Trail of the Month: August 2022
“When the trail opened up, a group of girlfriends and I started walking religiously on it almost every day; they kept adding sections to the trail, so we would just go farther and farther.”
—Rosemary Cuppia, longtime resident of Beaufort, South Carolina
Aptly named for the moss-draped live oaks along the route, the woodsy sections of the Spanish Moss Trail provide a cool respite in the South Carolina summers. As it winds 10 miles through Beaufort County on the state’s southern coastline, numerous bridges over salt marshes and small streams provide picturesque views and the chance to see pink-hued roseate spoonbills or snowy white egrets wading in the shallows. When the tide is right, you might even catch a glimpse of dolphins feeding on shrimp.
“It’s part of my morning exercise routine,” said Mary Roe, a lead volunteer for the trail who especially enjoys the pathway’s peacefulness in those early hours. “We’re not New England, so we don’t have the maple leaves changing, but you can hear the different sounds of the seasons, and watch the marsh grass turn from green to gold.”
Located roughly midway between its two coastal counterparts—Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia—Beaufort oozes beauty and charm. Stay at one of the local inns here and chances are they’ll have bikes for guests to pedal around on the town’s pride and joy, a trail that has made the top 10 lists of national magazines like Outside and Parade. Shops and restaurants are just a short hop from the Spanish Moss Trail, and residents use it as a safe transportation route to major employers such as the Beaufort Memorial Hospital and the Marine Corps Air Station.
“The way this trail cuts through where the old railroad was, it’s a shortcut to a lot of places, so you can actually get to places as fast on a bike as you could in a car. It’s more efficient and so much prettier,” enthused Edward Dukes, a Beaufort native and real estate broker. “And one exciting thing that’s just happened is there’s a new Publix supermarket, and you can get to it right off the trail. One of my brothers, who lives a few doors down from me, has already timed it from his house on his bicycle!”
Experience the Spanish Moss Trail
See why South Carolina’s Spanish Moss Trail was ranked among the top 10 urban walking trails in the United States by "Outside" magazine. Enjoy this showcase of some of the Lowcountry’s best scenery and historical points of interest—including picturesque salt water and marsh vistas and coastal wildlife viewing along this 10-mile paved greenway connecting the communities of Beaufort and Port Royal.
Produced by the Friends of the Spanish Moss Trail. Used by permission.
A Series of Fortunate Events
While the trail celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, the corridor through which it runs is more than 150 years old. Constructed shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Port Royal Railroad traversed South Carolina’s Lowcountry from Port Royal, an important shipping harbor, north to Yemassee, where it connected with the Charleston and Savannah Railway. The line thrummed with trade and commerce for more than a century, falling into disuse only in the early 2000s.
“Before, it was sort of rough where the railway ran—rundown and overgrown in places,” said Dukes, describing the defunct tracks. “The neighborhoods that backed up to it weren’t in any way benefited by the old rail corridor. Now, it’s such a sought-after thing. Everybody wants to be near the trail.”
But the opportunity to create the Spanish Moss Trail from that old rail line was almost missed until an unlikely hero—a water and sewer utility company—stepped in.
“Around 2005 or 2006, the state’s ports authority owned the railroad, but decided to sell it,” explained Dean Moss, executive director for the Friends of the Spanish Moss Trail. “They’d offered the right-of-way to the county but were turned down. At the time, I was the general manager of the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, which is the regional water and sewer utility here. When you’re in the utility business, right-of-way is gold, so we initiated discussions with the ports authority and ultimately bought the right-of-way from them.”
To help pay for the purchase, the company began to sell off the railroad ties, rails and gravel. And the idea was for their water lines to run underneath the corridor, leaving the surface available for a trail.
In another fortuitous turn of events, the project gained a benefactor that helped move it forward: Jim Kennedy, a chief executive officer in Cox Enterprises at the time who was also a serious biker, owned property adjacent to the right-of-way. He had been supporting the PATH Foundation’s work to create trails in the Atlanta region and offered to pay for the first section of Spanish Moss Trail, a milelong segment near downtown Beaufort, which opened in 2012.
Over the next few years, Beaufort County developed more segments of the trail in partnership with the PATH Foundation, with the last piece falling into place in 2015 and creating 10 miles of contiguous paved pathway. In addition to Kennedy’s continued support, funding came from the county, the municipalities along the route, private foundations, community-minded organizations and individuals raised by Friends of the Spanish Moss Trail.
For a city founded in 1711, the trail brought something new and unique—and was immediately embraced by longtime residents, like Rosemary Cuppia, who was born and raised in Beaufort.
“About 25 years ago I had cancer, so they told me I needed to exercise every day,” said Cuppia, the owner of a local jewelry store. “I started out on the treadmill, and then my husband and I would walk the sidewalks to town and back. When the trail opened up, a group of girlfriends and I started walking religiously on it almost every day; they kept adding sections to the trail, so we would just go farther and farther.”
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A Happy Place
As the rail-trail skirts the western edge of Beaufort, plans are afoot to tie it directly into downtown. Construction is expected to start soon on the first phase of the Downtown Beaufort Connector, which will run a half-mile from roughly the trail’s midpoint at the Depot Road Trailhead, where a refurbished railroad building serves as the ceremonial heart of the trail, eastward to Ribaut Road, a major north-south thoroughfare. A second phase will cross Ribaut Road and continue the route to the city’s historic district.
Plans are also underway to stretch the trail about a half-mile farther south into neighboring Port Royal, a quaint harbor town, with construction anticipated to begin as early as this fall.
“We’re really excited about the expansion going into Port Royal,” said Roe. “That’s just going to be a great connection that will also drive a lot of dollars into that community for restaurants and things like that. My daughter—who is 28 and lives in Beaufort—we ride the trail a lot together, and we’re both excited to be able to ride down to Port Royal, have lunch and ride back home.”
In the more distant future, extending the trail northward—which would involve the expensive but necessary construction of a bridge across a broad salt marsh—is also on the table.
“We have a lot of very rural parts of the county occupied in many areas by small African American communities that have been there since the Civil War and before,” said Moss of this northern section. “There are no safe walking spaces on many of the streets and roads out in these rural areas, so one of the initiatives we’re putting forward is to provide those communities with sidewalks and other kinds of paths along the roads, so there are safe walking routes for people.”
When all is said and done (anticipated for 2026), the pathway will total 16 miles, allowing even more people to experience what Dukes calls the “wild success” of the Spanish Moss Trail.
“It’s been such a great thing for the whole community,” said Cuppia. “We have our ‘trail friends’—you know, the people that you just see all the time on the trail—and you see people biking, running, walking their dogs, rollerblading and skateboarding—it’s just a happy place.”