Photos and Article by Ashby Gale
Have you ever walked along the shores of Edisto in search of that perfect sand dollar or ever elusive shark tooth? How about the curiosity that arose when you saw that graceful bird in the salt marsh—the one with the snow white feathers and the long slender neck? Now try to imagine those same shores, marshes and birds without the natural landscape. Not a pretty sight. Those very scenic backdrops are what Edisto Beach State Park is proud to protect and provide as a resource to the public!
Nestled within the 1.5 million acres of the ACE Basin, the 1255-acre Edisto Beach State Park is a treasure all its own. From shell strewn beaches to bird filled marshes, the land boasts a multitude of natural features that draw in a wide range of visitors every year.
Purchased in 1935, the South Carolina Forestry Commission acquired the property from Edisto Beach Inc. In the three years that followed, the Civilian Conservation Corps built numerous structures on the park, including a bathhouse (the current office), five cabins, a caretaker’s house, and the maintenance shop and picnic shelters. The park was officially opened to the public in the summer of 1937.
Though there are current "lights out at night” practices in place for the loggerhead sea turtles, in 1942 the blackout was for national defense. EBSP also served as headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard in 1944. Starting in the summer of 1967, the park became included in the management of South Carolina Parks, Recreation & Tourism, through which it has operated to the present day.
Unique Cultural Features
The earliest signs of civilization on Edisto Island date back to 4500 years ago! Even though the first recorded European settlers reached Edisto in 1562, and Native Americans inhabited the area much earlier, the late Archaic Indians can lay claim to the first settlement. This record of life is visible as a midden, or mound of oyster and mussel shells, locally called the Spanish Mount. The Spanish Mount was first recorded in 1666 by English explorer Robert Sandford, who described the pile as "discernible a good way to sea.” From this original sighting, the midden was anywhere from 15–20 feet high, and half an acre wide!
Middens served no spiritual or ritualistic purpose other than acting as a refuse pile. Excavations in the 1970s by a University of South Carolina team of archaeology students revealed pottery shards, animal bones and worked flint also present in the shell pile. These artifacts are on display at the Environmental Learning Center. The Spanish Mount is situated on the end of the Spanish Mount Trail, 1.7 miles from the Ranger Station, and on the banks of Scott Creek.
The other cultural landmark found in the park is an 1850 granite marker from the original U.S. Coastal Survey, performed by Alexander D. Bache, the great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin! Bache noted a problem in surveying techniques of the time: metal rulers did not remain at fixed lengths—they expanded and contracted with warmer and cooler temperatures, respectively. So, Bache created a 20-foot-long measuring device that wouldn’t change length from expansion in the hot coastal sun. This ruler of "invariable length,” was composed of a bimetallic strip of metal encased in a tin tube.
To accurately map the eastern coast, the U.S. Coastal Survey needed a level tract of land that accommodated a baseline of seven miles. Mapping procedures of the 1800s involved triangulation, a technique of placing triangles along the geography by always using one side of the previous triangle. Therefore, a precisely measured line of seven miles would maintain precision over great distances, taking into account measurement error.
It took a crew of 10 workers one month to clear and grade a 20-foot-wide path for the 6.75 mile baseline. Then, over 13 days, two of the Bache-Wurdemann measuring devices were leapfrogged 1,787 times to measure the baseline. At each end of the line there sits a 2-ton granite marker. After 43 days and a crew of 10 men, the baseline was complete! In 1992, three survey workers used GPS technology to survey the same line in one hour. The results: Bache and his crew were only off by 2.4 inches!
Seven baselines were created, from Alabama west to Florida, and north to Maine. Of the seven, the Edisto baseline is the oldest intact line. One marker is found behind the Environmental Learning Center and can be accessed by a short, educational trail; the other marker is at Botany Bay, located near the Indian Point Trail.
Unique Natural Features
Natural resources located on the park include 900 acres of maritime forest, of which four miles of ADA approved trails wind through, and 400 acres of salt marsh around Scott and Big Bay Creeks. Located down Oyster Row Lane, access to Big Bay Creek is available for boaters at the Boat Landing. Interested fisherman can take the short walk to the Learning Center and set up on the Fishing Dock out back, for opportunities to catch red drum, sheepshead, Atlantic croaker, mullet and other estuarine fish.
For those interested in a different scene, an additional 1.5 miles of beachfront provides countless opportunities to search for large seashells and Pleistocene fossils that wash in from offshore deposits. Edisto is known for the wide variety of fossils that wash in from a late Pleistocene deposit, dating back 11,000 – 50,000 years ago. If you find a shiny black artifact on the beach, bring it by the Learning Center for identification! Animals found in the assemblage include mammoths, saber-tooth cats, and ground sloths 20 feet tall, armadillos 7 feet long, bison, horses and even giant beavers.
During the summer, however, another animal basks in the limelight—or moonlight, that is! Starting in May and lasting until mid-August, nesting loggerhead sea turtles come to the sloping shores to lay their nests at the bases of dunes. Using her back flippers, the 3 to 4-foot-long mother turtle digs a light bulb shaped nest to lay an average of 120 leathery eggs, each the size of a ping pong ball. Each clutch incubates below the sand for 45 – 75 days. Once the turtles start to hatch, they use teamwork to move sand downward, small amounts at a time. When the first few hatchlings reach the top couple inches of sand, they wait for the sand to reflect the cool night temperatures, before "boiling” out of the nest. Once free, the hatchlings head toward the brightest object on the horizon. Naturally, this point is the breaking waves and the moonlight and starlight reflected on the ocean. However, beachside development has indirectly affected hatchling journeys by the introduction of lights (both inside and out) to the coastline. If a hatchling expends too much energy wandering through dunes to a house light, it may not have enough reserved to make the 3-day journey to the Sargasso Sea (mats of floating seaweed) in the middle of the Atlantic. So, remember to keep your lights out from May 1 through October 31!
Environmental Education Opportunities
Since its opening in 2004, the Environmental Learning Center was created to help visitors to Edisto understand the importance of the ACE Basin and its resources, while providing interactive displays and exhibits about the various ecosystems.
A variety of programs are held at the center and around the park, hosted by the Interpretive Staff and seasonal employees. Programs change every month, and updated schedules can be found online at southcarolinaparks.com/edistobeach. Every day at noon (Tuesday – Saturday) a feeding of the aquarium animals is held for the public. A host of other programs are offered throughout the year, including marsh ecology, plant walks, bird hikes, shell and fossil hunts, sea creature programs, historical tours, seining programs and many more.
Special programs include monthly wilderness survival courses, ranger-led programs on outdoor activities and the popular loggerhead sea turtle night walks held during June and July on Tuesday and Thursday nights. (Advanced registration is required.) Participants are engaged in a short presentation about the loggerhead sea turtle life history and biology before the walks begin. Using turtle safe red lights, guests are led down the beach at night to watch for nesting mothers or emerging hatchlings—one of the only night walk programs offered to the public in the state!
The Environmental Learning Center is open Tuesday – Saturday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. General park hours are 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily, and extended during Daylight Savings Time. Park admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children ages 6–15, and $3.25 for SC senior citizens 65 and older or disabled veterans.
Contact information: Camping: 843-869-2156 | History & Interpretation: 843-869-4430.