Exploring Santee National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina

On the road to Savannah, at one point we felt like we needed a break from the heavy traffic of I-95. And we had the perfect opportunity to take that break when we drove by the Santee National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. A stop at the wildlife refuge allowed us to rest a little after all these long hours of driving, while also allowing me to stretch my legs a little and explore a place I had never visited before!

The Santee National Wildlife Refuge protects 15,000 acres of public lands on the north shore of Lake Marion, South Carolina’s largest lake. The wildlife refuge is an important feeding and wintering place for several species of migratory birds, in addition to being home to many native species, such as white-tailed deer, bobcats and alligators.

The wildlife refuge is also historically and culturally significant, as it is home to a First Nations mound that is more than 1,000 years old and that served as a burial ground for the Santee people. This mound is the largest such ceremonial centre ever discovered on the American coastal plain.

Santee Indian Mound
The Santee Indian Mound is part of the National Register of Historic Places

The Santee National Wildlife Refuge is divided into four units, and we decided to visit the Bluff Unit area northwest of I-95, as it was the most easily accessible area from the Interstate, and as it is also the one where we could find the ceremonial mound, which I wanted to see.

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It is actually at the ceremonial mound that we began our visit. The mound is more than 9 metres high and would have been part of a larger ceremonial complex in which there were several mounds built around an open plaza. In addition to serving as an important spiritual center for the Santees, several local chiefs are also believed to have been buried there (at least 16 graves containing artifacts have been discovered).

Unfortunately, after the arrival of Europeans on the American continent, the British built a fort on the mound, forcing the Santees to abandon it and probably destroying several archaeological evidence. This outpost, named Fort Watson, provided the British an elevated vantage point that overlooked the Santee River. Fort Watson was eventually captured and destroyed by the Americans during the Revolutionary War.

Rock indicating the site of Fort Watson
A different part of the history of the Santee Mound

After visiting the mound site and learning more about its history, I continued my exploration of the site, this time following the Wrights Bluff Nature Trail. This short trail of approximately 1.6 kilometre (1 mile) showcases a mixed forest and follows the shore of Lake Marion and Cantey Bay.

Trail at Santee National Wildife Refuge
Exploring a lovely South Carolina forest for the first time!

In fact, Lake Marion is man-made and was created as part of a hydroelectric project on the Santee River in the 1940s, leading to the flooding of several nearby lands and the creation of numerous wetlands. The wildlife refuge was established in the years that followed in order to protect part of the shoreline of this new lake. Today, it is recognized as one of the best places for birdwatching in South Carolina.

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The trail is easy to follow and has several pretty boardwalks and a few viewpoints over Cantey Bay. Fortunately, I didn’t see any alligators there, but I did see many woodpeckers, a few herons and a brown thrasher.

Boardwalk on the Wrights Bluff Nature Trail
Who doesn’t like a nice boardwalk?

Halfway along the trail, there is also a small observation tower overlooking a field that serves as a wintering and feeding place for Canada geese. The field was deserted as the geese had already started their long journey north. It felt a bit strange to think that at this exact moment they might have been flying over my house, thousands of miles away.

An empty field at Santee National Wildlife Refuge
Empty field, after the Canada geese have all flown away…

The trail eventually brought me back to the trailhead, and after one last look at Lake Marion, we drove back to I-95 to continue our journey to Savannah. The Santee National Wildlife Refuge was the perfect place to take a nature break, and I can’t wait to stop there again the next time we are driving on the I-95, so we can explore its other units!

Lake Marion in South Carolina
Until next time, Lake Marion!

10 comments

  1. A beautiful place to get out in to nature. You’ve really added South Carolina to my list of ever growing places to visit – thank you for sharing it with us.

    1. There are definitely a lot of beautiful places to explore in that state, and I feel like I’ve only explored a tiny part of it. I can’t wait to go back!

  2. Santee looks like a perfect place for a break on a long road trip – and it’s beautiful. We will have to add it to our South Carolina to-do list. We find the ancient mounds to be fascinating, and adding a fort to the mix makes this one even more interesting. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful place.

    1. It was well worth the stop, and the next time I drive by this area, I want to visit the other units of the wildlife refuge, where there are longer trails. There is also a state park right on the other side of Lake Marion. It’s a beautiful area, with lots of beautiful places to explore! Thanks for reading! 🙂

  3. It all looks so lush Vanessa. Too bad the conquerors could not respect the significance of the mound, but, I expect than as now that it was a sign of dominance to disregard what had gone before. Have a great Sunday. Allan

    1. Yes, I agree with you, it is sad that some parts of history might have been lost because of this lack of consideration. Luckily, this mound is protected now. Thanks for reading Allan! Happy Sunday!

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