Bluffton residents Foster, Nikki and Emma McCarl recently discovered a hidden treasure close to home. "We've probably driven past this place a thousand times but never stopped to explore. So glad we finally did. It is so beautiful out here." This slice of Lowcountry paradise is none other than the New River Linear Trail and if you have never been out to explore it, a true adventure awaits.
The New River Linear Trail is 5.2 miles of ruler-straight pathway that provides excellent hiking and biking opportunities right here in Bluffton. Located on S.C. 46 just past the New River traffic circle, the trail provides access to a wild side of Bluffton that few would get to experience otherwise. Though the trail has been accessible for years, in 2005 the town opened a parking area and a new era of exploration of this trail began. Providing interpretive signs and trail markers, visitors can enjoy nature with a glimpse into the regions storied past, and all within a few minutes of the house. The New River Linear Trail follows the old railbed of the now-defunct Seaboard Air Line Railway. Nearly 100 years ago, tracks were laid down through the forests and marshes of the South Carolina Lowcountry, connecting Florida and the Northeast with a vital rail link. Passengers and commerce flowed through and business boomed. Now, the tracks have been removed and the ground was perfect for a raised nature and fitness trail that has to be seen to be believed.
"I'm doing a nature scavenger hunt," young Emma McCarl said. Notebook in hand, she was spotting examples of the abundant wildlife that can be found along the New River Linear Trail. I chanced upon this young family on a recent visit to the trail and it was easy to see what attracted them here. When you visit the New River Linear Trail you will find parking easy and ample. The trail begins in hardwood forest and then moves into the remains of ancient rice fields along the New River. Although the trail stops short of the main stream, the raised path gives incredible panoramic views of this marshland. Songbirds dart in and out of wax myrtle thickets and bees thrum noisily in banks of pollen-rich goldenrod.
If you head in the opposite direction, the trail moves along the flooded forest of the New River. Cypress swamp, tupelo and red maple dominate this section and before the path ends at the edge of Sun City Hilton Head you will see wading birds, snakes and even an elusive alligator disappearing into the black water. Whether you are out for a day of exercise, birdwatching or even a nature scavenger hunt, the New River Linear Trail will not disappoint.
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The New River Linear Trail is just nine miles from Old Town Bluffton and may be even closer to home, depending on where you live. The trail entrance is on the left side of S.C. 46 just past the traffic circle at New Riverside and right before the entrance to Heritage at New Riverside. Access is very easy. Parking is ample and free, and hours are from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. There are no facilities so it is recommended that you bring water and bug repellent per the season. The trail is a well-manicured grassy path for most of the way with some stretches of rough gravel. These areas, along with several bridges and rail line markers are a reminder of the trail's glory days as a busy railroad line. The New River Linear Trail is perfect for hiking and has interpretive signs and a few benches for rest. Details: 843-706-4500
FACT BOX: SEABOARD AIR LINE RAILWAY
In 1918, the Seaboard Air Line Railway opened a line between Charleston and Savannah. In the midst of a Florida land boom and a rise in passenger train travel along the coast, this line became a vital link between cities and the equivalent of Interstate 95 of its day.
For 50 years, passenger and freight trains thundered across the landscape connecting the quiet coastal villages with the outside world. The line provided access for massive logging projects that cleared vast sections of Lowcountry swamp and river bottoms, some evidence of which can be viewed along this section of the New River Linear Trail. The town of Bluffton had its own train station, and a local has told me that it was once located just below the viaduct where S.C. 46 crosses the trail. A patch of conspicuous bamboo reveals is location. The WPA guide to South Carolina even includes a little legend about the Seaboard Air Line in its description of our community. Pritchardville, it says on Page 329, was said to be settled by an Ohioan who had a ticket for Levys, Ga., but was put off at Levys, S.C., by mistake. He loved the area so much he stayed and settled. Not a dissimilar story from many of us, is it? The railroad is long out of business. Trains have not run on it since 1977 and the last tracks were removed in the 1990's. Its scar still bifurcates the Lowcountry and it is good to see that some sections can be put to good use once more.