South Carolina Kayaking – Forest, River & Sea

Trip Length4 Days
Group Size4–16
Activity level
Starting from
$1,999 for REI Members
$2,199 for non-members
DeparturesApr 2024-Nov 2024

On this 4-day adventure we paddle the densely forested swamplands out to the Santee River and explore a barrier island on foot.

From the densely forested swamplands to wide swaths of barrier islands, this trip is a warm welcome to South Carolina’s unique coastline. This fascinating landscape is rich with wildlife and storied cultural significance. We kayak from the Francis Marion National Forest through the flooded forest of a blackwater cypress tupelo swamp to the largest river in South Carolina. A boat ride out to Bulls Island on the Atlantic Ocean allows us to experience four different ecosystems on foot. Our local, skilled guides are well-versed historians and naturalists. Their vast knowledge and deep passion for the area, combined with their epicurean talent in local cuisine take this trip to the next level.

Each day we watch one ecosystem fade into another, each a hot spot of biodiversity. Spot alligators and paddle alongside dolphins and other amazing wildlife. From bottomland swamps to rich salt marsh estuaries and barrier islands, this itinerary skillfully blends two vastly different worlds, creating an experience we will never forget.

We explore the cool, inky creeks in Francis Marion National Forest to experience an ecosystem unique to the Lowcountry. Our guides have so much to share about the resident birds, native plants, and reptiles.

Trip Highlights

  • Get close to nature from the water, exploring swamp, river and sea
  • Paddle through beautiful ecosystems of cypress swamps
  • Watch for dolphins, alligators, sea turtles and herons
  • Hike Bulls Island in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge
  • Enjoy delicious meals by campfire and wake for a sunrise hike


This trip is rated Moderate [3] as we plan to kayak 3–7 hours per day in calm to moderately rough conditions (depending on tide and winds), with mileage of 5 miles on Days 1 and 4. Day 2 is up to 15 miles and can go up to a Moderate Plus [3-4] rating depending on tides and winds. Participants should be comfortable in the water and know how to swim - basic swimming skills are required when kayaking. Expect to be sitting in a kayak for 3 to 5 hours at a time. Guides will arrange breaks as needed but, in flood tides or absence of high ground, these may be floating or swimming breaks. We hike one day for 7 miles on flat island terrain, both on designated trails and undeveloped shoreline.

  • Hiking
  • Kayaking
  • Wildlife Viewing

What's Included

Professional instruction and guiding; meals as noted in the daily itinerary; tents; transfers as noted in the daily itinerary; park fees and permits; group camping equipment; tandem sea kayaks and related paddling gear including PFDs, spray skirts and dry bags.


Primitive camping, 3 nights

Your Adventure Itinerary

Itinerary map for South Carolina Kayaking – Forest, River & Sea
Day 1

Kayaking blackwater cypress tupelo swamp to the Santee River

Meet your guides and fellow travelers in the morning at our waterfront location in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, just 30 minutes from bustling Charleston, SC. We pack our gear into dry bags and stow them in our kayaks before getting fitted with equipment. Our guides provide an orientation for our next few days, including an overview of the ecosystems. We ride out to Shem Creek and begin the first paddle of the day in the Francis Marion National Forest, winding our way through the flooded forest of a blackwater cypress tupelo swamp. A wide variety of birds, including herons, woodpeckers, owls and passerines flit their way through the canopy. We follow the creek to the Santee River, where our campsite awaits in the far reaches of the forest. Before dinner we take a walk through the longleaf pine forest, home to several endangered species of plants and animals. As the sun starts to set over the river, we enjoy dinner around the campfire. Lunch and dinner included.

Kayaking: 5 miles (3 hours); Walking: 2 miles

Day 2

Big paddle day through untouched wilderness

Our day begins with a sunrise yoga-style stretching session to prepare us for our 15-mile paddling day, followed by coffee and a hot breakfast prepared by our guides. We head out on kayaks looking for longnose gar swimming in the shallows before ducking down a side creek known for its numerous alligators and bird species. Watch as the water changes from emerald green to black as we transition back into the black water ecosystem with towering bald cypresses and sweet-smelling tupelos. We arrive at our new campsite on a remote part of the swamp. Appetizers are served and we are treated to a delicious feast prepared by our guides. We are lulled to sleep by the soft sounds of the nearby creek. All meals included.

Kayaking: 15 miles (6–7 hours depending on tides and current)

Day 3

Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and Bulls Island

After a hearty breakfast we head out to a landing on the intracoastal waterway to catch a private boat ride out to Bulls Island. We'll pass through the 66,000+ acres of salt marsh estuary that make up Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Bulls Island hosts at least 293 different bird species, as well as the highest concentration of American alligators north of Florida's Everglades. We hike through this barrier island’s maritime forest which encompasses four different ecosystems. A visit to Boneyard Beach, a driftwood forest in the ocean, is a must. The sun-bleached trees jut out of the sea, creating an otherworldly experience. We’ll enjoy an early dinner on scenic Bulls Island before our boat meets us for an evening cruise back to the mainland. When the season allows we will stop along the way for some oyster harvesting. We return to our peaceful campsite and delicious dessert by the campfire. All meals included.

Hiking: Up to 7 miles (5 hours)

Day 4

Kayak out of the blackwater swamp back to civilization

We awake at sunrise to the sound of the birds singing for our final morning in the blackwater swamp. After breakfast we paddle up the creek in search of river otters, birds, and bald cypress trees. Then we have our final lunch together on the river’s edge before heading back to Mount Pleasant for final goodbyes. Breakfast and lunch included.

Kayaking: 5 miles (2-3 hours)

Itinerary map for South Carolina Kayaking – Forest, River & Sea

Gear List

This gear list has been created to help you choose the best equipment for the trip. Try to bring only what is necessary, as this will help you and the field staff. The weather and other conditions at the time of your arrival will dictate what clothing and equipment you will be required to use each day and what (if anything) can be left behind. It may be a necessary precaution that you bring certain items on the list, even if it is uncertain whether or not they will be needed.

Already booked this trip? Sign into your online traveler profile for a more detailed list of what you'll need.

REI members can shop for gently used gear online or at most REI stores. Members can also trade in pre-loved used gear online or at any REI store in exchange for REI gift card credit. Check out Re/Supply at REI to learn more.

We provide

  • All Group Cooking Gear
  • Dry Bags
  • Group First Aid Kit
  • Kayak and All Paddling Gear
  • PFD and Spray Skirt
  • Tent(s)

What to pack

Contact Us

Feel free to give us a call at 1 (800) 622-2236 should you have any questions regarding the gear list. The staff at our stores and Direct Sales ( 1 (800) 426-4840 ) will also be happy to help you with gear questions. Or check out REI Expert Advice , which has great information to help you prepare for your trip.

Trip specifics may change over time. Reviews reflect the version of the trip that was active at the time the reviewer took it. Please review the itinerary as described above and call our team for any additional details.