Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

BULLS ISLAND, S.C. — Be Robinson Crusoe for a day. Bring your own food and water. Just pay the ferryman $40 bucks for the ride here and back. It’s that simple.

This raw daytime hiking is just minutes up the coast from the pampering hotels and rich dining scene of cosmopolitan Charleston. Yet the 30-minute voyage to this marquee isle of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is a time-peeler, a rare opportunity to experience an uninhabited 5,000-acre world as organic as what colonial explorers encountered.

There’s a stunning all-natural beach that on a steaming Saturday in tourist season was as deserted as Arctic Labrador. It’s called Boneyard Beach because higher tides caused by an ever-shifting coastline have killed pines and myrtles, while salty sea winds have stripped trunks and limbs of leaves and bark. At low tide the remains dot the beach like stick-figure Rorschach tests. With the ocean behind them, the scene resembles a Dali landscape. On some stretches of beach, what look like inverted-V truck tire marks are actually tracks left by nesting loggerhead sea turtles.

Behind the beach, the sands hit thick brush: There are no dunes or resort properties behind the jungle-like screen. Baby crabs may skitter by your beach towel, but you are largely on your own.

Some blazed roads and paths on the island pass brackish lagoons when an array of bird species — some endangered — warily eye basking alligators. One hiking route leads to a midden — a pile of oyster shells compiled by long-gone Native Americans — and another to the ruins of a tower built 300 years ago to spot pirates.

Inland, butterflies, dragonflies and mosquitoes flit or swarm at arm’s length in wild woods, thickets and sawgrass marshes. Deer, bobcats, minks, otters, red wolves and black fox squirrels hide among live…