With most of the country firmly in the grasp of our latest polar vortex, I decided it was a good time to head south for an adventure. What I found amongst the moderate temperatures on the coast of South Carolina was a stunning collage of tropical paradise and eastern forest.
Palm trees, sandy beaches, and the region’s iconic Spanish moss exist among towering pines and live oaks, creating a diverse environment unlike any other along the nearly 30,000 miles of Atlantic shoreline.
Get Lost and Find Yourself at Hunting Island State Park
Making my way onto this wild and rugged section of coast for the first time, I’m quickly reminded of the simple joy brought about by pulling off your shoes and welcoming the warm exfoliation of sand under your feet. Standing on an isolated coast, without another human in sight, and on a beach free from development is a humbling and peaceful experience.
With a section of black sand under my feet and palm trees standing guard on either side, I could have just as easily been standing on a Caribbean island, rather than the low country coast of the Eastern United States.
After walking along the shore here, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better evidence of the perpetual battle that is land vs. sea. The sudden and dramatic meeting of forest and ocean is unlike anything I have experienced. In fact, the five miles of undisturbed coast along Hunting Island State Park are an apocalyptic maze of downed trees and gargantuan root systems that, while fascinating and unique to witness, prove that the sea is winning the fight.
Explore the Dense Vegetation Of A Maritime Forest
Venturing away from the beach and onto some of the interior trails within Hunting Island had me feeling as though I had broken through the boundaries of Jurassic Park. Dense populations of over 100 plant species, including the saw, cabbage, and dwarf palmettos, serve as a welcome habitat to numerous creatures.
Large pines shoot like beanstalks toward the sky and provide a worthy vantage for the many birds of prey which call them home. Hiking alongside the park’s tidal lagoon, a prime spot for wildlife viewing, I was serenaded with the songs of numerous woodland birds who also reside in the park.
“If a dinosaur stepped out from the side of a trail,” writes The Dyrt camper Shelly S., in her review of Hunting Island State Park, “it would not be out of place!”
Ascend The Hunting Island Lighthouse
South Carolina’s only lighthouse accessible to the public provides a fascinating piece of history for Hunting Island visitors to enjoy. First erected in the 1850s, the original lighthouse was destroyed by Confederate troops during the Civil War. While the current, brick-lined, iron structure was rebuilt in its place, a fast approaching shoreline necessitated its move to the center of the island in 1889.
Those who embark up the 167 spiral stairs required to reach the lightkeeper’s observation deck are rewarded with a spectacular view of the coast and nearby barrier islands (Fripp, St. Helena, and Edisto). In a powerful reminder to the erosive nature of the Atlantic ocean, you’ll also notice how close the beach is to a structure that was once designated the center of the island!
The foundation of the lightkeeper’s house and numerous support buildings from the late 1880s still remain, along with some informative plaques, that help visitors grasp the harsh, isolating nature of being a lighthouse keeper near the turn of the 20th century.
Enjoy Equestrian Beach Access
Embark on a memorable ride atop your favorite horse for a unique way to experience all 5 miles of pristine coast along Hunting Island. During the months of December, January, and February the park opens access to the beach for all equestrian riders.
Remember to call the park first at 843-838-2011, however, as a permit is required.
Hike, Bike, or Run
Meandering alongside a tidal lagoon, through a semi-tropical maritime forest, into a saltwater marsh, and to the banks of a freshwater lagoon are nearly nine miles of maintained trail, suitable for hiking and biking.
Trail runners will love the smooth, compacted gravel surface found on most of the trails. The ability to run through a wild landscape, with solid surface absorption, and without the need to closely mind your footing is a great recipe for putting in some memorable miles.
Become An Expert Birder
Hunting Island State Park is a birding paradise with many shorebird populations peaking during the winter season migration. Pelicans, egrets, herons, ibis, osprey, skimmers, oystercatchers, terns, and wood storks are common sightings amongst the salt marshes and tidal lagoon. Numerous woodland birds are also found throughout the forested sections on land, and their songs are heard throughout the day.
Look To The Star-Filled Sky
One of the most awe-inspiring, starry, night skies that I have ever experienced was while walking along the Hunting Island campground beach one night. The open view to the sky that a shoreline provides, combined with the remote nature of Hunting Island, away from the light pollution of civilization, creates incredible stargazing opportunities.
For a memorable sunrise, hike the Nature Center Scenic Trail (0.7 easy miles) out to the southern stretch of coast along Hunting Island. It leads to the most remote area of the park and contains an impressive tree graveyard to explore.
For the best sunsets, make your way onto the Marsh Boardwalk Trail (0.3 miles), a designated National Recreational Trail, which places you amongst the marsh grasses and tidal wetlands of the salt marsh.
Where To Camp at Hunting Island
Your only option for camping on Hunting Island is at the Hunting Island State Park Campground, which is located adjacent to the beach for convenient access to tidepooling or beach exploration. There are numerous sites where you can park your RV or set up your tent with a view of the ocean, and they all have electrical and water hookups.
If you’re planning to spend more time exploring the charm of nearby Beaufort, SC consider staying at Tuck In The Woods Campground, which is located on St. Helena Island.
With my brief adventure onto Hunting Island coming to a close, I made the early-bird decision to hike out onto the beach, in darkness, along the southern expanse of the island, and enjoy one last sunrise from this isolated coast. Completely alone, standing amidst a tangled, mystical world, I listened to the sounds of the ocean waves, watched a blue heron enjoy breakfast along the lagoon banks (a mere 70 yards behind me), and revelled in the beauty of a starry sky slowly filling with the orange glow of the rising sun.
Feeling renewed, refreshed, and content that I hadn’t dealt with a single thought of freezing hair or frozen jeans for three days, I knew that Hunting Island had just become a place that I would not soon forget.