Every year for my birthday, I ask for two bundles of firewood and a reservation at a campground. Poking at a campfire with a stick (yes, I’m eternally an easily amused six year old) surrounded by people I love in a beautiful slice of nature is my perfect idea of celebrating another trip around the sun. And that’s how – and why – we ended up at Hunting Island State Park (complete with exactly two bundles of firewood).
It seems a little odd to choose to visit an ocean front park in early March, technically still winter. The weather can be unpredictable, even here in the South, and anything but “beach like”. However, upon reading that Hunting Island is South Carolinas most popular State Park, attracting more than a million visitors per year, I figured an off season visit might be a quieter option. Plus, I had to check this one off of our Ultimate Outsider list.
As an added bonus, being off-season I easily booked what I would consider, hands down, THE best campsite in the entire park. (It also helped that we visited Sunday through Tuesday. Long live self employment hours!)
To be quite honest, I didn’t have any expectations of Hunting Island State Park, other than it would be another park, on the beach. We live mere miles from Myrtle Beach State Park and Huntington Beach State Park, so I suppose I’m a bit spoiled with the Coastal Parks. That said, Hunting Island literally took my breath away. It was an absolutely incredible park, that you should definitely put on your “must visit” list. Here’s why:
Hunting Island State Park: the Stats
Hunting Island is one of the many barrier islands that make up the coast of South Carolina. This particular island is about 15 miles East of Beaufort, and about a two hour drive South of Charleston . The entirety of the 5,000 acre island is the State Park itself, making it the 6th largest of the 47 South Carolina State Parks. The park features:
- 5 miles of coastline
- The only publicly accessible lighthouse in South Carolina
- A Nature Center
- 1,120 foot fishing pier
- 100+ campsites
- Tons of trails, boardwalks, and wildlife viewing opportunities
For outdoor lovers there are endless things to do here. Hiking, biking, fishing, geocaching, bird watching, swimming, boating, sea shell collecting, hanging a hammock between swinging palm trees – literally, the possibilities are endless.
Camping at Hunting Island
Sunday afternoon we rolled into the campground about an hour before check in time. Fortunately, the friendly volunteer let me in early – after he asked me where my R.V. was hiding. One day I’ll drive around a home-on-wheels, my new friend, one day. For now I enjoy my tent, as the novelty of sleeping on the ground still hasn’t worn off on me, 38 years later.
The volunteer handed me a map and informed me that we had booked the best campsite in the entire park. And he wasn’t wrong.
I’m going to go ahead and share this secret, even at the risk of never being able to book this campsite myself again: Rustic Site 13 truly is, hands down, the best site in the entire park for tent camping. There’s no water or electricity, but there is a huge piece of ocean front real estate. Pair that with the site being backed up to the woods which provide shelter from the ocean breeze, and far enough away from the other sites to provide a sense of privacy.
Now, if that site is booked, or if you have an RV, there are 100 campsites with water/electricity hookups (non ocean front), and 24 other rustic ocean front sites. And honestly, most of the sites are great. But they aren’t Rustic site #13 great.
The rest rooms were plentiful and clean, and there was a decent sized campground store that had everything from ice and firewood, to souvenirs, tent sealer, eggs, and the makings for s’mores. If you forgot something at home…they probably have it in stock.
Hunting Island State Park features 9.45 miles of wooded and boardwalk trails. You can EASILY put in far more mileage than that, walking, running, or biking, by looping an adding out and backs.
Early Monday morning Geoff and I saddled up and easily logged just shy of 15 miles on our mountain bikes, exploring all that Hunting Island had to offer – and we didn’t even cover all of the trails.
You can pick up a trail map at the visitors center or camp store. However, the trails are all clearly marked, and you’ll find a trail map posted at the start of each trail. The Trail map gives a decent description of each trail, so you know what to expect. Some of the trails – like the Lagoon Trail – are flat, smooth, and easily traversable for all abilities.
Others – like the Magnolia Forest Trail – are more technical, with roots, climbs, and descents (yes, hills on the coast!). During our stay, part of the Maritime Forest Trail was even underwater!
Arguably the biggest appeal of Hunting Island State Park is the beautiful, tropical(ish, we’re not that close to the equator) white, sandy beach. 5 miles of uninterrupted coastline is the type of thing beachcombers dreams are made of.
Well – almost uninterrupted. Currently, a 1,000 foot stretch of the beach is closed due to a re-nourishment program. You see, Hunting Island had been hit hard over the last few hurricane seasons, causing massive beach erosion. This project is necessary to protect the integrity of the coastline. Engineers plan to pump up to 1.2 million cubic yards of sand back onto the shoreline before the project is over. Sure, it’s a little unsightly, but personally I’m stoked people actually care enough about our beautiful, natural spaces to keep them usable for generations to come.
In the meantime though, that leaves you with about 4.8 miles of beach line to explore. After checking with a park Ranger who said bike use on the beach was indeed allowed, Geoff and I took our bikes all the way to the North end of the island, which hooks back into Johnson Creek. We saw endless seabirds, jellyfish washed ashore, and countless treasures the sea had left on the high tide line.
On the opposite end of the island, we took (rode) the pedestrian bridge to Little Hunting Island. Here we found a scene that looked like something straight out of post-apocalyptic Mad Max.
Both live trees and the skeletons of long since uprooted trees litter the shoreline. It’s equal parts eerie and breathtaking.
Hunting Island Lighthouse
Growing up in New England, seeing a lighthouse on the rocky shoreline was nothing new. Yet it occurred to me once we arrived at Hunting Island State Park that this is the first lighthouse I’ve seen in South Carolina. In fact, the historic Hunting Island lighthouse is the only publicly accessible lighthouse (out of eleven) in South Carolina.
And the best part? For only $2 you can climb the 167 steps to the top, and see a 360 degree view of the Atlantic coastline and surrounding maritime forest. Plus, the friendly volunteer will offer to take your picture before you go while telling hilarious “dad jokes”.
In addition to the lighthouse, there are a number of small side buildings with plenty of educational materials and history about this lighthouse (fun fact: it’s been destroyed, rebuilt, and even moved over the last 100+ years), and facts about the park as a whole.
Perhaps it’s the 3/4 of a marine biology undergraduate degree I hold (but never finished before changing majors). Perhaps it’s the aforementioned perpetual 6 year old state of mind. Whatever it is: I LOVE nature centers. Fortunately I’ve found the nature centers at South Carolina state parks have something for everyone, whether you are 2 years old or 92 years old.
The Hunting Island Nature Center offers both hands on experiences, exhibits, and even plenty of live animals. There’s a classroom and a number of interactive educational programs as well – be sure to grab a calendar of scheduled events.
While you’re there, take a walk in the pier. Unfortunately, much of it is closed due to hurricane damage. But you can still see some great views of Little Hunting Island, as well as the bridge to Fripp Island.
Other highlights worth mentioning…
On the Western side of the island, on the opposite side of the main road that connects the islands, you’ll find a series of marsh boardwalks, perfect for bird-nerding.
Do yourself a favor: find out what time the sunrises, and wake up about 30 minutes before that. The sunrise over the water is absolutely breathtaking. Not to be missed.
Upon entering the park, swing by the Visitors Center. It’s apparently newly rebuilt, and it’s beautiful. There are plenty of learning opportunities. Plus, if you forgot your Ultimate Outsider booklet like I did, the awesome volunteer at the front desk will jokingly scold you, then give you a stamp on a scrap piece of paper to glue into your book when you get home. Thank you, good sir.
To be quite honest, in 48 hours I feel like we still didn’t get to see everything that Hunting Island State Park had to offer. Despite the nearly 4 hour drive to get there from our house, we are already trying to decide when we can book another reservation (rustic site 13, obviously) and go back for more. So, if you’re looking for an ocean front but still “woodsy” camping experience (a.k.a. not a hotel laden, jam packed ocean front town) , I highly recommend giving Hunting Island State Park a visit.