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Hunting Island State Park, SC
Friday, August 7, 2009 - 1:15pm by Lolo
186 miles and 4 hours from our last stop - 2 night stay
I know this trip was supposed to be an exploration of new places, but we just couldn’t resist going back to Hunting Island, an old favorite of ours from the days when spring breaks were not consumed by track meets. Besides, the last time we were there the boys were 11 and 13, so I am going to stretch it a bit and count their going back as 18 and 20 year olds as a totally new experience.
Hunting Island is a pretty unique place. The entire 5-mile barrier island is a state park. That means no commercialization of any sort—just pristine beaches, miles of mountain biking trails through maritime forests, boardwalks through the salt marshes, a fishing pier, and even an historic lighthouse to climb. In other words, it’s pretty close to paradise for those that prefer natural untouched beauty to fancy resorts and spas.
The campground is probably one of my all-time favorites. It’s situated right next to the beach, which is a rarity in most state parks, and gets plenty of shade from the palmetto trees. There is always a nice sea breeze and you can hear the surf from your campsite. This year we were fortunate enough to get one of the campsites just a mere 20 yards from the beach.
The beach is pretty unique as well, especially for someone coming from New Jersey. The waves are not huge, but rather the kind that seem to roll in forever, making it perfect for boogie boarding. We came very close to not packing the boogie boards at all this year. Andrew said we wouldn’t need them—I guess he thought he was too old—and Herb is always in favor of packing less. Tommy and I chose fun over practicality and packed them anyway. My feeling is that you are never too old to boogie board and I will continue to do so until I become too much of a spectacle—the boys think I’m almost there. I made Andrew suffer for awhile waiting for his chance to use the boogie board, only giving it up when he admitted that “Mom is always right.”
Another unique feature of this beach is that the sand is hard enough to ride bikes on, which is really a wonderful thing. Also, there are so many fallen palmetto trees on the beach from past storms that it’s kind of fun to weave in and out of them while trying to avoid the surf.
The amount of driftwood on the beach has definitely increased over the years, but I kind of like it. It adds a lot of visual texture. It also provides some privacy if you don’t want the entire beach to see what you’re doing—no not that, I mean exercising. Herb and the boys have been doing this abdominal workout program to give themselves “six packs” and didn’t want vacation to get in the way. So, they settled between two fallen palmettos and went to work. I, however, remained in my beach chair, greatly amused at the occasional sight of their six legs rising and falling in unison above the driftwood. They looked a bit like some giant six-legged crustacean that had been left behind by the tide.
The next best thing after beaching and swimming on Hunting Island is mountain biking along its wonderful trails. Herb and the boys really wanted to photograph the driftwood on the beach when the sun got low, so we decided to bike the trail through the forest on our way out and then ride back along the beach. The forest trail starts right near the entrance to the campground and winds its way through a forest of oaks, pines, and palmettos. It’s really lots of fun, weaving between trees and jumping over roots. After about 2 miles we came out to the parking lot by the Visitor Center and said hello to the same lonely alligator that’s been the sole occupant of the little swamp outside the center since we started coming here 9 years ago. He appears to be aging well.
From there rather than continue through the forest, we decided to go out to the main road that crosses the island so that we could explore the salt marshes on the west side. I must say that I wasn’t very comfortable riding along the narrow shoulder of the road with cars whizzing past at 60 mph. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this route for families with small children. The salt marshes were nice though and we rode our bikes, probably against state park regulations, out across a long boardwalk to a viewing platform quite a ways out on the marsh. From there we continued on the road to the fishing pier on the southern tip of the island.
The best part of the bike ride was the ride back on the beach in the low light. I had always known that there were a few rental cabins on the south end of the island, but I had never seen them before. I admit I was quite surprised to see in what bad condition they were. The cabins closer to the water stood on stilts, but despite this precaution were pretty damaged from storms, and several of them were roped off and not currently in use. Hopefully, they will be repaired because their location is truly stunning. In the meantime, they do make great photographic subjects, as does the driftwood that covers much of this section of the beach.
On the way back to the campground along the beach, we had to do some fancy maneuvering to get through the fallen trees which the surf was now reaching, but except for wet tires we managed just fine.
Coming back to Hunting Island had been a wonderful experience for us, bringing back some old memories while creating some new ones as well. The only possible negative I have to say about our visit to Hunting Island was the boys’ crankiness about running in the heat and humidity. I knew this trip South would be a problem for their summer training, but I figured that after running here, it would feel really good to run in New England when they got back to school—kind of like when someone’s hitting you in the head, it feels so good when they stop. I don’t think they shared my enthusiasm for this logic. It took us awhile to figure out the running thing. Knowing running mid-day would be unbearable, they decided to run in the mornings. However, their definition of morning was 9:00 pr 10:00, which was already too late. You really had to be out there by 7:00 while the sun was still low. Finally, by the time we hit Florida, they figured out that the sun was also low at 7:00 pm, so they switched their schedule to nighttime. This worked out much better except for the fact that we didn’t have dinner until almost 9:00 every night. So let’s just say, that despite the beautiful trails through the maritime forests, they do not have particularly fond memories of their runs at Hunting Island. Everything else, however, was just great.
Hunting Island State Park is located on a 3-mile barrier island just east of Beaufort, South Carolina. It offers one of the most tropical settings to be found on the entire South Carolina coast. This 5000-acre park contains 3 miles of pristine sandy beaches along the Atlantic shoreline, salt marshes, a lagoon, and a dense forest of oak, bayberry, and palmetto. Storms have eroded much of the shoreline, bringing the lush forests closer to the sea.
A good place to begin a trip to the island is at the Visitor Center, which has exhibits on the cultural history of the island, its beach habitats, and the historic lighthouse. Right across from the Visitor Center is a small swamp where you are very likely to spot an alligator or two.
Another interesting stop is the historic Hunting Island lighthouse, the only lighthouse in South Carolina open to the public. For a $2 fee, you can climb its 167 spiral steps for a tremendous view of the Atlantic Ocean and the surrounding marshes. A unique feature of this lighthouse is that it was constructed of cast iron and designed to be dismantled and moved in case of erosion. In 1889, the lighthouse was moved 1 ¼ miles inland to its current location. The lighthouse was in operation until 1933.
From the lighthouse, it is a short walk to the beach where there are picnic shelters, restrooms, and a concessionaire. The beaches of Hunting Island are nesting grounds for Loggerhead turtles. Around mid-May, Loggerheads come up on the beach, dig a hole, and lay about 100 – 160 eggs each before returning to the sea. At night, Hunting Island personnel comb the beach for new nests and bring the eggs back to a hatching facility, safe from predators. After hatching, they are released to the sea.
The western part of the island contains the salt marshes, which many people believe to be the most beautiful part of the island. The Hunting Island marsh boardwalk extends across the marsh to a small island with a magnificent platform for observing the wildlife. The wildlife and the beautiful sunsets make this a lovely place to come in the evenings.
On the south end of the island, the beach is sandwiched between the ocean and a long inlet lagoon. The lagoon is home to hundreds of birds and other wildlife species—deer, raccoons, blue herons, egrets, pelicans, sand pipers, etc. It is also a great spot to crab or to fish for trout, bass, and puppy drum. The jungle-like setting of the lagoon was the filming site for the battle scenes in “Forrest Gump.”
On the very southern tip of the island is a fishing pier which extends 1,120 feet out into Fripp Inlet. Fishing from the pier is excellent for drum, shark, whiting, trout, and bass. Next to the pier is a Nature Center with exhibits on the local marine life. There are saltwater tanks with live snakes, turtles, and other reptiles.
On the northern tip of the island is a 200-site beachfront campground nestled amidst the palmettos. Each campsite has water and electric.
The island is totally explorable by bike. In addition to the 8 miles of trails, the sand on the beach is hard enough to ride on. From the campground, there is a 1-mile bumpy, dirt trail through a semi-tropical forest to the Visitor Center. From there, a trail continues south along the lagoon and eventually out to the fishing pier.
Hunting Island State Park location map in "high definition"