Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1975, Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge consists of Pinckney Island, Corn Island, Big and Little Harry Islands, Buzzard Island and numerous small hammocks. The 4,053-acre refuge includes a variety of land types: saltmarsh, forestland, brushland, fallow fields, and freshwater ponds. Pinckney, the largest of the refuge islands, is 3.8 miles long and 1.75 miles across at its greatest width. In many areas where causeways have been constructed, only a few feet of roadbed separate the tidewaters on either side of Pinckney Island.

Click here to view a map of the refuge.

The National Wildlife Refuge lies in the junction or estuary where four inshore waterways merge: Mackey's Creek, the Chechessee River, Port Royal Sound and Skull Creek (the Intracoastal Waterway). Boaters who navigate the refuge's estuarine waters may view shore and wading birds, including the endangered wood stork, that feed on mudflats, oysterbeds and shores.

Over 14 miles of nature trails are provided for hiking, bicycling, photography and observing wildlife. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the refuge north of the public parking lot. This map indicates that some trails are gravel, while others are grass. Beautiful vistas of broad Carolina salt marshes, pine forests and freshwater ponds are found along the paths. Popular destinations are Ibis Pond (1.2 miles round-trip), Osprey Pond (2.9 miles round-trip), and for hearty hikers, White Point (7.9 miles round-trip).

A public boat ramp and fishing pier are located at Last End Point, the southern tip of Pinckney Island. Accessible from Highway 278, the area is maintained by Beaufort County under a lease agreement with the State of South Carolina and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

History of Pinckney Island

Archeologists have determined that prehistoric inhabitants dwelled on Pinckney Island as early as 10,000 B.C. Tribes of coastal Indians continued to live in the region until the 1700's. The interior islands west of Hilton Head Island were protected against ocean storms, and provided abundant fishing, shell fishing, hunting, and edible plants to the native islanders.

By 1715 Colonel Alexander Mackay, an Indian trader, acquired title to most of the islands now within the Pinckney Island Refuge. Mackay experimented with rice cultivation in the western portion of the island, but he met with little success. In 1734 the islands were sold to Charles Pinckney. His son, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a Revolutionary War commander, candidate for President in 1804, and signer of the U.S. Constitution, retired to Pinckney Island. He built a home near White Point (destroyed in 1824), and developed a thriving, long-staple cotton plantation on 297 acres. Pinckney died in 1825, but the plantation prospered until the Civil War.

Hilton Head Island was invaded by Union troops in November, 1861, and Pinckney Island was occupied soon afterward. The most significant battle took place on August 21, 1862. South Carolina State Troops attacked the camp of the 3rd New Hampshire Infantry, killing four Federal soldiers.

In 1937, after over 200 years of Pinckney ownership, the family sold the plantation to Ellen Keyser Bruce who managed the property as a game preserve. Edward Starr and James Barker purchased the land in 1954 and continued management for deer and other game species. In 1975, the property was donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be used exclusively as a wildlife refuge and as a nature and forest preserve for aesthetic and conservation purposes.

General Visitor Information

Public Use is permitted only on Pinckney Island proper year-round, during daylight hours. On occasion, for safety or management reasons, the refuge may be temporarily closed. Some trails may be closed seasonally to protect wildlife from human disturbance. Access to estuarine waters by boat is permitted 24 hours per day throughout the year. No boat access to any refuge land is permitted.

Saltwater fishing and shell fishing are allowed from boats only.

Defacement, damage or removal of any Government structure, sign or marker is prohibited.

Feeding, capturing or hunting wildlife is strictly prohibited unless otherwise authorized.

Dogs, cats and other pets are not permitted on the refuge.

All of the refuge's historical, archaeological and natural resources are protected. Antique and artifact hunting is not allowed. Do not pick or cut vegetation.

Please help keep the refuge clean by taking food and drink containers and litter with you.

Areas surrounding the manager's residence, maintenance facilities, and all outlying islands are closed to the public.

Special notice: drinking water is not available on Pinckney Island.

The Wildlife Management Program

The Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge contains some of the most pristine salt marsh habitat for wildlife in the South Carolina-Georgia coastal zone. Protected from sea storms by Hilton Head Island, the refuge offers a safe haven for migratory birds and native animals. There are four species of animals federally listed as endangered or threatened whose range is within the refuge boundaries. The Southern bald eagle, peregrine falcon, wood stork and American alligator have all been recorded on the refuge. Of these, only the alligator nests on the refuge.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in compliance with plans designed to conserve wildlife and provide opportunities for wildlife-oriented recreation. Habitats are maintained for endangered plants and animals, for migratory birds, and for plants and animals native to this area. All salt marsh in the refuge is protected under Federal and South Carolina law. Forest management includes selective thinning to preserve valuable trees, clearing to create edge zones, hardwood planting, and burning of some pine woods understory. Certain abandoned fields will undergo discing and burning to control overgrowth and maintain habitat variety. To provide surface water for wildlife, five freshwater ponds have been constructed.

Nest boxes for wood ducks have been erected throughout the refuge's secluded ponds. As you hike the trails along the salt marsh, you will notice nesting platforms for osprey. These man-made roosts have proven successful in other coastal refuges.

White-tailed deer hunting on Pinckney Island is scheduled as needed on a year to year basis to maintain the herd at a population that is balanced with the habitat. Hunters may write the Savannah Coastal Refuges for more information.

How Fire Can Help Wildlife

Hikers on Pinckney Island will see pine trees with evenly charred trunks, to a height of 10-15 feet. The woodlands where these trees grow have been burned on purpose according to an accepted forestry management program called prescribed burning. Adapting techniques first made successful by Indians, refuge personnel ignite ground fires during winter months to clear away the understory.

The controlled application of fire in southern pine stands builds a healthy forest and improves wildlife habitat. Undesirable hardwoods, dead trees, and thick shrubs and vines are removed. Under wildlife conditions, this tangled vegetation would allow flames to climb up trunks into the canopy, destroying entire trees. After a burn, stumps and limbs will decay on the ground, enriching the soil. Quick-growing herbs and grasses which are food for deer and birds will soon sprout in the opened forest floor.

Each year, several fallow fields on Pinckney Island will be cleared by prescribed burning. Soon after a field is burned, wildflowers and grasses begin to grow. They produce seed crops which are sought by quail, mourning doves, and other birds. Fields and woodlands that have not been opened by fire provide a protective edge where feeding wildlife may take cover. As you hike, observe the margins of forests, ponds and marshlands: here on the edge of two environments, wildlife is most abundant.

The Salt Marsh

Nearly 67% or 2,729 acres of Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge consists of salt marsh and small islands called tidal hammocks. This broad wetland was originally formed when saltwater-tolerant plants colonized muddy flats of silt that were deposited around the islands by nearby rivers that drained the mainland. The area is named salt marsh because its prairie of tall grass is filled with salty water brought by tides twice a day. Tides may vary as much as 11 feet. The water that fills the salt marsh nourishes thousands of animals, large and small.

At high tide, water flows up the creeks covering the tall grass, and stirring up the thick, gray marsh mud and mats of decaying grass. Bacteria decay marsh plants and create a nutritious "soup" called detritus that nourishes small animals that are the foundation of the salt marsh food chain. Oysters, clams and mussels feed on the tiny suspended particles by filtering them through their gills. Out in the deep streams, small finfish feeding on debris are pursued by larger oceanic fish and bottlenosed dolphin.

About six and one-half hours later, the ebbing tide pulls dissolved plants and swimming animals out to sea. Now is the time to watch for raccoons, otters, mink and water birds. They will migrate out to creek banks and mudflats to hunt crabs, snails, fish and insects stranded in the grass and glistening muck. The plant life in the salt marsh must be especially hardy to adapt to changing water levels, the effects of salt, and the unstable mud soil. Few plants can tolerate this harsh world, but those that do can stabilize the mud with their roots and control erosion.

Can you locate the six most common salt marsh plants in the refuge? Follow these simple clues. Salt Marsh Cordgrass is the tall, bright green grass that grows by the creeks. Saltgrass is knee-high, its leaves stand out from the stem at a wide angle, and is found in sandier flats. Sea Ox-Eye also knee-high, has showy yellow flowers or seedheads that are sharp like burrs. It grows at the high water line. Marsh Elder is a perennial shrub with sharply-toothed leaves and greenish-white flowers in autumn. This plant grows above the high water zone, along the causeways.

If you peer down at the marsh mud, you will notice bustling armies of fiddler crabs. They are named for the male's one large front claw which is used to attract a female, and also for defense. Fiddlers burrow underground and leave rolled-up pellets by their circular "front door." When tides are rising, watch saltmarsh snails climb up the stalks of marsh plants. These air-breathing snails would drown if covered by water for more than one hour.

For birds, the shallow creeks and mudflats at low tide are a breadbasket of life. Herons, egrets, ibises, willets, gulls, terns, sandpipers, and oystercatchers are just a few of the beautiful wading and shore birds that inhabit the salt marshes.

Freshwater Ponds

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages five major freshwater ponds on Pinckney Island. The most accessible areas for hikers are Ibis Pond and Osprey Pond.

Ponds are valuable to animals in the refuge because they provide drinking water, plant and animal food sources, and nesting thickets on the shores for turtles, snakes, crayfish, frogs and insects. The small water dwellers are in turn hunted by fish, alligators, mammals and birds. Snowy egrets, cattle egrets, tri-colored (Louisiana) herons, night herons and little blue herons nest in colonies or rookeries at Osprey and Ibis Ponds. In the autumn and winter, the ponds here are an important habitat for migrating waterfowl. At least 19 species of ducks have been identified in the fresh waterways of the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge.

A Word about Safety

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes that you enjoy your visit to Pinckney Island. Please bear in mind that safety precautions are necessary wherever you travel in the refuge.

The graveled road is well maintained, but in the summer, overgrowth on the grass trails may conceal snakes, poison ivy or stinging insects. An occasional alligator may be encountered on the trail by Clubhouse Pond. Do not feed or molest this reptile in any way. Hikers are advised to stay on the paths at all times.

Bike riding is allowed on all trails. Bicyclists should be cautious of loose gravel, potholes and puddles.


Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is one of the Savannah Coastal Refuges administered by the Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Questions regarding Pinckney Island should be directed to the Coastal Refuges office (address mail to Parkway Business Center, Suite 10; 1000 Business Center Drive; Savannah, Georgia 31405).

As the Nation's principal conservation agency, the Department of the Interior has responsibility for most of our federally-owned public lands and natural resources. Its mission includes fostering the wisest use of our land and water resources, protecting our fish and wildlife, preserving the environmental and cultural values of our national parks and historical places, and providing for the enjoyment of life through outdoor recreation. The Department assesses our energy and mineral resources and works to assure that their development is in the best interests of all our people. The Department also has a major responsibility for American Indian reservation communities and for people who live in island territories under U.S. administration.

Acknowledgements: Publication of this information was accomplished with the support of the Hilton Head Audubon Society and Todd Ballentine, volunteer. This information was provided by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The Savannah Coastal Refuges
Parkway Business Center, Suite 10
1000 Business Center Drive
Savannah, Georgia 31405
(912) 652-4415

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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