Danielle Palka knows the benefits of maintaining a good relationship with forest rangers.
"They're very good about saying, 'Yeah, don't go on that trail today, there's 6 to 8 inches of sloshing water in there,'" she says with a laugh. "Some of the trails can get a bit wet and waterlogged this time of year."
But that's all in a day's work for Palka, who, as outdoor recreation coordinator for Charleston County Parks & Recreation, needs to stay updated on the conditions of the most popular trails of the Francis Marion National Forest. The information she gathers is put to good use as she leads groups of hikers through the trails by day and especially when she leads them through at night.
Night hiking is an experience that is very different from its sunlit counterpart. "It gives you the chance to experience the outdoors and the wilderness with different senses," Palka says. "And it's cooler at nighttime. We also see some nocturnal wildlife that you won't see during the day."
Some of the most popular trails for these night hiking trips include the Swamp Fox Passage of the Palmetto Trail and the Awendaw Passage, which starts at the Buck Hall Recreation Area (about 3 miles north of Awendaw). These hikes offer the opportunity to experience the wetlands and coastal pine forest that make the Francis Marion National Forest so appealing.
Beginning in September of each year, Charleston County Parks & Recreation usually offers at least one night hike per month. "We try to follow when the full moon is," she adds. "Sometimes with a full moon, if it's a really clear night, you can just hike by the full moon, which is pretty amazing.
"Of course, if people feel they have to have a light source, we don't discourage that. But usually after we've been hiking for a while, we'll start to see people turn their lights off."
In addition to bringing some kind of light source, be it a flashlight or head lamp, Palka recommends that hikers have a good pair of walking shoes. "They don't necessarily need to wear boots, but something good and sturdy on their feet that they don't mind getting wet or muddy."
She also recommends bringing a lightweight backpack to carry a drink, snack, bug spray, and a light rain jacket, just in case.
The night hiking trips, she points out, are not limited to experienced hikers.
"We typically hike an hour and a half to two hours, so that might be three to five miles, again, depending upon the pace of the group, whether it rains or not, those kinds of things," she says. "Being in the Lowcountry, the terrain in the off-trail hiking that we do is still a very flat, level surface. It makes it much easier for people who are beginners or who aren't sure about their physical ability."
Charleston County Parks also offers other options for experiencing the great outdoors by night as well, including Moonlight Wall Climbs at James Island County Parks.
Sea Kayak Carolina schedules a handful of full moon paddles every season for those who prefer their "strolls" on the water.
For more information about night hiking, visit the Charleston County Parks & Recreation at ccprc.com. Night hikes with Charleston County Parks are $12 for county residents and $15 for non-residents. Participants can find schedules and register for hikes online. For more about kayaking at night, visit Sea Kayak Carolina at seakayakcarolina.com or call (843) 225-7969. The full moon paddle is $56 and is held monthly.