Of all the places in the world Ted Turner could have built a beach house, the billionaire media mogul chose a remote South Carolina sea island with no power, no water and no roads.
And that’s precisely what sold him on St. Phillips Island, a 4,600-acre tract of forgotten land left undisturbed along a coastline dotted with luxury golf resorts and bustling beach towns. The wild feel of the barrier island, surrounded by meandering tidal creeks and miles of salt marsh, was the perfect retreat for a conservationist who has spent a lifetime working to safeguard America’s unique habitats and protect endangered wildlife.
Tucked between St. Helena and Capers islands at the edge of the Atlantic, St. Phillips remains virtually as it was when it was settled by indigenous cultures thousands of years ago. Unlike most of the sea islands of Georgia, South Carolina and northern Florida, it was never colonized by Europeans, timbered by early loggers or built out by developers.
The island has another feature unique to the entire Atlantic Coast: Running along the length of the 4-mile isle are ancient sand dune ridges interspersed with swales and rain-fed ponds. The unusual landscape provides critical habitat for alligators, fox squirrels, loggerhead sea turtles, bobcats, indigo snakes and an array of seasonal and resident bird species.
To preserve the ecologically significant land, Turner placed St. Phillips under a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy. In 1986, the Secretary of the Interior named it a National Natural Landmark—one of only 602 sites in the country and just six in the state to receive the designation.
Today, this phenomenal environmental legacy is open to the public to enjoy just as Turner and his family did for nearly four decades.
Purchased by the state of South Carolina in 2017, St. Phillips is now part of the state park system. It is managed by Hunting Island State Park, located 5 miles northeast of the secluded island. To allow the public to enjoy the island, accessible only by boat, the parks department teamed up with Coastal Expeditions to offer ecotours of St. Phillips.
Departing from St. Helena Island, the St. Phillips Island Ferry starts with a 30-minute boat ride along the Story River led by a naturalist with extensive knowledge of the fragile coastal environment and the history of the Beaufort barrier islands.
As you pass through the salt marsh estuary, considered the most productive ecosystem in the world, you’ll learn about its role as the “nursery of the sea” and the spartina grass that acts as the first line of defense for runoff and erosion control.
The educational and entertaining lessons continue on the 3.5-mile tram ride from the St. Phillips dock on the back side of the island to the beach located near Turner’s former home. Traversing the dense maritime forest on the rambling sand road Turner built across the island, you get a visual understanding of the ancient dune system and interdunal swales and ponds where it’s not unusual to spot alligators, egrets and other wildlife.
Once at the tram stop, you are free to walk the beach and explore the island on your own on some 4 miles of trails Turner carefully carved through the forest.
As you venture into the untamed wilderness, you quickly discover the stunning beauty of the primordial landscape, thick with towering longleaf pines, old-growth magnolias and gnarled live oaks covered in Spanish moss. The trails take you past freshwater ponds, between brackish sloughs and over sand dune ridges to experience a variety of ecosystems and wetland habitats. Traveling the length of the island, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the salt marsh, Trenchards Inlet and a “boneyard” beach scattered with the weather-beaten remnants of trees.
The five-bedroom Turner House, now available for rent, is closed to the public. However, if it is unoccupied during your visit, you are welcome to walk to the house located about a quarter-mile from the tram stop to take in the ocean view from its fishing pier. Picnic tables are available in the area to enjoy the packed lunch you’re encouraged to bring on the day trip.
The St. Phillips Island Ferry departs from Coastal Expeditions' St. Helena Island campus located at 1928 Sea Island Parkway. For more information on the St. Phillips Island Ferry, click here.