I drove to Aiken, SC on Sunday February 28th 2021 to meet with my friend Beth and her dog Pip for a walk in the woods. I am very lucky that Beth offered to join me. Hitchcock Woods were Beth’s backyard growing up. Today she is a member and a volunteer. She regaled me with stories of the woods’ history and on-going conservation efforts. I could not have found a better guide.
In 1892, Thomas Hitchcock and William Whitney purchased 8,000 acres in Aiken, SC for hunting. Around that time several prominent families from the North East built grand winter homes in Aiken attracted by its mild weather. The “winter colonists” as they are referred to on the wood’s web site played golf, rode horses and hunted. Fox hunting was very popular in Aiken, it was replaced by drag hunting in later years. In 1939, Thomas Hitchcock and his daughter established a foundation and donated 1200 acres to create a public recreational and equestrian space. The woods acreage grew over the years to 2,100 acres making it the largest privately owned urban forest in the United States. Hitchcock Woods is on the National Register of Historical Places. Visitors can hike the 70 miles of trails, ride horses, have a picnic, attend the horse show in the spring, or participate in drag hunts.
I learned a lot from Beth. She pointed out Aiken-style fences erected on some tracks, I watched a few riders jump them. She led me to the ruins of a mysterious house built in the early 1900. I happily took several photos of the brick staircase, what looked to be the remnant of a terrace, and the house’s base perimeter. She explained that the cedar tree in what may have been the house’s front yard is not native and was likely planted. I noticed a daffodil with beautiful yellow flowers that seemed out of place. She walked me to a spring where water flowed out of a ravine. She showed me the memorial gate dedicating the woods in Francis Hitchcock’s memory. We walked along the Kalmia trail promising beautiful flowers in the spring. They are also known as mountain Laurels, I was surprised to see them at this low elevation. Beth explained on-going projects to reforest the woods back to their native longleaf pines as well as efforts to increase the population of Red-Cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered bird. I was excited to snap a photo of a Red-Cockaded woodpecker. I saw a fox squirrel for the first time. He actually posed for my camera. Our last stop was at the Chalk Cliffs. They reminded me of Star Wars terrain. The cliffs have been around for several hundred years. Erosion marked the rocks like painted henna art.
I am thankful that Beth guided me through the woods that day. By the time I reached my car I had walked 5 miles and developed a deep appreciation for the work performed by the Hitchcock Foundation in maintaining this park as a historical, cultural, environmental, and recreational gem in the city of Aiken.
Reference Hitchcock Woods Web Site
The Beautiful Woods
Mysterious Ruins and Daffodils
The Memorial Gate and Horse Show Ring
Longleaf Pines, Horses, Riders, Birds, Squirel and Pip
Hanging by the Cliffs