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Pickney Island N.W.R. in South Carolina

A self-supported trip created by guest-paddler

Trip Overview

Day trip report- Circumnavigating Pickney Island National Wildlife Refuge near Hilton Head Island, SC:

My wife and I completed a loop of Pickney Island on 12/29/15. According to my Garmin watch, the total distance was 9.4 nautical miles (10.8 standard miles) and we completed the trip in 4 hrs, 40 minutes. My wife and I are intermediate-level kayakers, and we were paddling our recreational sit-on-top kayaks (Ocean Kayak Malibu Twoset for one, and a 10-ft. Future Beach kayak).

We planned carefully to take advantage of the tides (high tide at 11am) and wind (steady from the south at 7-10mph), so we launched from the Haig Landing at 7:30am and traveled counterclockwise around the island. Although the first 20 minutes were straight into the teeth of the wind and current, once we rounded the southern tip of the island, we enjoyed a tailwind and aiding current for the next 2.5 hrs. as we paddled north on Skull Creek, observing a wide variety of waterfowl and taking advantage of the mounds of oyster shells for occasional stretch breaks. We continued to enjoy a slight tailwind and current after we turned to the northwest for the stretch on Port Royal Sound.

A pair of dolphins welcomed us to the entrance of Mackay Creek, where we turned southwest. The next roughly 2.5 miles were relatively calm, meandering between the island, oyster beds and fields of sea grass, the island trees shielding us from the worst of the wind. However, when we turned south for the final roughly 2 mile leg as the HWY 278 bridge came into view, the serious work started. We were facing the full force of the 7-10mph headwind, and we strained to sustain 1.5 knots. So we decided to veer to the east and head toward the shore where the island's tall trees would shield us from the worst of the wind. Although still a struggle, the strategy blunted the headwind a bit, and we were able to turn back to the south and make it back to the launch with weary arms at 12:10pm.

Keys to our success:

  1. I used an online route planning tool to capture GPS points along the main channel for the entire route, then uploaded them into my handheld GPS. This allowed us to maintain a direct course and avoid diversions into inlets, as the sea grasses can make it difficult to see the channel ahead at lower tides.

  2. I have paddled the area several times and always encountered formidable winds out of the south. At some point during a Pickney circumnavigation, one has to face the winds. We opted to fight them toward the end, on the Mackay Creek leg, since my sources (thanks A.F.!) advised me that Skull Creek was the better option for the early tailwind since the currents could be more difficult.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable day trip that gave us a sense of accomplishment, and allowed us to use one transport car with no back-tracking!


Boat launch and pier




HWY 278 to Haig Boat Landing on Pickney Island just before reaching Hilton Head Island

Trip Details

  • Trip Duration: Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: Open Water/Ocean

Trip Location