Each year millions of tourists visit Myrtle Beach or Charleston, South Carolina, searching for beaches, nightlife, shopping and endless feasts of seafood. However, far fewer people venture to the roughly 100 miles of coast located between these two popular destinations, where it is relatively unpopulated, undeveloped and dominated by swamp, saltmarsh and pine savannah. Undiscovered is fine by me, as this “land in between” offers numerous favorite rides where I can walk into my garage, pick a motorcycle (Kawasaki KLR650, CanAm Spyder RT or Yamaha WR250) and then ride road, dirt road or off-road depending on the day and my desires.
On a map, the area of interest jumps out in green, since it’s mostly occupied by the Francis Marion National Forest (FMNF) and its 259,000 acres of multi-use land. I live in Myrtle Beach and get there via U.S. Route 17. The interesting part of the trip begins in the historic town of Georgetown. Eating and history immediately compete with riding as the downtown features the Rice Museum, the South Carolina Maritime Museum, the Kaminski House Museum and a working waterfront with a boardwalk and numerous restaurants.
A repeating theme on this ride is the rise and fall of a South Carolina plantation culture where products such as rice, indigo, cotton, tobacco and forest products were taken from the land with abundant slave labor and then shipped north or across the Atlantic. In the 1800s Georgetown was one of the richest cities in the southeast.
U.S. 17 out of Georgetown hugs the coast, and heading southwest you first cross the expansive Santee Delta and its parallel north and south rivers. Shortly after, there is a right turn on State Road S-10-857, which takes you to the Hampton Plantation State Historic Site. It features a restored mansion and interpretive aids explaining how rice was once grown here using an ingenious system of impoundments, water control structures and, of course, slave labor. Here I usually stroll a bit to stretch my legs in preparation for the ride to come.
Backtracking to U.S. 17 and then continuing southwest for about eight miles, look for State Route 45 and turn right, the beginning of a fantastic loop through the FMNF (this is also the place to get gas if you are running low). The road, a well-maintained two-lane, is flanked by extensive pine forests and intermittently crosses cypress swamps. Beware! Road closures are common due to prescribed burning and flooding.
In the FMNF you can choose your riding pleasure. Numerous Forest Service roads branch off, taking you to places such as Hell Hole Bay Wilderness and the Wambaw Swamp Wilderness. This is where I go when I’m wearing my dual-sport hat. Road riders should continue about 10 miles to Halfway Creek Road and turn left. A good place to stop along this road is the Wambaw Cycle Trail. You can commune with the numerous riders who trailer their off-road bikes here and then take the challenge of riding narrow single-tracks of deep sand.
Continue on Halfway Creek Road about 11 miles and then take a left on Steed Creek Road. Another five miles and you are back to U.S. 17. At this point you can turn right and head southwest toward Charleston. You might even want to catch the Bull’s Island Ferry and explore the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge (passengers only, book in advance and a full day is required). However, since I live in the other direction, I take a left and travel toward the town of McClellanville, about 11 miles northeast. Along the way stop at Buck Hall Recreation Area. It costs a few bucks to enter the site, but the views of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge are well worth it.
A short jog toward water from U.S. 17 takes you to McClellanville (population about 1,000), a quaint and colorful fishing village where you immediately begin entertaining ideas of quitting the day job and retiring to a life of pleasant views and boat floating. But before you make that leap, read the stories about how in 1989 Hurricane Hugo drove most of the inhabitants to higher ground. Many people climbed to the second floors of their houses while furniture bumped against the first-floor ceilings.
The one restaurant downtown, T.W. Graham & Co., is a popular motorcycle destination and the food is cheap, excellent and regionally correct. The Village Museum adjacent to the waterfront boat ramp provides some history about Native Americans and how they periodically visited this area to harvest fish, oysters and clams. The history you won’t hear about, however, is the role of marijuana smuggling in the local economy during the 1970s.
From McClellanville it is 24 miles back to Georgetown on U.S. 17, where you can find a few motels to spend the night and a few more places to eat and drink.
The beauty of this relatively short ride is that it is possible for motorcyclists to make pretty much year-round due to the subtropical climate. The traffic is always light but if you desire the hustle and flow of major urban areas, it is a short ride to either Myrtle Beach or Charleston. Given the choice, however, this land of swamp and sand is my preference.