Easy Escapes | Santee State Park a perfect fall getaway

spalisin@thesunnews.comOctober 26, 2013 

  • If you go

    What | Santee State Park

    Where | From the Manning interchange, Exit 119, at Interstate 95 – about one hour’s drive west from Georgetown, via U.S. 521 to S.C. 261 – head south to Exit 98 and town of Santee, then west (right) on S.C. 6 toward Elloree for one mile, then turn north (right) on State Park Road. Park visitor center is about 4.5 miles down a gradual, slight descent to Lake Marion.

    Open | 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, year round; park office 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

    How much | $2 ages 16 and older, $1.25 S.C. seniors, and free ages 15 and younger

    Special programs | Reservations required:

    • Two-hour, nature-based pontoon tours of Lake Marion led by Capt. Richard Behling, from dock near park visitors center, by Fisheagle Tours – through November: 1 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 10 a.m. Fridays; then trip times fluctuate December-March as weather permits – call 803-563-1771, 803-854-4005 or email richard@fisheagle.net.

    • Charleston Cooks! Campfire Cuisine, 3 p.m. Nov. 12-10 a.m. Nov. 14, including two-night cabin stay ($200 single, $150 per person in double and triple occupancy)

    • “Weekdays on the Water” 3- to 5-hour tour in a kayak provided on site – round trip between Spiers Landing and Church Island where group will visit a Confederate graveyard and paddle through a cypress swamp – and two-night overnight cabin stay, Oct. 29-31 for $165 single, or $110 per person double occupancy.

    • 16th annual “FestiVELO” family-friendly bicycling event at various Santee town sites, including state park, Oct. 30-Nov. 2, including long bicycle rides beginning 8 or 8:30 a.m. daily, with lunches provided on course, themed dinners available for extra fee, and entertainment. Walk-up rates $140 for all four days of riding, or $50 single day. Flagship hotel: Whitten Inn, 123 Mall St., Santee – 803-854-2191 or www.whitteninn.com/santee.html. Twenty land, and 10 pier, cabins, and two campgrounds, available in state park – 866-345-7275 (PARK). Full details at 843-303-3334 or www.festivelo.org.

    Information | 803-854-2408, http://southcarolinaparks.com/santee, or email santeesp@scprt.com

    Also nearby | Santee National Wildlife Refuge, on north shore of Lake Marion, in Clarendon County – head south on I-95 from Manning to Exit 102 for U.S. 15 north a short distance. Details at 803-478-2217 or www.fws.gov/santee. Also, site of seventh annual Santee Birding and Nature Festival, April 25-27 – 803-854-2131 or www.santeebirdingfestival.com.

Even a misty day with a little drizzle last week in this lovely season just starting, Santee State Park sparkled on the southwest shore of Lake Marion. It’s easy to fall into this place, but not into any of its fenced-off, scenic sinkholes on the park’s south side.

Tall, long-leaf pines line the State Park Road corridor from S.C. 6 in the town of Santee a few miles north in a slight, ever-so gradual descent to the park visitors’ center lakeside, where the rondette cabin lodging comprises 10 pier units over the lake’s edge, and 20 other sites, most along the shore.

A right turn on Cleveland Street, then Fox Squirrel Drive leads to an area of sinkholes, with a 3/4-mile walking trail nearby, one of three identical length nature paths in the park, along with a 7.5-mile hiking-bicycling route.

Anyone who peers over a fence down into one of several caverns can check out the various colors and foliage in the subsoils of this limestone eroding underground, which a park sign states dates to a subtropical sea that advanced and receded frequently in this part of the globe 40 million to 50 million years ago.

On a quiet weekday morning, an Eastern towhee sang from some hedges in the background, perhaps reminding visitors that autumn doesn’t go silent when summer passes on.

Lakes Marion and Moultrie, formed more than 70 years ago with the construction of a long dam in the Santee-Cooper Hydroelectric Project, are known for becoming the home where the S.C. state fish, the striped bass, a saltwater species, made its way, getting caught and spawning inland as a freshwater fish. “LandLocked,” a 38-minute movie by Rich King of Greenville, documented the stripers’ journey through brackish waters in the Cooper and Congaree rivers from the Atlantic Ocean, and eventually into three dozen other states. The movie, which premiered in 2012, also was shown that year at the Myrtle Beach International Film Festival that year, and it has aired on ETV; find more details at www.landlockedfilm.com.

Anyone who boats across Lake Marion will go around the cypress tree forest, a visible isle in the middle of the lake from any vantage point, and steer clear of various other tree stumps jutting past the water surface, all remnants from the flooding of the lake for the dam.

A boat ride here might yield a view of a bald eagle snatching a fish from the lake, flocks of cormorants flying or swimming under water, and a great egret making the rounds a select sliver of shoreline.

A drive or bike ride through this whole park – north and south ends – with a boat ramp, picnic tables and playground on each side – afford the visitor a tall canopy all along, perhaps remind native Northeast Ohioans of traversing some of the reservations in the Cleveland Metroparks system, with some small changes in terrain.

Look inside a cabin for a lodge-like feel, with room for six, and a kitchenette and television to share. Offseason from December through February, reduced weeknight rates range from $65 to $72.

Some signs near the pier cabins also advise guests to park their cars in spaces there at their own risk, advising them to instead leave their vehicles a short walk away by the visitors center, because turkey vultures, as pictured on the signs, have damaged cars whole roosting at that spot. Remember that these birds are not raptors, but scavengers who rely on carrion, although their black vulture brethren are known to find prefer some live meals in small animals.

Santee State Park might be one of those hidden gems passed by too easily by travelers buzzing up Interstate 95, but it’s only a 10-minute drive off the exit, and less than a 90-minute drive from downtown Georgetown. The park and town of Santee also could provide a nice detour and night’s stop on the way to or from Charleston, which is only about an hour’s commute from I-95 to I-26 to its eastern end of the road.

S.C. State Park lovers might want to continue southward on U.S. 17 to coastal parks at Edisto Beach and Hunting Island, an hour and a half and two hours more in the car, respectively, and see the obvious reminder how the parks in this swath of the Palmetto State are each so distinct

A visit to Santee State Park in autumn, as the leaves fall and accumulate on the cabin rooftops and walkways, might give a taste of this season, to wake up, camp or spend a day in the park, without much of a sweat or too many shivers. So, bring your shoes or bike and enjoy this easy escape inland.

Contact STEVE PALISIN at 444-1764.

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