Wilderness Areas on the Francis Marion National Forest

Wambaw CreekAs wildlands across the country steadily gave way to human habitation and industry, Congress enacted legislation to set aside many untamed areas for protection.

The Francis Marion National Forest’s four wilderness areas were established in 1980 to protect, manage and preserve natural conditions, keeping human influence to a minimum. Indeed, many parts of these dense, watery forests likely appear just as they did before settlers to the area arrived. They provide outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation. Camping is permitted, but there are very few spots where camping is possible because of the wet, swampy nature of these areas. Campers must obtain a permit from a district office before an outing.

Each of the wilderness areas offers dramatic blackwater swamp scenery. Majestic bald cypress and water tupelo trees tower overhead and the lush, watery landscape is alive with birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. Because of the primitive nature of coastal swamp wildernesses, travel through dense underbrush may be quite difficult and dangerous.

Wambaw Creek, Hellhole Bay, Wambaw Swamp and Little Wambaw Swamp wilderness all offer visitors outstanding wildlife viewing opportunities amidst wild orchids, sedges and lizard ferns. Wambaw Creek Wilderness features a nine-mile tidal, blackwater creek canoe trail and is one of the most scenic places on the forest.

Hellhole Bay Wilderness (2,125 ac) may take its name from a large forest opening possibly formed by early wildfire behavior in the area. A shallow canoe trail a little over a mile long and often less than a foot deep crosses the bay and is passable during the wetter times of the year. But in dryer months it becomes a muddy trail and can be difficult to hike. Heavy thick undergrowth, wet unstable ground and numerous water moccasins add to the challenges. There is no boat ramp but paddlers can access wilderness from Hell Hole Rd. 
Explore this wilderness in winter and early spring to avoid biting insects and water moccasins.
Take a compass and a good map, it is easy to get disoriented navigating the swamp.

Little Wambaw Swamp Wilderness(5,047 ac) features wild orchids, pickerel weed and bladderwort as part of its dense understory. Impressively large bald cypress and water tupelo grow throughout, some in areas believed to be virgin timber. The remains of raised railroad tram lines cross the area and may provide slightly higher ground for camping, but wading in the sloughs and bottomland hardwood forest is a necessity to explore the wilderness. There are no trails, and some areas are thick with undergrowth in the cypress/tupelo swamp, however there are beautiful areas of mature bottamland hardwoods comprised of oaks, hickories, sycamore and maples well worth experiencing. As with all these lowcountry wilderness, it is best to explore in winter and early spring. Access the area at the perimeter using FS RDs 220A, 217A and B.

Wambaw Creek Wilderness (1,825 acres). A scenic nine-mile tidal blackwater canoe trail traverses the wilderness beneath stately giant cypress and tupelo trees, some 1000 years old. Wildlife abounds, with occasional sightings of alligators at water’s edge. Old dikes and canals are still in evidence from the agricultural efforts of early settlers. Wambaw Creek flows inland into Wambaw Swamp and drains into the Santee River, the intracoastal waterway and the ocean. It is subject to tidal fluctuations so be sure to bring a tide table, and check in at the ranger station for more information on specific areas. Some areas may be passable only after heavy rainfall or at high tide. Common birds found along the creek include barred owls, swallowtail kites, prothonotary warblers and a variety of woodpeckers and song birds.

Wambaw Swamp Wilderness (4,815 acres) is thick with wild orchids, pickerel weed, sedges, lizard’s tail and ferns and is challenging to explore. There are no trails in the wilderness so those hardy enough to take on a slow-paced slog generally rely on orienteering skills to navigate. The wilderness is comprised of bottomland hardwood forest and is edged with small pine stands. While it offers little dry land, the water level is usually too low for boating. Mature Cypress/Tupelo trees and relatively open understory, especially off FSRD 154 near Coffee Creek, provide some easier hiking and an opportunity to explore a place where very few people go.

Wilderness Areas on the Sumter National Forest

Along the East Fork Trail following the Chattooga RiverEllicott Rock Wilderness (8,300 acres) sits at the southern tip of the hazy Blue Ridge Mountains. Congress designated Ellicott Rock Wilderness in 1975, later expanding it in 1984. The wilderness spans three states in Sumter, Nantahala, and Chattahoochee National Forests of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia respectively. The wilderness provides visitors with bountiful opportunities to experience solitude and see an impressive array of plan and animal communities while hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, swimming, or kayaking. 

The Wilderness Act

“A wilderness…is hereby recognized as an area where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (The Wilderness Act of 1964)

As wildlands across the country steadily gave way to human habitation and industry, Congress enacted legislation to set aside many untamed areas for protection.

The National Wilderness Preservation System was set up in 1964 by an act of Congress known as the Wilderness Act. Wilderness areas are affected mostly by the forces of nature and have outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation. These areas are managed in such a way that visitation will not change their unspoiled condition. They may also contain ecological, geological or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historic value.