With a combined 46,000 acres of rolling hills, long-leaf pine forests, and open fields, Sand Hills State Forest and H. Cooper Black Jr. Memorial Field Trial and Recreation Area is a top Southeast destination for trail riders. Located in north-central South Carolina, between Hartsville and Patrick, the H. Cooper Black in particular is the ideal staging and camping spot for your horseback excursion.
"You can ride all day and not see a human being, just forest creatures - beautiful black fox, squirrels, deer, turkey, and, if you have a keen eye, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker," says Patsy Gowen, an endurance rider and American Endurance Ride Conference ride manager who developed a unique trail system there.
"The entire area is beautiful," Gowen continues. "In the spring, iris, dogwoods, yellow jasmine, and other wildflowers are in bloom. Sand Hills is also a working forest, with logging pine-needle harvesting. With the underbrush cleared out, you can see far into the forest."
The South Carolina State Park Service, which is extremely horse-friendly, manages H. Cooper Black. There are three entrances, and you can arrive anytime; there are no gated entries. And you don't need a permit to ride on its 7,000 acres and 20 miles of marked trails. But you will need a permit to ride in the Sand Hills State Forest.
The best time to ride is September through May, although June can be mild some years. The summer months, especially July and August, can be uncomfortable due to heat, humidity, and flying pests.
Gowen discovered Sand Hills State Forest when she was scouting endurance-event locations. At that time, very few trails were marked, and the land was used primarily for hunting-dog field-trial competitions. Working with State Forest Ranger Forest Murphy, now retired, Gowen and several friends rode the area, marking trails for the first endurance event, held in 2002.
"When Forest Murphy retired, [Sand Hills State Forest director] Brian Davis took over, and he's just as enthusiastic to allow us to develop and use the endurance-event trails," says Gowen, who gained approval to permanently mark six color-coded trails that recreational riders also appreciate.
"The Red Trail is 22 miles long and runs east-west," Gowen explains. "The Blue Trail is 19 miles long and runs north-south. The Orange Trail, 22 miles long, also runs north-south. The Green Trail is 17 miles long and is located primarily on H. Cooper grounds. The Yellow Trail is 13 miles long and is mostly alongside paved roads. The newest trail is the Navy Trail, which runs southwest and is 17 miles long."
On all but the Navy Trail, letters indicate trail distances. An "A" denotes five miles into the trail; "B" 10 miles; "C" 15 miles; and "D" 20 miles. There are no other mileage markers. The trails interconnect, so you can make short or long loops, depending on your and your horse's abilities.
Ranger Bonnie Lewis emphasizes that these trails aren't part of the H. Cooper Black trail system, which are marked with white blaze paint on trees and are the only trails shown on the park map. By prior request, you can obtain a photocopy of the endurance-trail map to use along with the park map and the Sand Hills State Forest map.
"Sand Hills has approximately 30 miles of riding trails, excluding Patsy Gowen's trails," says Davis. "We also have 130 miles of state forest roads, known as truck trails, which are open for riding. These are noted on maps as, for example, TT-16 or TT-127."
Horse camping is permitted in Sand Hills State Forest at Sugarloaf Mountain, where you'll find eight primitive campsites. H. Cooper Black is more developed, offering 12-by-12-foot stalls in a 24-stall barn and campsite-adjacent 16-by-16-foot pipe corrals; some sites have electricity and water. Primitive camping is available behind the barn. Tie lines and highlines are permitted only in this area. There are also two bathhouses, with hot and cold running water.
The main camping area doesn't allow horses so that it remains clean for non-equestrian campers. You must unload your horse before parking in one of these spaces. There are pipe corrals directly across the driveway from these spaces. In the other camping area, there are pairs of pipe corrals behind each of these campsites.
There's also a full-size, lighted arena. As long as the arena hasn't been rented for a competition, trail riders are welcome to use it. If your club would like to schedule a trail ride or event, there's a clubhouse available to rent that has a kitchen, dining area, fireplace, and bathrooms.
If you wish to leave the H. Cooper Black boundaries to ride Sand Hills, you may purchase a daily pass from an "iron ranger," a hollow metal post where you can drop your registration form and payment. Or, you can purchase a daily or annual permit from the Sand Hills State Forest office in person, over the phone, or online. (Visit www.state.sc.us/forest/permit.)
Regular camping fees (stall or corral not included) are $18 per day with electricity and water. With tax and transaction charges, corral fees are $10.01 and stalls are $14.86 per day. One bag of shavings is supplied with the stall rental. If you want more shavings, bring your own. H. Cooper Black offers a 25 percent discount off camping, corral, and stall fees Sunday through Thursday.
Ranger Lewis, an avid equestrian, offers a "Ride with a Ranger" program once a month, during which she guides riders on trails and answers questions about the facility and land use.
In the office part-time, you'll find administrative assistant Linda Kountz, who's very helpful in making your stay enjoyable. Park Rangers Chris Waddell and Rocky Graves can also help you with any questions or situations that may arise during your stay. The phone is attended between 11 a.m. and noon, seven days per week. Otherwise, leave a message.
Make reservations before you head to the campground, due to great demand. H. Cooper Black is host to organized trail rides, hunting-dog field trials, AERC competitions, barrel racing competitions, and even car and motorcycle races (at which time the facility is closed to all other user groups, for safety purposes).
"All camping sites, corrals, and stalls are numbered, so when you make a reservation, we place reservation cards where you'll park and where you'll stall your horse," says Kountz.