Not too far from the busy downtown of Greenville, between Mauldin and the Donaldson Center, lie 400 acres of hardwoods, evergreens, marsh and river. Between playdates and Park Hop we had been to the adjacent Conestee Park at least a dozen times, but it was during one of these decidedly spring-like days that we’ve been having that we ventured beyond the Greenville County Rec complex into Lake Conestee Nature Park, with Sparkleberry Island the day's destination of choice.
With dozens of trails crisscrossing the area including our famous Swamp Rabbit Trail, there are more than a few choices on an afternoon such as ours; due to its proximity to the children’s playground and the relatively short length (0.6 mile loop +there and back brought the total to about a mile) we chose River Otter Way and Froggy Bottom Link, a loop of boardwalks and sandy pathways taking us around the entirety of Sparkleberry Island.
The name Sparkleberry 'island' refers to the fact that the piece of land was actually completely encircled by water at one time before Lake Conestee filled in; today, the Reedy River is to the north and east, while various bays and Marrow Bone Creek are to the south and west. Despite 90% of the original lake being filled in, with the North Slough along the western portion of the island and West Bay on the southern tip there are plenty of opportunities to spot waterfowl and wildlife on the hike. Even with four loud hikers accompanying us we saw birds galore; it’s no wonder the park has been designated as an Important Bird Area of Global Significance by the National Audubon Society, an incredible 190 species have been documented by the Greenville County Bird Club.
The bridge spanning the Reedy River is a sturdy pedestrian bridge that looks as if it could have been a railway at some time, if not for its narrowness. Immediately on the opposite side is a picnic area, perfect for some future feast. Continuing on, we crossed from trail onto boardwalk for the western portion of the circle. These boardwalks are new, and here and there is still a muddy expanse crossed by wooden plankways; however getting muddy would be completely by choice. With inquisitive and curious kids it might be prudent to wear rain boots on future visits; this would allow the boys to get up close and personal with the wetter aspects of the island, as a couple of the hikers on the day’s visit showed us.
A wildlife observation deck looks out over West bay on the southern end of the island. We saw mallard ducks and geese enjoying the sunny day, fish and turtles in the shallow waters. In the middle of the bay is the Great Blue Heron rookery, and during late spring and summer you'll see plenty of the birds in the area.
Back in the woods we found plenty of deer sign left by the inhabitants of the hardwood forest. Along with the deer, raccoon, beaver, fox, river otter, and various small mammals inhabit the park. Reptiles and amphibians are also plentiful. Woodpeckers and insects kept the boys busy as we looped back around to the Reedy for the last section of the hike.
I can’t wait to explore other portions of the park. Along with several trails that shadow the Reedy, there are paved and unpaved trails and boardwalks leading to intriguing-sounding places such as Forrester Farm, Raccoon Run, and to larger 'bays' than what we saw on our hike. The Swamp Rabbit Trail’s terminus is currently at the southern end of the park, close to the Historic Conestee Mill, and the Historic Conestee Lake Dam is another point of interest that I’m sure we’ll explore someday. I can imagine that as the summer progresses the insects might become a nuisance, but during these late winter and early spring days there is no better place to be to enjoy all that the beautiful Upstate has to offer just a few miles from our doorstep. Bright red maple buds on the river and bright green grass brought senses starved for color, and the fresh air and sunshine were simply invigorating. The boys had a great time, whether it was searching for tracks, drawing in the sand or enjoying the playground on our return; I hope that we have the opportunity for further exploration soon.
For park hours, trailheads and parking, click here, for park rules and safety, click here and for the park map, click here. My guide to Lake Conestee Nature Park (complete with links to the various trails and areas within the park) is here.