Considered one of the finest blackwater rivers in the Southeast, the Waccamaw River provides residents, visitors, and local businesses with clean drinking water, flood protection, scenic landscapes, diverse plants and wildlife, and outstanding recreation. In 2009, American Rivers and our partners launched the Waccamaw River Blue Trail — a locally led effort to promote family-friendly recreation and galvanize regional support to protect the Waccamaw. Beginning at Lake Waccamaw, the largest Carolina Bay, the Blue Trail extends the entire length of the river in North Carolina and South Carolina. Carolina Bays are elliptical lakes and depression wetlands found along the Atlantic coast that are rich with endemic plants and wildlife. The Blue Trail meanders 140 miles through protected bottomland hardwood forests of the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge and the Waccamaw River Heritage Preserve, and passes through the historic, riverfront cities of Conway and Georgetown. A federally-designated National Water Trail, the Waccamaw River Blue Trail is recognized as a national treasure that is vital to the health of natural and human communities in the Carolinas and beyond.
Riverside lands inside the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas support the highest density of nesting swallow-tailed kites in South Carolina and is the northernmost documented nest site for the species. The wetland diversity sets this Refuge apart from others with habitats ranging from historical and actively managed tidal rice fields to black water forested floodplains. The range of habitats in the Refuge support more than 400 species of wildlife including red-cockaded woodpeckers, osprey, wood storks, white ibis, green herons, coastal black bears, red foxes and many others.
Over the past 10 years, communities along the Waccamaw and conservation partners, have worked together to enhance and highlight the many great benefits of the Waccamaw River, moving it out of the shadow of nearby Myrtle Beach and into the spotlight as a recreational, cultural, educational and economic attraction. By protecting riverside tracts of land and creating an ideal setting for people to enjoy the river, tourism to riverside communities and the Waccamaw River has flourished.
The Waccamaw River Blue Trail not only serves to improve recreational opportunities the local economy, it also educates citizens, local governments, and elected officials about the importance of the river as a community asset vital to the region’s growth and well-being. Together, the Blue Trail and the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge connect the local community to the river in ways that enhance quality of life and build support for river protection.
In efforts to promote ecotourism, and conservation of the river and riverside lands, the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce showcased the Waccamaw River Blue Trail as one of the area’s premier attractions in Guest-Quest, an online travel magazine.
With the help of corporate sponsorship, American Rivers and our partners installed signage along the trail as well as interpretive information, picnic tables, and a Carolina Fence Garden dedicated to South Carolina culture and wildlife conservation. We were also able to make improvements to canoe and kayak launches in the City of Conway and at the Cox Ferry Recreation Area in the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge.
American Rivers, the City of Conway, Horry and Georgetown counties, along with a coalition of local, state, and national organizations recognized the need to protect the river and surrounding lands. The first step in securing those protections was to build public support for conservation by enhancing opportunities for family-friendly recreation and creating a waterproof trail map that would guide visitors to points of ecological, cultural, and historical interests along the river. We also worked with our partners to create Welcome to the Waccamaw!, a user-friendly story map that helps people understand the many community and environmental benefits of the Waccamaw River and Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. It describes the impacts of flooding and climate change, rapid population growth and poorly planned development which threaten the river and riverside lands.
Local organizations and governments have mapped the highest priority lands to guide protection efforts along the river. Guided by solid data, critical tracts of land have been protected. These partners are also connecting the local community to natural features, such as the National Wildlife Refuge, the area’s cultural heritage and new access points, as well as working to maintain habitat for black bear, swallow-tailed kite, and more.
To date, the coalition protected more than 10,000 acres of priority riverside lands through acquisition, conservation easements, and ordinances, adding to the nearly 50,000 acres protected along the Waccamaw River. Protection efforts along the Blue Trail has made enormous strides with help from the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust which purchased 670 acres of bottomland hardwoods and cypress-gum swamp along the Waccamaw River just south of Lake Waccamaw State Park in North Carolina, and the City of Conway’s purchase of roughly 500 acres of riverside lands across from downtown. Partners have also secured $3.5 million in federal funding to support land protection at the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. These land conservation successes serve to protect floodplains and drinking water sources, and safeguard the diverse fish, wildlife and recreation opportunities along the Waccamaw.
American Rivers also worked with partners at the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge to promote a modification of the Refuge boundary. This eight-year process finally paid off in October 2019 when the boundary modification was approved, making 6,638 acres of riverside land eligible for federal protection. These lands harbor critical habitat that will help local communities and wildlife withstand the effects of climate change, improve public access to the river, enhance recreational opportunities, and support clean drinking water and flood protection for residents and visitors.