I got my New Year started a day early. On the final day of 2013 I took the first steps in a journey I hope ends in the mountains of South Carolina at Oconee State Park. I want to walk the entire Palmetto Trail, currently 25 passages that cover more than 350 miles from the mountains to the sea.

What: The Awendaw Passage, part of the greater Palmetto Trail that traverses the state of South Carolina, begins at the U.S. Forest Service's Buck Hall Recreation Area in Awendaw and covers seven miles before connecting with the Swamp Fox Passage. It begins near the Intracoastal Waterway, travels alongside Awendaw Creek and crosses U.S. Highway 17.

Fee: $5 parking fee at Buck Hall.

Difficulty: Easy.

Information: Maps and trail information can be found at palmettoconservation.org

Palmetto Trail Awendaw Passage

I want to feast on the natural beauty that can be found throughout the state, but I'm trying to take the "how do you eat an elephant" approach - one bite at a time. I don't have a time frame for completing the hike, just take advantage of opportunities. And while it sometimes is referred to as the "Mountains to the Sea Trail," I'm going to approach it from the opposite direction, hopefully building my endurance as I head to Oconee State Park. I want to learn more about the wildlife and increase my knowledge of nature.

The Palmetto Trail (palmettoconservation.org) is something that's been on my bucket list for several years. I figure at my age the Appalachian Trail probably isn't going to be an option but walking across South Carolina might be doable.

In discussing the idea, my wife Ann indicated she might like to join me for parts of the Palmetto Trail.

When I made the decision that I was going to start the hike this week, she was game to take on the first leg, the Awendaw Passage. Weather conditions and a New Year's Day college football game pushed us to a Tuesday hike. Her sister Patty and her sister's two grandchildren, Jack, 8, and Eliza, 4, also joined us.

We headed up U.S. Highway 17 to the U.S. Forest Service's Buck Hall Recreation Area, stopping along the way to drop off a car at a parking area where the Awendaw Passage connects with the Swamp Fox Passage. The Palmetto Trail is billed as a hiking and biking trail, so we carried bicycles but ultimately we ended up pushing our bikes most of the way. Tree roots, stump remnants and the plastic grates used for erosion control combined with damp pine needles made the path slippery in some areas. Besides, why rush when you're trying to enjoy the outdoors?

The trail begins at Buck Hall, appropriately, at a boardwalk that surrounds a beautiful palmetto tree before veering into the woods. It's mostly flat until the trail approaches Awendaw Creek where there are some unexpected elevation changes.

The Awendaw Creek area offers some scenic vistas across the marsh to the Intracoastal Waterway in the distance. The trail takes a turn back inland at the Awendaw Creek Canoe and Kayak Launch at the end of Rosa Green Road, a spot where you also can park a vehicle and hike or bike part of the trail.

At this point you head west and cross U.S. Highway 17, again working your way through the woods and "hopefully" back to the Swamp Fox parking area near Steed Creek Road. I say "hopefully" because we could not find the trail again after reaching Murrell Road. We looked in vain before opting to hike out to U.S. Highway 17 and then walk a short distance to our second vehicle.

The trail is usually well-marked, especially through the woods where white paint blazes on trees keep you on the trail. Both of the youngsters handled it easily (Eliza rode for a portion) and Eliza said, "It's not a hike, it's an adventure." Just remember to bring enough food and water for the hike. Our leisurely seven-mile adventure lasted about four hours.

Meredith Walker, who is the communications director for Palmetto Conservation Foundation which oversees the Palmetto Trail, said vandalism is an occasional problem, especially in the proximity of major roads which probably explained our inability to find the last trail crossing.

"Our goal is to make the trial as accessible as possible to all kinds of people, and signage is a part of that," Walker said.

"The Palmetto Trail is a hidden gem that we'd rather not be hidden. It's a huge resource for people all across the state. If you're in South Carolina you're never more than an hour and a half or two hours away from some portion of the trail."

The trail began 20 years ago and this year reached the 350-mile mark. But a new master plan (FinishThePalmettoTrail.org) will be released this spring, and Walker said when the trail is complete the Palmetto Conservation Foundation hopes there will be more than 500 miles of trails. A completion date has not been set.

"The trail is in 25 different passages and you can use those to day-hike or combine consecutive passages for weekend or week-long hikes," she said, adding that there are some people who have through-hiked the trail."

Walker said the Awendaw Passage, because of its proximity to Charleston, is one of the most popular passages with several thousand users a month. We encountered a handful of hikers and bikers on a chilly, overcast day. The trail is dog-friendly and several had man's best friend with them.

The trail is complete for 162 miles from the Awendaw Passage through the Wateree Passage at Poinsett State Park, taking you through the Francis Marion National Forest and along the shores of Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion. The Palmetto Conservation Foundation offers a book, "The Palmetto Trail Lowcountry Guide," through its website that covers this area in detail and includes maps. Maps also are available online for each of the passages.

The Palmetto Trail isn't just rural hikes, however. The trail also goes through Fort Jackson and the Capital City Passage goes through Columbia, across the grounds of the state Capitol. It also goes through Spartanburg.

"Our (the Palmetto Conservation Foundation) goal is to improve the quality of life through trails and greenways," Walker said. "We have programming and events throughout the state for families and different groups. We want to make people more comfortable with the outdoors and for them to see the outdoors as one of our state's biggest resources."

During the coming year I plan on enjoying that resource. I'm not sure when I'll make it to Oconee, but I certainly plan to tackle that elephant a bite at a time until I get there.