Hiking the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge
Cox Ferry Recreational Area, Conway, SC
When you think of Myrtle Beach, SC, you think of… HIKING! (No? Okay, maybe just me then.) While Myrtle Beach is known for its shopping, dining, and tourist attractions, there are also some decent trails within a short drive as well. There’s Myrtle Beach State Park and, about 30 minutes further south, Huntington Beach State Park. If you follow Hwy 501 north to Conway, there is an expansive natural area called the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. This area provides opportunity for activities such as hunting, fishing, boating, and of course hiking! A wide variety of birds and other animal life are present in the Refuge. I had the opportunity to hike in the WNWR in February 2021 at the Cox Ferry Recreational Area. Just a short trip to get away from
the kids work for a while.
The Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge website provides pretty good directions on how to get to both the visitor’s center in nearby Georgetown, SC (closed at the time due to COVID-19) as well as the Cox Ferry Recreational Area where the trails are located. One thing to note, the sign for the Recreational Area only points one direction on Cox Ferry Circle. If you’re coming from the opposite direction, it can be easy to miss it.
Note that the area is only open during daylight hours. There is a gate to close off the parking area at night. From the parking area, it’s a short walk to a picnic shelter, a canoe launch, and some informational signage about the Refuge.
The Cox Ferry Recreational Area includes five hiking trails of various lengths, plus a bike trail. At the Refuge information sign (above), there was a map of the area, showing the trails. Before you go on a hike, it’s a good idea to take a photo to refer back to if needed.
- The Blue Trail leads from one parking area to another, with a section of boardwalk leading over a section of marsh.
- The Yellow and Orange Trails loop up toward Gray Lake Blvd (misspelled on the map) and are accessible from the Blue Trail. They also provide access to the Bike Trail.
- The White and Red Trails loop around part or all of a few small lakes in the area. Near the White Trail is another parking area and canoe launch.
The trailhead is a short distance from the informational signage kiosk and starts the Blue Trail. All of the trails are gravel and most are wide enough for a vehicle (official use only), so they are easy to follow. Signage is excellent, with colored trail blazes and signposts showing the way.
There are also several interpretive signs along all of the trails, describing local plants and ecology, such as the wetlands habitat and the importance of reestablishing long leaf pine forests.
The Blue Trail passes through long leaf pine and deciduous forest, and much of it is wetlands. I intended to follow the trail around to the other parking lot, then catch the Yellow and Orange Trails on the way back. However, just before I got to the boardwalk, a section of the trail was flooded out by heavy rains over the past week. I had seen this mentioned on other websites, so apparently it is a common occurrence on this trail.
My hiking boots
are claim to be waterproof, but the water appeared to get several inches deep a short ways in, and I didn’t want to chance it. A blue blaze and the start of the boardwalk was only a few hundred feet away.
Yellow and White Trails
So, plan B, I hiked a short way back to pick up the Yellow Trail. This trail passes through much the same type of forest as the Blue Trail, but with less wetland area and less prone to flooding. At an intersection, an unmarked section of trail led to Grey Lake Blvd, where I headed toward the parking area with the canoe launch and the White Trail. This area has several nice views of the lake, and in warmer months would likely be home to abundant birds and other wildlife. I left the White Trail for a short way to get a better view around the lake and captured some photos of a great blue heron. Photographers, bring your long lens, because the birds follow Murphy’s Law, and are frequently on the other side of the lake from wherever you are.
The White Trail also tends to flood after heavy rain, though not as much as the Blue Trail, and I was able to pick my way through it.
From there, I continued down the road to the Red Trail, thinking there may be some more waterfowl in that area. The Red Trail also boasts a fishing pier.
The Red Trail did seem to be a good place for viewing birds, although unfortunately they seemed camera-shy and I wasn’t able to get any good photos. By this time, the sun was getting low, so I decided to head back. Near the parking area at the Red Trail, there is another connector to the Yellow Trail that isn’t marked on the map. I took the Yellow and Orange Trails back to the Blue, and on to the parking lot. Below is a rough map of my approximate path. The entire route was about 4.3 miles, over a leisurely 3 hours.
Wildlife in the Reserve
Being winter and in the mid-40s, I did not expect to see much wildlife on this trip. Along the Blue Trail, I did see a downy woodpecker and Carolina wren, and at a distance, too fast for my camera, what may have been a red cockaded or pileated woodpecker.
There were other numerous birds of the same sparrow or finch size as well. As I mentioned, a great blue heron made an appearance, along with a red headed woodpecker.
The website lists many other animals that call the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge home, including foxes, black bears, and various other birds and reptiles, including a few vulnerable or endangered species. Given the wetlands habitat and the lakes, I could easily imagine the area teeming with wildlife during the warmer months of the year. The trails also featured some amazing trees, some arching into the sky above the path.
The trails at the WNWR would be a great area to introduce little ones to the joys of hiking and wildlife viewing, due to the easy path surface, although the full length of the trails might be a bit long for shorter legs. Fortunately, the Red and White Trails have their own parking areas and would be ideal for a quick walk in the woods. If you’re interested in viewing wildlife, I would recommend waiting until spring or summer. All in all, if you want to get away from your getaway in the busy town of Myrtle Beach, the Refuge is a great place to find some peace.