Spend a day on Hunting Island and you’ll quickly understand why this secluded Lowcountry sea island is South Carolina’s most popular state park. More than a million visitors a year are lured to the 5,000-acre park once a hunting preserve for 19th and early 20th century planters.
Also attracted to the semi-tropical barrier island is an array of wildlife ranging from loggerhead sea turtles to painted buntings, barracudas to sea horses, alligators, pelicans, dolphins and deer, raccoons, Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and even the rare coral snake.
Part of the pristine ACE Basin estuarine reserve, the park features thousands of acres of marsh and maritime forest, 5 miles of beach, a saltwater lagoon, and an ocean inlet. Add to that the only publicly accessible lighthouse in the state.
One of the most popular activities 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.
At 1.9 miles, Diamondback Rattlesnake 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. If you’re looking for a more relaxing trail or you’re traveling with children, Magnolia Forest 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 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.
In winter, Hunting Island State Park offers a quiet coastal retreat to de-stress and re-energize. There’s nothing like a long walk along a deserted beach or wooded nature trail to clear the clutter from your psyche.
If you’re into history, you’ll love the lighthouse that once warned sailors to keep away from the island’s shallow shoreline. 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.
The park also features a fishing pier that extends 950 feet into Fripp Inlet. Or drop your line in Johnson Creek or the surf. If you’re traveling with a boat, you can launch from a ramp at the south end of the park. It provides access to Harbor River and Fripp Inlet.
In the Nature Center, visitors will find live animals and exhibits about the habitats and natural history of the park. Educational programs are offered throughout the year including walks with a naturalist, beach explorations, and turtle talks.
Be sure to walk out on the Marsh Boardwalk and bring your camera and binoculars. It takes you across the marsh to a hammock and a deck that overlooks a tidal creek, a prime bird watching perch.
Want to stay more than a day on Hunting Island? No problem. The park features 186 campsites and one fully-furnished cabin.
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.
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 is open from 6 am to 6 pm every day (park hours are extended to 9 pm during Daylight Saving Time). The best time of day 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 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.
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
As the old song declares, “Nothin’ could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning,” or almost any other time.