Charleston, SC: Float a Wild Coast (Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge)

Kayak where land, sea, and river converge, then camp on a beach and take to a wildlife refuge on foot on this multiway paddling trip to Capers and Bulls Islands. BY DAVID KUCZKIR
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Kayak where land, sea, and river converge, then camp on a beach and take to a wildlife refuge on foot on this multiway paddling trip to Capers and Bulls Islands. BY DAVID KUCZKIR
Bulls Island

Bulls Island

I dip my paddle into the brackish water and cut through the surf, trying to keep pace with my companions—a pod of bottlenose dolphins. The outgoing tide propels my kayak through an estuary in the Lowcountry, a low-lying coastal area outside of Charleston where land, sea, and river converge. I’ll float 10.5 miles through the Intracoastal Waterway and a slew of tidal creeks to the sandy north end of Capers Island today—an easy paddle that only takes three hours—before tenting on the beach. Tomorrow, I’ll explore the next island by foot, where I hope to see loggerhead turtles and alligators. Then I’ll retrace my strokes—maybe I can keep up with the dolphins on the way out.

Trip stats
Distance: 35.8 miles (lollipop-loop, including paddling and hiking)
Time: 2-3 days

Turn-by-turn
From the Isle of Palms Landing

(1) Wait for an outgoing tide and paddle 4 miles northeast through the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to marker #103. Tip: Hug the bank for an easier time avoiding other boats and their wakes.
(2) Veer east (paddler’s right) into deep-water Watermelon Creek and continue .9 mile toward Capers Island.
(3) Head 1.4 miles into Capers Creek.
(4) Turn east into Santee Pass, a deep-water, narrow tributary, and float 3.1 miles past the mudflats of Mark Bay to an intersection with Price Creek.
(5) Head .7 mile south into Price and paddle ashore at Capers Island.
(6) Navigate across .2-mile-wide Price Creek to the southern shore of Bulls Island at mile 10.5. Tip: Paddle diagonally into the tide if flow is swift.
(7) Leave your boat above the high-tide line and hike 3.3 miles northeast on Front Beach.
(8) Turn northwest on sandy Beach Road and follow it .7 mile. (Only federal service vehicles are allowed on Bulls Island, so don’t expect car traffic on these “roads.”)
(9) Veer northeast on grassy Sheepshead Ridge Road and take it 1.6 miles to its terminus for a view from the 16-foot-tall observation tower.
(10) Retrace your steps .5 mile to Alligator Alley and follow the sandy trail .7 mile as it zigzags north to an intersection.
(11) Turn northeast onto grassy Old Fort Road and take it 1.5 miles to the tip of the island at Northeast Point.
(12) Follow the shore 6.6 miles south and west to the south beach of Bulls Island and your boat.
(13) Retrace your strokes across Price Creek to camp and, next day, to the put-in.

Campsite
North Beach on Capers Island (mile 10.3)

You won’t have to throw elbows to get the best spot on this island. Capers is only accessible by watercraft, so nab a space above the high-tide line on the north beach. Gators don’t live on Capers, but don’t push your luck: Follow LNT guidelines and don’t wash your dishes in any body of water.

Water
Pack in all water—the creeks are brackish. We recommend a gallon per person per day in mild conditions. In a bind? There’s a picnic area with running water on Bulls Island just north of the intersection of Beach and Sheepshead Ridge Roads (mile 14.5).

Wildlife
Bulls Island is replete with exotic animals. For birds—there are more than 290 species here—stay awhile at Jacks Creek (near mile 18). Highlights include ring-necked teals, canvasback ducks, plovers, American oystercatchers, and black skimmers. Also at Jacks Creek: alligators. The big lizards, which don’t hunt on land, often sun themselves on the banks here. Then there are the loggerheads; Bulls is one of the most active nesting sites for these reddish-brown turtles. Back on Capers, bobcats lurk in the maritime woods and deer browse in the forest fringes.

Don’t miss
Both islands have a “boneyard beach,” or expanse of coastline that has eroded enough to the point where the skeletal remains of the maritime forest are now in the surf. On this itinerary, you’ll hike through Bulls’ boneyard beach on day two (miles 20 to 21); time it for low tide so you can wander among the fossilized trees. Capers’ boneyard makes for a great time-killer if you miss the incoming tide to paddle back to the put-in: From camp, follow the coastline .8 mile southwest on foot to reach the haunting thickets of sun-bleached oaks, cedars, and pines.

DO IT Put-in 32.805776, -79.759305; 16 miles east of Charleston off 41st Ave. Red tape Bulls Island is closed at night, so be sure to get back to Capers by sunset. Gear up Coastal Expeditions (coastalexpedition.com) in Isle of Palms rents kayaks for about $55/day. The shop is less than 100 yards from the put-in. Season October through April for ideal weather and fewer mosquitoes Permit Required (free) for camping; contact the South Carolina Dept. of Natural Resources (843-953-9360; ThomasT@dnr.sc.gov) to have one sent to you. Custom mapbit.do/bpmapcapersandbulls ($15) Contactfws.gov/refuge/cape_romainTrip databackpacker.com/capersandbulls

Trail Facts

  • State: SC
  • City: Charleston, SC
  • Distance: 35.8
  • Contact: fws.gov/refuge/cape_romain
  • Land Type: National Wildlife Refuge