Beyond This Tunnel of Live Oaks Lies Edisto Island’s Slice of Paradise

Tree tunnel at the entrance of Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve and Wildlife Management Area. (Photo: Dave Allen Photography/Shutterstock)

From the moment you begin to pass underneath Botany Bay Plantation's breathtaking mile-long tunnel of live oaks, you know you've arrived at a special place.

After 263 years of private ownership, this lowcountry paradise was abruptly transformed in 2008 from an obscure, secluded wilderness to a publicly accessible state-owned space that sees several hundreds visitors a day.

Nestled on a 4,630-acre chunk of South Carolina's Edisto Island, today's Botany Bay Plantation is comprised of what used to be two separate properties, Bleak Hall Plantation and Sea Cloud Plantation.

In the 1800s, these slave-owning establishments produced what was considered to be some of the highest-quality Sea Island cotton of its day, and the crop continued to be a major agricultural staple until the early 20th century, when the boll weevil effectively destroyed the South Carolina cotton industry.

Ice house on the former Botany Bay plantation grounds. (Photo: Catie Leary)

After changing hands a couple times in the years that followed cotton's collapse, the property was eventually bought by Alabama businessman and real estate magnate John E. Meyer in 1968. An avid outdoorsman, Meyer decided to leave the large property to the state of South Carolina upon the event of his death, with one stipulation: that his wife, Margaret, be able to retain use of the property until her death.

Meyer died in 1977, and Margaret, who eventually remarried and changed her last name to Pepper, remained on the plantation for the rest of her life. When she died in 2007 after several decades of serving as an attentive steward to the property, the South Carolina's Department of Natural Resources opened up the land to the public the following summer as Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve and Wildlife Management Area.

Today, visitors are welcome to take self-guided tours of the extensive property, which includes many historical and natural points of interest.

Ruins of the former cotton plantations remain in varying states of decay throughout the island. This mansion was burned down around the time of the Civil War. (Photo: Catie Leary)

Several of the former plantation's key historic sites, such as the ruins of Sea Cloud Plantation house (above), are protected behind fences and monitored by hidden surveillance cameras to ensure their continued preservation.

Remnants of Botany Bay Plantation. (Photo: Catie Leary)

Over the years, some structures have fared better than others. Above at left, we see a small outbuilding, built circa 1840 for Bleak Hall, that was likely used as either a smokehouse or a gardening shed (or perhaps both, but at different times in its life).

Above at right, the beehive-shaped remains of Jacob's Well are partially sunken into the ground. The well was built to provide a water source to the slaves at Sea Cloud plantation and, as evidenced in the 1910 photo at right, it used to look quite a bit different.

As it's explained on the Preserve Edisto website, "the 1910 photo shows a straight top to the well opening and the present day one has an arch. The smooth surface that was applied over the bricks has worn away and left the bare bricks exposed, including the arch design that can be seen above the straight top in the 1910 photo."

The remnants of former plantation life are a fascinating and sober reminder of our nation's past, but one of the most striking areas of Botany Bay is, of course, the hauntingly beautiful beach:

Eerie beachscape of Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve and Wildlife Management Area. (Photo: MarkVanDykePhotography/Shutterstock)

With its stoic, skeleton-like trees sprouting from the shimmering sand and oyster shells, the small 2-mile strip of coast is probably one of the most surreal, undeveloped beachscapes you'll find within the United States.

You might notice people wading into the surf in the video above, but swimming is actually not recommended at Botany Bay Plantation. The beach has been severely eroded by hurricanes in recent years, leaving behind ragged remnants of old pilings and tree snags hidden beneath the water. Also, because it's an exceptionally shelly beach (do you hear the clattering of oyster shells in the video above?), sturdy protective footwear is strongly recommended.

The beach is remarkable not only for its strange beauty, but also its status as one of South Carolina's top ranked loggerhead sea turtle nesting areas. In addition to sea turtles, the beach is a vital nesting area for the Wilson's plover and the least tern (pictured below) — two bird species that are increasingly threatened along South Carolina's shorelines.

A mother tern relocates her baby chick at Botany Bay Plantation. (Photo: Douglas Stewart/Flickr)

Due to the beach's protected status, it is illegal to take shells home with you. However, visitors have come up with a clever way of showcasing their most outstanding finds — by loosely attaching them to the rough bark of trees:

Due to the beach's protected status, it is illegal to take shells home with you. However, visitors have come up with a clever way of showcasing their most outstanding finds — by loosely attaching them to the rough bark of trees. (Photo: Catie Leary)

The shelling ban is just one of several measures enacted to reduce the stress caused by the influx of visitors. Since opening Botany Bay Plantation to the public, the SCDNR has been carefully evaluating and implementing the best strategies for ensuring a balance between maintaining public access and preserving what makes this place so special in the first place.

Bruce Rawl, one of Botany's longtime caretakers (and current DNR employee), thinkd the best way to achieve this is through visitor education: "We don’t want to write tickets. We want to teach visitors to use the land in an environmentally responsible way."

Continue below to see more gorgeous photos of Botany Bay Plantation.

This causeway running over a field of marsh connects the beach with the former plantation grounds. (Photo: Catie Leary)
A moth — one of hundreds fluttering around a meadow — stops for a drink of nectar. (Photo: Catie Leary)
Botany Bay Plantation's unusual beach is filled with oyster shells and a driftwood forest. (Photo: Catie Leary)
A large chunk of Botany Bay Plantation's old agricultural fields are still producing crops to this day, though they mainly serve as a bountiful food source for the local wildlife. (Photo: Catie Leary)