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Out-of-the-Park Adventures: Hunting Island State Park

Marie McAden Marie McAden
A former staffer with The Miami Herald, Marie moved to SC in 1992. She is passionate about the outdoors, and enjoys exploring the state’s many natural treasures from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.
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Explore the pristine shoreline of St. Phillips Island.

Got cabin fever? Hit the road with your own accommodations for a socially distanced vacation in a South Carolina state park campground. With 33 parks offering campsites for tents and RVs, you’re sure to find the perfect spot for an out-of-the-way getaway. Some parks even feature lodging for those who prefer to stay in a cabin or villa. Along with their many recreational amenities and beautiful settings, state parks offer visitors the opportunity to explore less-traveled areas of the state and discover small towns and communities with a rich history and unique attractions.

Ready to roll? Here’s a two-day, out-of-the-park itinerary for Hunting Island State Park.

South Carolina’s most popular state park, Hunting Island is set among the barrier islands of Beaufort, offering easy access to the historic Gullah community of St. Helena Island and the undeveloped St. Phillips Island, a designated National Natural Landmark.

Park Features:

  • 100 standard campsites near the ocean with individual water and electrical hookups and convenient access to restrooms with hot showers.
  • One two-bedroom, fully-furnished cabin with Wi-Fi and satellite TV.

Day 1

Spend the day on St. Helena Island learning about the history, culture and cuisine of the Gullah people, descendants of West African slaves who adapted to life on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Today, the community is home to farms, shrimp docks, colorful shops, art galleries and restaurants serving authentic local dishes.

Start the day with a visit to Lowcountry Cider Co. & Superior Coffee. This local favorite offers really good coffee, specialty drinks and a tempting array of freshly baked goods in a laid-back, friendly setting. It’s also a great place to pick up locally made goods and foods to take home for gifts or as a memento of your trip.

There’s no better place to discover the fascinating story of the Gullah than at the Penn Center, the former site of one of the country’s first schools for children of freed slaves. A National Historic Landmark, it served in later years as a retreat for Martin Luther King Jr. The York W. Bailey Museum features historic photographs and artifacts, a video on the center’s history and a gift shop with handmade sweetgrass baskets and original artwork by local artists.

Just down the road is the Chapel of Ease, built in the mid-1700s to serve the families who owned plantations on St. Helena Island. Park your car and take a walk around the structure, a relatively intact example of tabby construction, a type of concrete (made from oyster shells, lime, water, sand and ash) used in the Lowcountry in the 18th century.

Continue to follow Lands End Road to Fort Freemont, a 15-acre historic site and beach preserve on the shores of Port Royal Sound. Built in 1899 at the start of the Spanish-American War, the fortification features two reinforced concrete batteries protected by earthworks. It was part of the Endicott-period coast defense system and was active until 1917.

As you enter the parking lot, look for an information kiosk, which features a QR code for an app that will take you on a virtual walking tour of the site. A new Interpretive Center built on the property is expected to open in June 2021 and will include dioramas of the fort as it was in 1900, a video of the history of Fort Freemont, displays and interpretive panels.

When you drive back up Lands End, look for a large oak tree on the ride side of the road about 1¾ miles from Fort Freemont. It’s at this spot in the dark of night that people have seen the ghostly “Lands End Light.” The eerie ball of soft white light has been seen floating in the distance several feet above the highway, slowly approaching those brave enough to stop to look for it.

For lunch, pick from several good choices, including the marsh-front Foolish FrogIsland BBQ Grill or The Gullah Grub Restaurant, run by native islander Bill Green who follows the rules of Gullah tradition to eat in season and what’s grown or harvested locally. (Temporarily closed.)

Before you head back to your campsite, stop by MacDonald MarketPlace, a lovely shop featuring the fine crafts and artwork of two dozen local artisans. The historic market, originally opened in 1877 by James Ross MacDonald, is now run by his descendants.

To complete your Gullah experience, drop into Bradley Seafood Market, proudly run by one of the last African-American shrimp boat owners in South Carolina. Ms. Bradley is sure to be behind the counter, ready to scoop up your choice of fresh-caught fish and local shrimp. Take some back with you to enjoy for dinner.

Day 2

For a truly unique adventure, take Coastal Expeditions’ eco-tour of St. Phillips Island, and explore a wild barrier island preserved in its natural state.

Once the beach retreat of Ted Turner, St. Phillips was purchased by the State of South Carolina in 2017 and is now open to the public, allowing visitors to experience an undeveloped sea island with a virgin maritime forest.

Located five miles from Hunting Island and accessible only by boat, St. Phillips is one of only six sites in the state to be designated a National Natural Landmark. The naturalist-led tour will take you by boat along the Story River to the island where you’ll have the opportunity to walk the beach and some of the four miles of trails traversing the island.

The five-bedroom beach house Turner built on the island is available for rent through the South Carolina Park system. If it is not occupied at the time of your visit, you are welcome to walk around it and enjoy the ocean view from its fishing dock.

The tour runs approximately five hours, so bring water and a bagged lunch. If you’re visiting in the warmer months, be sure to pack bug spray, too. Check the Coastal Expeditions website for the current tour schedule. You’ll want to make your reservations in advance as tours fill up early.

After a full day on St. Phillips, take a break from cooking and enjoy a sumptuous meal at Morgan River Grill, offering classic American fare and seafood made with locally sourced ingredients. Ask for a seat on the porch to enjoy views of the water.

Day 3

If you have an extra day, don’t miss the opportunity to explore the historic city of Beaufort located 30 minutes from Hunting Island State Park. Click here to learn more about what this charming city offers.

Marie McAden
A former staffer with The Miami Herald, Marie moved to SC in 1992. She is passionate about the outdoors, and enjoys exploring the state’s many natural treasures from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.