South Carolina's coastal plain is a photographer's dream
By Phil Buonpastore
Pinch me, I'm dreaming.
Mention South Carolina to most any rider and you’re likely to hear a colorful anecdote about a long weekend at Myrtle Beach Bike Week. But there are far richer sights to experience in this part of the country, if you know where to look. I’m talking about the Low Country. Depending on whom you ask, the Low Country generally encompasses the coastal plains from Charleston to Savannah, from the Atlantic coast 50 miles inland. This part of the southeastern US is referred to as ‘low’ because the area is mostly near or below sea level; the marshlands and waterways that give it a distinct flavor and natural beauty were once known for agricultural bounty and prestige. Today the region is renowned for its historic communities, and, yes—unique scenery.
Unlike other southeastern coastal areas, where days in the saddle are often spent droning along roads that are flat, straight and long, the riding here is a combination of laid back, entertaining, and visually interesting. Long sections of uncrowded rural highways and gently curving back roads roll over both small rivers and major waterways, and as you approach the coast, the lanes become lined with age-old ficus trees carrying Spanish moss that overhangs the road, with a backdrop of undeveloped savannas and marshland stretching all the way to the horizon.
A family gathering on Hilton Head Island afforded me the opportunity to ride through the area for the first time in over a decade. From Atlanta, the quickest ways in are I-75, I-16 and I-95, but with less traveled rural roads and highways on the map as plentiful as spaghetti in an Italian restaurant, there was no question that the backcountry route was the way to go.
Taking I-20 east from Atlanta for the first part of the ride allowed me to sample some of the better roads while keeping travel time to the Low Country to a leisurely couple of hours. South of Augusta, SC125 through the Savannah River nuclear facility leads to two southeastern routes heading toward Hilton Head and Savannah—the more direct Highway 278, or the more leisurely SR3. With SR3 featuring a more subtle transition of scenery, from the rolling Appalachian foothills of eastern Georgia to the marshland environment of coastal South Carolina, of course I opted for the scenic route.
This portion of SR3 winds through a number of small towns, but periodically checking a map or programming a GPS with a specific route is a good idea when traveling in this area, as roads often take an unexpected turn along the way, which are not often well marked. SR3 ends at Highway 278 (also called Gray’s Highway), which eventually takes you to Hilton Head Island. Detouring off 278 onto SR 462 takes you along the marshlands of the Coosaw River, along what’s called the Coosaw Scenic Drive. This eventually connects to SR170 and back to 278, with population and traffic increasing as you approach town. That evening, I arrived at the Hilton Head beach house where my family would be staying the weekend.
The next day I woke early to watch the sunrise while enjoying my coffee. It was already apparent that it would be a perfect day, with the combination of unseasonably warm October temperatures (mid 80s) and clear blue skies that had blessed the area for the last few days continuing. I had planned a low country ride to Beaufort and would get an early start.
From the beach house, I rode west on 278 toward the mainland until I spotted the small sign at the right turn of SR 170. It is also called the Okatie Highway, and it’s a gem of a (mostly) four-lane highway heading toward Beaufort. The road is almost completely elevated over low marshlands and open waterways. Exiting 278, traffic decreases and field of view increases, and on a perfect Indian summer day it’s difficult to beat the riding here. Along the way I passed stilted houses and marinas, old fishing boats, marshes and open savanna. State parks and protected areas are numerous, as are short fishing roads that run to the shoreline next to bridges spanning the waterways, allowing for quick stops for views at the water’s edge as well as an opportunity to absorb the beauty of it all.
That’s the attraction of riding this area. The mostly sea-level topography doesn’t allow for easy development, and kudos to the local governments for not trying. Elevated dry land is scarce, and it seems likely that this highway was built to shorten travel time between Hilton Head Island and Beaufort, as it’s the only road that directly connects them. The end result is a nicely designed and maintained highway that puts you right in the middle of the natural surroundings without ruining them, as well as giving you the perfect platform for viewing and appreciating what you’re riding through.
About 4 miles before Beaufort, I crossed a very large waterway called the Broad River. Although it’s called a river, it’s more an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean, flowing with the tides. The Broad and Coosaw River to the north combine to create the large, five-island area. Crossing the river brought me onto Port Royal Island, and the town of Beaufort.
My reasons for riding here were both as an objective for a day’s ride and for a more personal goal. My father, a lifelong New Yorker, is buried in Beaufort National Cemetery. After residing in the Empire State for 62 years, how he got to find his rest in a laid-back South Carolina town is a story best left for another day, but whenever I’m close by I stop for a visit. A right turn on SR21 brought me to the cemetery, and after paying respects to Dad, I headed for a short tour along Boundary Street over the Sea Island Parkway into Port Royal Island, stopping for photos along the way.
And there are so many places to stop—anywhere you look, in fact. Subject matter, as well as backdrops for photos of the bike, can be anything from groups of boats anchored offshore to antebellum houses and historical buildings to graceful bridges and open waterways. At a random stop in the Port Royal Landing area, I got my favorite photo of the day: a shot of the spoked front wheel of my motorcycle contrasted against a wood spoked wheel of a horse-drawn carriage, courtesy of Southern Rose Buggy Tours.
While there were plenty of places in the area left to visit, including a ride through St. Helena Island to Hunting Island State Park, or the long way around on SR21 to Edisto Island and Edisto Beach, it was now approaching mid-afternoon, and I wanted to be back at the beach house by sunset. Finding my way back to Boundary Street, I headed west across 170 to my base on Hilton Head.
I spent the rest of the next day enjoying the summer-like weather. The family had rented the house until Monday, but I had planned to head back to Atlanta on Sunday to avoid the rain that was forecast for Monday afternoon. Alas, Sunday came and went and I was still in Hilton Head. With my family’s plans to spend Sunday at Sea Pines (a gorgeous area at the southern end of the island), and another day of dazzling sun, blue sky and ocean, it was simply too beautiful to miss. The panoramic pictures of the marina and top of a lighthouse also added a few great shots to my weekend portfolio.
I wouldn’t call the decision a mistake, but it was one that definitely allowed for a full range of riding experiences over the weekend. On Monday I got an early start, but it was already gray, overcast and much cooler, and stops for photographs in the early part of the day slowed my forward progress. A note about stopping for photographs—it is difficult for a person with a background in photography (such as myself) to pass up an opportunity to record a place or event, even when it might increase the complexity of the journey. It becomes an even more complicated on a motorcycle. In a car, it is fairly simple to pull over, jump out, take a photo, jump back in and continue on without a significant loss of time. On a motorcycle, you must find a suitable place to pull off (avoiding gravel, etc.), remove your gear, get camera equipment from the bags, take photographs, repack, put your gear on, get back on the bike and go. Any stop for photos takes up significant time.
At the entrance to the Savannah River Nuclear Plant the rain began. I put on my rainsuit at a gas stop south of Augusta, but by the time I reached I-20 (the fastest way back to Atlanta), the drizzle had become a downpour. I was only about 150 miles from home but the strong rain, along with dropping temperatures pounded me for the next four hours. And rain had been forecast to fall for the next several days, so there was nothing to do but knuckle down and ride it out. It was probably one of the most miserable days I have ever spent on a motorcycle.
The mostly sea-level topography doesn't allow for easy development, and kidos to the local governments for not trying.
I arrived home shortly before 5 PM, wet and cold but none the worse for the experience, with a mostly a great weekend behind me. You win some, you lose some. All in all, I had three days of glorious weather and only one bad, so I’ll call it one for the ‘win’ column. Besides, having the occasional bad weather experience helps me hone my skills for future less-than-perfect riding situations.
A two-wheeled tour through Hilton Head and the South Carolina Low Country is a great way to experience a singularly unique area. The roads are uncrowded, the towns picturesque, and the laid-back Low Country landscape is unlike any other in the southeastern U.S. Just don’t forget to pack the rainsuit.
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