This article was first published in American Trails Magazine.
The National Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest located in Four Holes Swamp, South Carolina contains within its 18,000 acres the largest remaining stand of virgin bald cypress and tupelo gum swamp forest left anywhere in the world.
Wander along an elevated boardwalk that starts and ends at visitor center past ancient trees, black water swamp, clear pools, and wildlife. Thousand-year-old trees and native wildlife abound in this pristine sanctuary that has been untouched for millennia.
A 1.75-mile self-guiding boardwalk trail allows visitors the chance to safely venture deep into the heart of the swamp... to experience the peace and serenity that have characterized the area for centuries... to hear the sounds of bird and bug and breeze that have echoed through the trees for ages... to take a relaxing and informative walk back into time... to see a swamp the way nature intended it to be!
Located in the heart of the South Carolina Lowcountry between Columbia and Charleston, Four Holes Swamp is a 45,000-acre matrix of black water sloughs and lakes, shallow bottomland hardwoods, and deep bald cypress and tupelo gum flats— and a major tributary of the Edisto River.
Fifteen thousand of those acres make up what is known as the Francis Beidler Forest. Four Holes Swamp is a “blackwater cypress/tupelo river swamp.” The dark tannin-stained slow-flowing water gives it the “blackwater” portion of the classification.
Bald cypress trees and tupelo gum trees predominate in the deepest areas of the swamp. The term “river swamp” refers to the riverine shape of the swamp (60 miles long, by a mile and a half wide in places) and the fact that the water in the swamp is flowing.
Water levels vary wildly with the seasons, as the swamp is dependent upon rainfall for its flow. At highest water levels it can be a vast sheet of water. During dry times, it may be bone dry except for pockets of permanent water that are referred to as lakes.
Topographic changes are very subtle in the South Carolina Lowcountry. The difference in elevation from the upper end of the sanctuary to the Edisto River is about 30 feet. That is a drop of only 1.5 feet per mile. The visitor center is 35 miles from the coast, and yet the elevation there is only 55-60 feet above sea level.
The Francis Beidler Forest has been a designated Important Bird Area since 2001, highlighting the need to protect this vital resource from threats including sprawl. The protected site is a popular resting stop for many thousands of birds that migrate to South Carolina after wintering in South America. A number of these species are on Audubon’s Watch List and Common Birds in Decline, including the strikingly-colored prothonotary warbler, prolific in this particular area.
The forest of bald cypress and tupelo gum trees also supports large numbers of colonial waterbirds, such as the yellow-crowned night heron, little blue heron, great egret, white ibis, and anhinga. Over 40 years of spring breeding bird survey data reveal this site also hosts the densest (per acre) songbird nesting nationally for forested habitat in the eastern United States, with nesting hooded warbler, Swainson’s warbler, yellow-throated warbler, and yellow-billed cuckoo, to name a few. These wetlands are also home to rare plants, including dwarf trillium (Trillium pusillum) a rare flower found only in South Carolina at Four Holes Swamp at Beidler Forest.
The visitor center has been key in Audubon’s mission to connect people with nature, with an educational center, an interpretive boardwalk trail (both wheelchair accessible), several hiking miles on old logging roads, and a canoe trail along which guided trips are led, providing visitors the chance to explore deep into the swamp’s interior.
Four Holes Swamp was logged for its biggest and best bald cypress. At that time, Francis Beidler set aside some of his timberlands to remain intact. When the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy discovered in the 1960s that Francis Beidler’s heirs were selling the old growth stand of the Beidler Forest to a timber company, they purchased 3,415 acres of it to create the sanctuary.
Over the years, the Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy have grown the sanctuary to over 18,000 acres, with plans to continue expanding the protected portions of the swamp. Development from the greater Charleston area is spreading rapidly west toward the swamp, and the goal is to protect as much of the swamp and its critical upland edge as possible before that development arrives.
Visitors will find a variety of programs for different interests. Student groups, Scouts, or anyone else can sign up for a guided boardwalk tour with one of the experienced staff. Each tour takes about two hours, and picnic facilities offer a nice place for lunch either before or after the walk. For “Early Bird” walks visitors can experience what the swamp is like at dawn on a guided walk where the identification and natural history of birds and other wildlife are highlighted. Canoe and kayak trips include the guide, boats, paddles, and life jackets.