The Ultimate Guide to Hunting Island State Park

Hunting Island State Park boasts five miles of wild but beautifully kept beaches along with thousands of acres of marsh and forest land. It even has a saltwater lagoon and a beautiful lighthouse turned museum.

Hunting Island is a 5,000-acre secluded semitropical barrier island located just 15 miles east of Beaufort between beautiful Harbor Island and Fripp Island. It’s South Carolina’s most popular state park attracting over 1 million guests per year. You can visit year-round and enjoy miles of beautiful South Carolina coastline, a historic lighthouse, hiking, and camping.

Adding to the natural history of the big park is a piece of man-made history: South Carolina’s only publicly accessible historic lighthouse. Dating from the 1870s, the Hunting Island Lighthouse rises 170 feet into the air giving those who scale its heights a breathtaking view of the sweeping Lowcountry marshland and the Atlantic Ocean.

The history of the area as a whole goes back much further but the history of Hunting Island as a State Park began in the 1930s when it acquired that designation. In 1967, the forestry commission shifted ownership of the island to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism and since then it has become an iconic South Carolina destination.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Hunting Island is one of the last barrier islands that are undeveloped. Hunting Island State Park is a place where visitors come to enjoy a pristine natural area. So what do you need to know before your visit to Hunting Island State Park? Let’s dig in!

By the way, this is one article in a series of Ultimate Guides. You may find them helpful if you’re considering travel to these areas:

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Hunting Island State Park?

Within this huge 5,000-acre park, visitors enjoy swimming, hiking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, camping, birdwatching, and wildlife viewing. Due to the semi-tropical climate of the area, many of these activities can be done all year round. Although it’s an island, you’ll likely see plenty of wildlife during your visit. Deer, alligators, raccoons, rattlesnakes, and turtles are just some of the wild creatures you might spot during your Hunting Island adventure. 

One of the top attractions in the park is the beautiful beaches where you can walk for miles in the sand and surf. You may even find some fossilized shark teeth at low tide and with a little digging. The best part about the beaches is that since the miles of white sand are usually uncrowded you may very well have a long stretch of paradise all to yourself.

As you explore the park, you’ll come across a variety of terrains and ecosystems including maritime forest, saltwater lagoons, marshes, and ocean inlets. It’s in these places that you’ll be able to observe a variety of plant and animal species thriving in their native environment. 

Hunting Island State Park is so beautiful and so unique that even film crews have used it for filming scenes for blockbuster movies such as Forrest Gump and The Big Chill

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Hunting Island State Park?

Hunting Island State Park is situated along the southeastern coast of South Carolina about 15 miles from the small town of Beaufort.  Its location between Harbor Island and Fripp Island is telling of the type of area you’ll be exploring; one with several beautiful barrier islands to explore including Hunting Island. 

You’ll be awe-inspired before you even get through the entrance to the park. You will pass through a sub-tropical maritime forest and embark on a scenic, but short, drive through stunning low-country landscape. This winding road with lush greenery will take you to the entrance of Hunting Island State Park where you’ll continue your adventure in one of South Carolina’s most popular state parks. 

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hunting Island State Park hours and admission

Hunting Island State Park is open from 6 am to 6 pm every day (park hours are extended to 9 pm during Daylight Saving Time). The best time to visit will depend on what you want to see and do. If you want to observe wildlife, the best time to go is early in the morning or into the evening hours but other than that, any time of day is a good time to visit. Just be sure to set out early if you plan to do a longer hike. 

The office and visitor center are open from 9 am to 5 pm on weekdays and 11 am to 5 pm on weekends. The fee to enter the park is $8.00 per adult. There are discounted prices for South Carolina seniors and youths and children under the age of five years old can enter for free. 

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When is the best time to visit Hunting Island State Park?

You can visit Hunting Island State Park any time of year but ultimately it will depend on what you plan on doing there that will determine the best time for you to go. If swimming, kayaking, or sailing are on your mind, the end of spring to the first weeks of fall is the best time to visit with the summer months being the warmest but also the most crowded. 

If hiking and fishing are on your mind spring and fall when the temperatures are cooler is the best time to visit. The best thing about spring and fall is this tends to be the time of year when there are fewer people so you get the trails and top fishing spots almost all to yourself. If you visit during the winter months it’s even likely you’ll have the park to yourself.

Things to do in Huntington Island State Park

Hunting Island Lighthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hunting Island Lighthouse

Originally built in 1859, Confederate forces destroyed the structure to ensure the Union would not be able to use it against them. A new lighthouse was built in 1875 using interchangeable cast-iron sections so it could be dismantled and moved should the ocean ever encroach upon it. Severe erosion forced the lighthouse to be relocated 1.3 miles inland in 1889.

Decommissioned in 1933, it still retains a functional light in its tower. It’s a 167- step climb to the 130-foot observation deck where you can enjoy a breathtaking panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding maritime forest. Due to safety concerns, it is currently closed to tours until repairs can be made. However, visitors are welcome to walk though several buildings on the site featuring exhibits on the construction of the lighthouse and life as a lighthouse keeper.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hunting Island Nature Center

While exploring the outdoors is the best way to get to know the park, a visit to the Hunting Island Nature Center will help you understand what you’re seeing while exploring the park. Inside this fascinating place, you’ll see a variety of exhibits featuring live animals and information about the various habitats.

Hunting Island Marsh Boardwalk

The Hunting Island Marsh Boardwalk makes it easy for visitors to walk over the marshy tidal flats and observe the area’s wildlife and natural surroundings without disturbing anything. It’s also one of the best places to watch the sunset. 

Hunting Island Fishing Pier

Whether you want to do some fishing or just watch for seabirds and dolphins, the Hunting Island Fishing Pier is a great place to take a break. 

South Beach Boneyard

The combination of erosion and saltwater has created a unique scene on a beach on the southern portion of the island. This area known as the South Beach Boneyard looks much like a boneyard with the remnants of trees toppled over with their roots and dead branches strewn across the area. 

Hunting Island Lagoon

If you want to do some paddleboarding, kayaking, or tubing during your time in Hunting Island State Park, Hunting Island Lagoon is a popular place to do these things and so much more.  Fishing is also popular here and some people just come to relax, birdwatch, and enjoy the peacefulness of the area. 

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to eat at Hunting Island State Park

Since there are no restaurants in Hunting Island State Park, you’ll either have to leave the park and drive to nearby Beaufort to grab something to eat or you’ll need to pack a lunch.  

When enjoying a full day in nature, packing a lunch is your best option. There are plenty of picnic facilities and nice places to sit and enjoy a homemade meal while taking in the sights around you. 

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Destination hikes in Hunting Island State Park

One of the most popular activities in Hunting Island State Park is hiking and there are numerous trails in the park.  Some trails are longer than others and some are more difficult, so there’s something for all ages and skill levels.  

Diamondback Rattlesnake Trail: At 1.9 miles, this trail won’t take much time to do but it’s a bit difficult in spots. Only tackle this one if you’re fit and used to hiking on rugged trails. 

Magnolia Forest Trail: If you’re looking for a more relaxing trail or you’re traveling with children, this trail is easy and at only 1.2 miles, it’ll only take a short time to do. From the campground, you’ll walk through a hilly area full of beautiful Magnolia trees. 

Maritime Forest Trail: This is another short and easy trail at only 2 miles long. It travels through the interior of a maritime forest area where you’ll see a protected habitat that’s home to deer, owls, raccoons and other animals. 

Lagoon Trail: Winding around the lagoon, this 1.4-mile trail is suitable for all levels.  Along the trail, you’ll enjoy amazing views of the lagoon and observe different habitats. 

Nature Center Scenic Trail: At only 0.7 miles long, the Nature Center Scenic Trail combines two attractions in one. You’ll get to visit the Nature Center and you’ll get an easy hike in.  If you do decide that you’d like to keep hiking, this trail hooks up to some of the park’s other popular trails including two that are situated on Little Hunting Island.

Hunting Island Lighthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 5 things to do at Hunting Island State Park

  • Visit the historic Hunting Island lighthouse
  • Enjoy a sunrise, walk along the beach and look for sharks’ teeth and other shells that have washed ashore
  • Visit the nature center at Hunting Island State Park and see the alligators
  • Visit the Marsh Boardwalk, the best place in the Lowcountry to watch the sunset
  • Take a ferry from Hunting Island for a naturalist-led tour of St. Phillips Island where you can explore trails, enjoy the beach, and see wildlife of this pristine barrier island

Things to do near Hunting Island State Park

If you plan to stick around the area for a while, there are many things to do outside of Hunting Island State Park too.  

Most of the area’s attractions can be found in and around the city of Beaufort. A popular thing to do to get familiar with this city is to take a walk around the historic streets and admire the grand mansions that line them. The downtown district is full of beautiful old buildings and this is where you’ll also find many of the area’s restaurants and shops.

The Beaufort History Museum is a must-stop for visitors who want to learn more about the city’s history, culture, and people and its surrounding area. The John Mark Verdier House is a historic mansion offering guided tours of the house and grounds. The Beaufort National Cemetery has connections to the American Civil War.  

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 5,000 acres

Location: South Carolina Lowcountry in Beaufort County

Directions: From I-95 take US-21 east toward through Beaufort to the park

Date acquired: 1938 from Beaufort County

Designation: Hunting Island State Park was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal Program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The program was designed to provide employment during the Great Depression while addressing national needs in conservation and recreation. A number of buildings built by the CCC in the 1930s are still in use at this park.

Park entrance fee: $8/adult; $5/SC seniors; $4/ child age 6-15; free for children 5 and younger

Pets: Pets are not allowed in the cabins or the cabin areas. Pets are allowed in most other outdoor areas provided they are kept under physical restraint or on a leash not longer than six feet.

Significant Natural Features: Hunting Island is always changing. Migrating creatures in air and sea come and go with the seasons and the natural forces of erosion constantly re-shape the island. In addition to some 3,000 acres of salt marsh and more than four miles of beach, a large lagoon created by sand dredging in 1968 has become a natural wonderland and home to such unexpected species as seahorses and barracuda. The park’s upland areas contain one of the state’s best examples of semi-tropical maritime forest, ancient sand dunes now dominated by such vegetation as slash pines, cabbage palmetto (the state tree), and live oak.

Animals: Loggerhead turtles nest on the island in the summer months. Deer, alligators, raccoons, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes

Birding: Numerous species of birds include painted buntings, tanagers, orioles, pelicans, oystercatchers, skimmers, terns, herons, egrets, and wood storks. Hunting Island’s beaches are important for shorebirds and seabirds which use the beach to feed, nest, and rest along their migration route.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monthly average air and ocean temperatures

January: Air 59 degrees F; Ocean 52 degrees F
February: Air 61 degrees F; Ocean 54 degrees F
March: Air 67 degrees F; Ocean 59 degrees F
April: Air 76 degrees F; Ocean 67 degrees F
May: Air 82 degrees F; Ocean 75 degrees F
June: Air 86 degrees F; Ocean 82 degrees F
July: Air 89 degrees F; Ocean 84 degrees F
August: Air 89 degrees F; Ocean 84 degrees F
September: Air 84 degrees F; Ocean 80 degrees F
October: Air 77 degrees F; Ocean 73 degrees F
November: Air 69 degrees F; Ocean 63 degrees F
December: Air 61 degrees F; Ocean 54 degrees F

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the numbers

  • 5: miles of beach
  • 1: saltwater lagoon
  • 5,000: acres of Lowcountry South Carolina that includes beach, marsh, and maritime forest
  • 1: historic lighthouse, the only publicly accessible lighthouse in South Carolina
  • 167: steps to climb to the top of the lighthouse
  • 102: standard campsites, all of which offer 50 amp service and are highly-coveted year round
  • 25: rustic tent sites
  • 1: cabin located near the lighthouse
  • 1: nature center with all sorts of neat creatures and regularly scheduled programs for you to enjoy
  • 1: pier for fishing or just strolling to the end to see the view
  • 1: picnic shelter for family reunions or other group outings

Worth Pondering…

As the old song declares, “Nothin’ could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning,” or almost any other time.