Nature in the neighborhood
By Claire Vaughan
All the breathless beauty of the Lowcountry visible from the Greenway. Images by the author.
The West Ashley Greenway is one of my favorite trails in Charleston. Around nine miles, the trail extends from West Ashley to John’s Island along the Stono River. It is composed of paved sections divided by streets and includes mile markers and barriers to motor vehicles, creating a safe, neighborhood environment for walkers, bikers, families and more.
The Greenway, however, did not always look like this; it was once part of a 110-mile-long railroad extending from Charleston to Savannah, completed in 1860, which I discovered in an article by by Maggie Vickrey titled “The History of the West Ashley Greenway” published on CHS Today. The article goes on to say that this railway was important in the exchange of passengers, as well as goods such as cotton, tobacco, grains, meats, and livestock, between the two port cities. Although this railway was helpful in its day, the decline in popularity of railroads around the 1960s caused a neglect of these tracks and allowed for their renovation into walking and biking trails.
The Greenway has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember; I decided to take a stroll down memory lane as I biked the entirety of the trail this past weekend. I grew up in South Windermere, and my family and I would go on walks, runs and bike rides along the Greenway’s paths, stopping at shops in South Windermere for food or at the nearby Harris Teeter for groceries. The first four to five miles of the Greenway are perfect for such activities. These sections have terminals at shopping centers like St. Andrew’s and neighborhoods such as Byrnes Downs. I found that these first sections were most populated with families, dog walkers, schoolkids and baby joggers. The atmosphere felt citylike, as the sections were paved and well kept, and I could hear the familiar buzz of cars and conversation. I love this part of the Greenway because although there is busyness, nature still finds a way to invade upon the trails, offering a haven amid the craziness of everyday jobs and schoolwork. The trails in this section provide not only a purpose for kids walking home from school or to families biking to the grocery store but also for those who need an escape from office hours and screen time. The Greenway presents a convenient way to get outside and to appreciate the environment of the Lowcountry.
The westernmost miles of the Greenway.
Within the next four to five miles of the Greenway, the atmosphere of the trail changes completely. The pavement wears off, giving way to a rocky path, and the trees become more overgrown with green branches and Spanish moss framing the way. At several points, the trees open up to expansive, breathtaking views of the marsh and the Stono River. This contrast between tall trees and greenery shading the trail to the bright, sunny scenes of peaceful creek water and tall spartina grass shows how diverse the environment of the Lowcountry can be.
I loved that I was able to see the diversity of such ecosystems in one day, in one bike ride on the Greenway. These sections were less populated, but the people I did pass were quiet fishermen and determined runners. I enjoyed this second half for its serenity, and the peacefulness of the natural scenes. I did not mind that the trail was not as neat and well kept or that there were not many people; rather, I think the qualities of nature evident in these sections gave it a unique and separate experience from the latter half of the Greenway.
The two halves of the Greenway, although not explicitly marked, show the versatility of the trail; each end of the Greenway has its strengths: whether the path is cleaner or more rustic, populated or sparse, scenic or simple, it is always available to be appreciated and held as a symbol of our community in Charleston.
Date established: Abandoned in 1981 by the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad and developed into a trail by the City of Charleston, with the last section finished in 2007.
Status: Public property, owned and operated by the South Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation.
Length: Around 8.8 miles.
Start: Folly Road at South Windermere.
End: McLeod Road on Johns Island.