wildlife Refuge/Cheraw State Park/H. Cooper Black Jr. Memorial Field Trial and Recreation Area/ Sand Hills Camp
Is it goat approved? Yes. I have written proof that a park ranger actually agreed to me bringing, (and even camping with – though that part didn’t work out on this trip as I had planned), a goat. Technically the goat should be leashed, but in winter the park was sparsely visited, and when not walking on well traveled roads I didn’t run into anyone.
How you get there: Take highway 1. If you’re coming from the south you’ll find it easiest to get off Hwy 20 in Camden, then take Hwy 521 north to Hwy 1. Coming from the north? Get on highway 1 and drive south till you pass through Cheraw, (pronounced “Share-ah” according to my long suffering grandmother who was embarrassed that I got it wrong), and just past Cheraw is Patrick, which sits in the middle of the forest. South of the main office is Ruby-Hartsville Road, (intersecting with Hwy 1 at a flashing light). You want to go right if headed south or left if headed north on it. Pass Wire Road and keep a look out for a dirt, (well, in this part of the state, sand), road to your right that has a bunch of grey signs. This is where you turn to go to the day parking, which is about a mile down the road on your right. It’s a big field just past the horse camp.
Time for hike: 4.6 miles, but can be easily extended by walking other trails/roads in the park. This is a loop hike.
Best season to do this hike: Winter is wonderful! The campground is empty and the park almost entirely devoid of people, (except for a few diehard horses and hikers). Based on the debris at the campsite and speaking to other visitors the park may be exceptionally popular with horse back riders when the weather is warmer. Consider if a winter visit is right for you!
Trails to Take
Starting at the roadside day parking, head east, (away from the horse camp), down the sand road you drove in on. This will intersect with another road near a picnic shelter and a large rock. Just before the intersection is what looks like a really rough stair going up a hill. This takes you up one of the two large hills that make up the “Sugarloaf Mountain”, though the larger one is probably considered the true Sugarloaf Mountain and this particular hill is like its ugly underachieving step child.
The rough stair goes up into some young pine trees and meanders along the top of this topographical anomaly, until the hill comes to an end and you have to turn around a go back. Once on the ground, head for the even bigger rock and the second, (and much larger hill), nearby. This hill has an immaculately maintained stair up its side, located just past the really huge rock. Climbing the true Sugar Loaf Mountain takes you to a walled viewing area with a pretty good panoramic view of the area. Definitely worth a visit, especially if you live in the Low Country where this is the only real elevation outside of a lighthouse!
Once done with the Sugar Loaf Mountain area, continue on the sand road that runs along the edge of the two large hills, (not on the road that runs between them). You will pass more picnic shelters and eventually reach Mountain Pond. This area has a nature trail of about 1.1 miles located behind the kiosk on the far side of the pond dam, which is a good spot to burn off energy if you have kids, but may not be exciting for adult hikers as it is essentially a bushog cut out through the woods.
The pond also has some cool picnic shelters, (including one with a barbecue pit), that can be reserved, and a duck blind on the far side of the pond. The horse camp also backs up to the opposite side of the pond.
Beyond the pond the road wanders up a hill through an area managed for woodpecker nesting. The forest is home to the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species, and trees with woodpecker cavities are marked with white bands around the trunk. While I did not spot these small black and white birds during my visit, I did hear what sounded like a woodpecker in the distance.
Another critter to look for in this area and other parts of the forest is the Fox Squirrel, the much larger relative of the more common grey squirrel that has a distinctive black spot on its head. By larger I mean the first one I saw I mistook for a young raccoon. They are that big! Not surprisingly they require much larger habitat space and more old growth forest than grey squirrels in order to live, therefore Sand Hills is one of the few places I have been and actually had more than one on a hike.
When the wildlife viewing is over, the road passes through a small gate and dead ends into another sand road. This road has open pine plantation along the edge that is easier to walk through than going down the road. Go left and walk for a ways down the edge of this new sand road until it dead ends into the paved road you originally drove in on. Go left, and a few hundred foot later the sand road that goes to the parking area will come off.
Go down this road, past the horse camp, and back to the parking lot. The horse camp is worth a visit if unoccupied. There is also a restroom, (pit toilet), and a trail map kiosk down in the camping area. However, don’t park down there if you aren’t camping – the rangers can get really funny about people doing that!
- Pine straw is gathered commercially in this forest. If you see piles of straw, rakes, or other equipment leave them be. It is not unusual for part timers and small timers to hand bale the straw, so remember if you screw up their workings it’s not the “man” you’re screwing over, it’s probably some single mother with three kids.
- Park rangers regularly patrol the forest during the weekends because bike and horse users require a permit to visit, (hikers/goat walkers do not at this time). Don’t be surprised if the park ranger has a side arm or weapon in the truck – this is not actually that weird when you consider how many miles of pine plantations he has to cover.
- Lots of deer sign in this forest, so be very careful during hunting season!
- Trail maps are available at any of the well maintained kiosks in the forest, (there’s one at almost every place you could possibly park). However, having walked the forest, treat these maps as a very rough guide for the actual trails, and some maps do not show all trails on them.
- The roads in the park are sand based. This means in heavy rain, (or with very heavy vehicles), the road may be difficult to drive on, mucky, or make you slide around alot. Which is not all that different from driving on real snow actually, but if in doubt bring the 4 wheel drive. I got in and out on moderately wet road with a two wheel drive pickup truck with new tires on the rear wheels, but the horse trailer behind me had to go into 4 wheel drive.
- Most restrooms are pit toilets, but are well maintained and usually have toilet paper.
- Don’t park at the camping area if you aren’t camping. The rangers are really strict about that. Camping requires a permit and costs $10 per night. Call the office to get a permit and they’re really great about getting it mailed out to you and arranging everything.
- Don’t bring firewood into the park, buy it at the ranger station or in Patrick. This is a working pine forest and pine beetles are bad for that sort of thing.
In Sum: Highway 1 is a very old road. If you enjoy history, add a little extra time to your trip to visit Camden, Cheraw, and the many other interesting historical markers on and around the route.