If you grew up in a place where gardening meant you ate, you probably have a great grandmother with an extraordinary green thumb hanging off a limb somewhere in the family tree. Or possibly perched on a ladder next to it doing some judicious pruning and tent caterpillar burning while planning what she’s going to do with all those apples that didn’t fall to far from the tree.
Mine planted a lot of things, both pretty and productive, but the pride and joy, the one item my great grandfather’s snapper lawnmower had better never snap off, were the red spider lilies. When I grew up and got into native plants I began to realize that the flowers my grandparents had cherished – azaleas, irises, and hydrangeas among others, were all foreign imports. Even those beloved red spider lilies sprouting on my tormented grandfather’s lawn are native to Japan were they decorate graves instead of sod.
But then I found out we have our own versions – the piedmont azalea, the wood hydrangea, native irises, and even an equivalent for those lovely, lacey red spider lilies. South Carolina has its own spider lily – the exceeding rare Shoals Spider Lily. The Shoals Spider Lily (hymenocallis coronaria) is an endangered flower that grows in a very dangerous place – right in the middle of flood prone rivers. Hydroelectric dams removed much of this historically abundant flower, (first noted in the 1700s by William Bartram – namesake of the Bartram Trail in Georgia), by covering the shoals on which it lives and regulating the rivers to prevent flooding. However, some populations still exist in SC, GA, AL, and NC, including right in the middle of the Catawba River at Landsford Canal State Park. So come and enjoy a rare site – a river in bloom!
Is it goat approved? Nope. Trails are very popular and the park rangers very vigilant.
How you get there: Google Landsford Canal State Park and go to the first entrance to park. Note there is a $5 per person charge to visit.
Time for hike: The distance for this hike is 3 miles total out and back.
Best season to do this hike: Go when the lilies are in bloom, starting in late April into May (with the peak generally around Mother’s Day).
Trails to Take
The trail is exceedingly simple. Go in entrance 1, Park Drive. You will pass 2 ranger residences almost directly across from one another. Right after that on the left is an UNMARKED gravel drive that goes into the woods and looks pretty darn sketchy. This is actually the drive way to the gravel lot in front of the old Lock Keepers House, (which is now an unmanned and apparently shuttered museum). There is a plaque from the Daughters of the American Revolution nearby with more history about the canal system as well. You can drive up and park, admire the stonework, and drive back out and down to the actual parking loop for the trail head.
The parking area is at a large picnic spot on the Catawba River. The trail head for the canal trail is on the edge of the river behind the rustic log cabin. The trail splits into a “nature trail” that runs along the river and a “canal trail” that more closely follows the original canal path and ruins. Personally, take the canal trail out and the nature trail back in. While most “nature trails” are not that interesting, the one here is – expect turtles, herons, and great river views for your return trip!
Anyway, follow the signs for the canal trail, which quickly begins to pass ruins that are open for climbing and exploring and not behind the velvet ropes of your standard outdoor museum. The diversion dam that once supplied the canal with water is still clearly visible, as is the guard lock, the bed of the original canal, and the tow path that accompanies it. The trail mostly follows the old tow path, which winds along the contour of the hill, taking you past the remains of a bridge that once crossed the canal, and a culvert for diverting a stream UNDER the canal surprisingly enough. The canal eventually comes up to a huge section of towering stone work – this was originally the location of a mill and large pool where barrages could stop to load and unload flour. Now the trail goes down the canal bed through these towering stone retaining walls, (there is very little evidence of the original mill left).
The trail follows the canal bed, then climbs back up onto the tow path to take the outdoor history enthusiast to the final grand piece of this outdoor museum – the upper lifting locks and a stone bridge at the canal terminus. The locks themselves are cool, but even cooler is a sign indicating the Great Indian Warrior Trading Path. This ancient thoroughfare is part of a longer path that connected the Great Lakes to the southern US, eventually ending all the way down in Augusta, GA. With the arrival of settlers the route became known as the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, and provided access to the historically important towns of Camden, Chester, Newberry, and Rock Hill. Today the path has all but vanished – except for this remarkably preserved stone bridge.
The trail terminates at the second parking lot, so turn around at the lifting locks and head back. This time on the nature trail! And don’t forget the lily overlook!
- To reiterate what every single sign will already tell you – the Shoals Spider Lily will not grow outside of its very specific habitat. Trying to grown the bulbs elsewhere doesn’t work – so pilfering is pointless.
- It costs money ($5 per person) to visit the park…but the gate is self serve…
- There is a canoe trail for up close viewing of the lilies. The large trail kiosk between the parking lot and the log cabin gives further directions on how to use this trail – it winds among a number of river islands as I understand it.
- Realize that you will need a canoe to view the lilies up close – these flowers really do live in the middle of the river. For close up photos from afar you will need more than digital zoom on your cell phone if you are standing at the viewing platform.
The Shoals Spider Lily blooms once a year, in early spring. Each bloom opens at night and lasts only a single day. How fleeting an existence for something so beautiful.