Meet Don and Sue Weigel, intrepid travelers out for a good time. At age 75, these Pawleys Island road warriors made it their mission to visit every state park in South Carolina in one year. That’s 47 parks in 52 weeks.
Rockin’ an annual Palmetto Passport on the dashboard of their Mercedes Benz, the Weigels hit the road with a vengeance, crisscrossing the state from the Lowcountry to the Upstate, from seashore to sandhills.
This fall, they completed their journey making it to their 47th state park five days before their pass expired.
“We’re retired without a whole lot to do,” said Don, the driver and chief raconteur of this dynamic duo. “We wanted to do something besides watch TV and play golf.”
They came up with the idea for the whirlwind parks tour after buying "Beautiful Places: The Timeless Beauty of South Carolina State Parks," a coffee table book celebrating the 75th anniversary of the state park system. The 140-page hardcover edition features more than 100 color images from the 47 parks managed by the South Carolina Parks Service.
“We thought it would be fun to see these places for ourselves,” Don said. “We’re not campers, canoers or hikers, but we enjoy beautiful scenery.”
Dividing the state into sections, the Weigels mapped out a route that would take them to 11 parks below Interstate 20. They set off early one morning last September for their first stop — Woods Bay State Natural Area, featuring one of the last remaining Carolina Bays on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. After scoping out the grounds, they walked out on the park’s 1,150-foot boardwalk for a close-up look at a cypress-tupelo swamp.
“We didn’t see many critters, but it was neat walking through the swamp,” Don recalled. “We talked to the park ranger for a few minutes and got back on the road to park No. 2.”
That would be Poinsett State Park in the high hills of Santee, where the Midlands sandhills meet the coastal plains. Before the day was out, they had visited two more parks — Santee State Park and Aiken State Natural Area.
The next morning they high-tailed it to Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site, a Greek Revival-style mansion with slave quarters built in 1859 by Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond.
“The park hadn’t opened yet, but there were a couple of rangers working on the slave quarters,” Don said. “One of them offered to take us on a private tour of the house. It was very interesting.”
And on they went to several more parks before returning home. A month later, they plotted an even more ambitious itinerary with 17 planned park stops in the Upstate.
The trip turned out to be much better than anticipated as they reached the mountains at the peak of the fall colors. Standing on the overlook at Caesars Head State Park, the couple enjoyed the same breathtaking vistas they had seen in the State Park Service’s commemorative book.
“We’re talking about serious nature viewing,” Don said. “There were birds flying way below us in the valley. The color of the fall foliage was beautiful. It was one of the highlights of that trip.”
The camping area at Table Rock State Park offered another unexpected treat.
“It was the afternoon of Halloween and there were kids running around dressed in costumes,” Don recounted. “The campers were decorated with lights and pumpkins. We could see a party was brewing. It was great watching everyone having so much fun.”
Their third excursion in the spring took them to six coastal parks. This summer they visited another 10 in the north central region.
“One of the side benefits of visiting the state parks is that you get to see all the different areas of South Carolina,” Don said. “We always take the red roads (secondary roads) that go through the small towns and rural areas. It really is a beautiful state.”
In September, they checked off the last three parks on their list. Ironically, their final destination -- Cheraw State Park — was the first land donated to the state park system.
“Everyone wants to know which park is our favorite,” said Sue, who served as the navigator on their park-trotting travels with the help of “Heidi”, their GPS. “It’s a fair question, but it’s hard to answer because they’re all so different. We may have to do it all over again to decide.”
A Park Passport entitles you to unlimited entry to all South Carolina State Parks that charge an entrance fee. The hangtag pass is valid for one year from the date of purchase and can be transferred from one vehicle to another. The cost of a regular Park Passport is $50; Palmetto Passes, available to seniors, blind and disabled residents of South Carolina, are $25.
The new Park Passport Plus is $99 and includes a number of additional freebies, among them a copy of “Beautiful Places” and admission to historic home tours at Redcliffe, Rose Hill and Hampton plantations, the historic lighthouse at Hunting Beach State Park, the historic Atalaya castle at Huntington Beach State Park and swimming at Paris Mountain, Oconee and Table Rock state parks.
Passports can be purchased at the individual parks, online by clicking here or by calling (803) 734-0156.