Easy Escapes | Hunting Island State Park promises paradise

Hunting Island a coveted S.C. gem
Anyone searching for heaven on Earth could reach a peak at Hunting Island State Park.
Entering this Atlantic Ocean-side park, on U.S. 21 about 20 miles southeast of Beaufort, motorists won’t find the turn for the gatehouse until two miles past the welcome sign.
Riding the park roads to reach its 5-mile-long coastline, visitors might feel small among a forest of palmetto trees dwarfed by a canopy of long-leaf pines.
After parking the car and walking a tall boardwalk to the deck beside the park’s Visitor Center, plop into a wooden rocking chair and check for alligators peering from the surface of a pond, or look for songbirds such as painted buntings.
Inside the building, a whole-room exhibit shows the eight habitats spanning this 5,000-acre park that attracts more than 1 million visitors a year: maritime forest, inlet lagoon, marsh island, salt marsh, freshwater wetland, beach, dunes and ocean. Data show that in the 1900s, the surf took an average of 25 feet in erosion from the north tip of the beach, and 10 feet in the central area, and that since the 1960s, sands on the island’s south end have been building slowly into Fripp Inlet.
One whole wall lights up the symbol of the park, the Hunting Island Lighthouse, built in 1875 with black-and-white, curved cast-iron panels, with interior brick reinforcement. It replaced a brick tower destroyed by Confederates in the Civil War to prevent Union forces from using it for navigation. Moved 11/4 miles southeast in 1889 to the site of the original structure, to avert northernmost erosion on the island, this light station, decommissioned in 1933, has anchored an isle that the then-Army Air Corps and the Coast Guard used for national defense during World War II.
Ascending the light, which stands 132 feet in height, no one needs to count the steps linked by eight landings. A handout shows that from the entry point, a climber takes 175 steps to reach the catwalk, which gives a panoramic –and windier – view of the park and coastline. Wave down to guests nearby at lighthouse’s former oil house, 108 feet below.
Walking nearby on that northern quarter of park beach, passersby can see the lighthouse’s top, the lantern room, above the tree line, like a beacon in the sunshine, its Fresnel lens reflecting the rays.
Beachside on the afternoon of Sept. 4, people found all kinds of ways to recline, whether parked in a chair to read a book, flying kites, playing bocce, or carrying bags of sea-shell treasures left by the tides.
A live, knobbed whelk deposited by a wave got a free lift back from a little girl who walked the marine snail back a few yards into the water, while a washed-up sand dollar that had baked in the sun in between the low- and high-tide lines soon enriched the palm of another walker.
Trailwise, visitors can choose from six paths, 0.2 to 2 miles long, made of a compacted shell-sand base, and four other earthen walkways, one of which, the 2.3-mile Diamond Rattlesnake Trail, on the south end, will accommodate mountain bikes.
Leisure cyclists can bike the southern half of the park for a 5-mile round trip along the ocean, as long they don’t mind some sections of dunes impeding their view. The soundtrack of waves never stops.

If you go
Beaufort sits along the Beaufort and Coosaw rivers and Battery Creek, between a U.S. Marine Corps Air Station and the Marines’ Parris Island recruit depot. The drive takes about 31/2 hours from Myrtle Beach, including a 90-minute leg southwest of Charleston, via U.S. 17 and U.S. 21 South. Tour this historic city – where parts of movies such as “The Great Santini,” “The Prince of Tides” and “Forrest Gump” were filmed – by foot, horse carriage, bicycle, boat or any combination thereof. Get area details from the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce Visitor & Convention Bureau: 525-8500, 800-638-3525 and www.beaufortsc.org.
Hunting Island State Park is about 20 miles east and south of Beaufort, at the end of U.S. 21.
Open daily | 6 a.m.-9 p.m. during daylight saving time, through Nov. 5, and 6 a.m.-6 p.m. during standard time, Nov. 6-March 3.
How much | Park admission matches the rates at Myrtle Beach and Huntington Beach state parks: $5 ages 16 and older, $3.25 S.C. seniors, $3 ages 6-15. Lighthouse entry fee is $2.
Lighthouse | Open for self-guided climbs by anyone at least 44 inches tall, 10 a.m.-4:45 p.m. during daylight saving time, 10 a.m.-3:45 p.m. standard; $2.
Nature center | On the south edge of the park, this home base for various nature programs such as Woodland Birds and Walk in the Woods, through September. Call 838-7437.
Information | 838-2011 and www.southcarolinaparks.com
Also | Other events:
• Friends of Hunting Island State Park’s third annual 5K Run/Walk race, 10 a.m. Oct. 8; registration $25 for run, $15 walk. Details at 379-4895, www.active.com or www.friendsofhuntingisland.org.
• PaddleFest 2011, 1 p.m. Nov. 15, in the park lagoon, with 3- and 6-mile courses for kayak, canoe, outrigger canoe and paddleboard; $20-$40 per race depending on category. Details at 379-4327, 252-4820, www.highergroundbeaufort.com or www.active.com.

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