A 20′ long alligator casually waddled across the paved road just a few yards ahead of me. I was frozen, but more out of awe than fear. He paid me no attention; after all, this was his territory, not mine. Never mind the fact it was Huntington Beach State Park, just one of the forty-seven amazing state parks and historic sites across South Carolina.
The Palmetto State loves the great outdoors. South Carolina has plenty to offer nature and adventure seekers from the Blue Ridge Escarpment at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains across rivers and lakes to the Atlantic Coast. Six of the state parks and historic sites in the state are located along that coast between Myrtle Beach and Beaufort.
Some of the parks feature campgrounds while others are day-use only. Some have attractions to explore while others feature large sandy beaches. Each of these state parks has a unique attraction, and each makes for a better visit during a particular time of year. Here is a breakdown of the unique features and when to visit the six coastal state parks of South Carolina.
Myrtle Beach State Park
Just a few miles south of Ocean Boulevard is the small, cozy Myrtle Beach State Park. This park is a great alternative for locals and tourists to find a spot on a beach that isn’t as crowded as the center of the beach town. Several nice covered picnic shelters also make great places to host events, parties, or celebrations, especially with some of these shelters within sight of the beach.
This state park is the only one along the South Carolina coast to feature a fishing pier on the ocean. It’s a popular place for locals, campers, and visitors to spend a day hoping for a great catch. With a nice gift shop and store that serves ice cream as well as bait it’s a great place to spend some time with the family while enjoying the park.
Fall and Spring are the best times to visit this park. During the summer months the line of cars trying to enter the park will sometimes reach as far as the main highway and often times the park rangers will close the gates to new admissions because of capacity. Anytime after Labor Day and before Memorial Day, especially September and May, are great times to enjoy this beach and pretty much have it all to yourself.
4401 S Kings Hwy, Myrtle Beach, SC | (843) 238-5325 | http://southcarolinaparks.com/myrtlebeach/introduction.aspx
Huntington Beach State Park
One of the more popular parks in the state is also one of the largest and most exciting to visit for locals, day trippers, and campers. The park features a large campground with full amenities, park store and gift shop, restroom facilities at the two public beach accesses, and a few hiking trails through the sandy coastal landscape.
It’s a toss up between what could be the most unique feature of this state park. The park is well known as a birder’s and wildlife photographer’s mecca along Causeway Drive leading into the park. One side of the causeway is a saltwater marsh and the other is a brackish pond. These two bodies of water combine to create a diverse habitat for alligators, blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, spoonbills, woodstorks, and the resident bald eagle. A few scenic overlooks at the edge of the brackish pond provide great views of the alligators swimming below while a long boardwalk stretches out across the saltwater marsh toward the popular feeding ground of dozens of species of birds.
The other unique attraction of this park is Atalaya Castle. Built by Archer and Anna Huntington as a summer home the castle is a square shaped Moorish Revival and Mediterranean Revival style mansion. Visitors can take self-guided and audio-guided tours through the castle exploring places like the inner courtyard, Anna’s studio, the master bedroom, and the servant quarters. Standing inside the master bedroom at one corner of the castle the sound of waves on the nearby beach echoes across the stone floors, and nothing beats getting “caught” inside this castle during a brief summer thunderstorm.
The best time to visit is September or October. The roseate spoonbill is a rarely seen migratory bird found in the park only a few times each year and one of those times is around mid-September to mid-October. These birds are truly beautiful and exciting to photograph as the younger adolescents will spar with the grumpier adults. The Atalaya Arts and Crafts Festival is a three-day festival of amazing works of art on display inside Atalaya Castle usually the next to last weekend of September each year.
16148 Ocean Highway, Murrells Inlet, SC | (843) 237-4440 | http://southcarolinaparks.com/huntingtonbeach/introduction.aspx
Hampton Plantation State Historic Site
This tiny historic site in McClellanville (about halfway between Georgetown and Charleston) is a hidden gem. The historic site is located just a few miles off Highway 17 along Hampton Creek near the South Santee River. The park’s main attraction is the historic plantation house, the only plantation house located inside a coastal state park in South Carolina. Visitors can take guided tours of the interior of the house exploring both floors and learn about the history of the property and homeowners through the decades.
The best time to visit is the dead of winter around November – February. The only real detraction of this historic site is the massive mosquito population. These little suckers (pun totally intended) surge in population during the warm, wet summer months. Keep in mind this is coastal South Carolina; the winters are usually mild and on a sunny day you’ll feel comfortable wearing short sleeved shirts.
1950 Rutledge Rd, McClellanville, SC | (843) 546-9361 | http://southcarolinaparks.com/hampton/introduction.aspx
Charles Towne Landing State Historic Park
There are no campgrounds or beach access at this coastal state park, but that certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to do. The park features miles of paved trails great for walking, strollers, and wheelchairs, or you can rent a bicycle at the visitor center for a leisure ride. Massive oak trees create an avenue in a grassy field in front of an old historic home and is a popular place for weddings. A recreation of an old fort and demonstrations throughout the year add a touch of history to any experience at the park.
But one of the two most unique features of this park is a recreation of a sailing trading vessel called the Adventure. Visitors can board the fully functional boat, explore below deck, and learn about the history of early trade in the New World. An incomplete hull lays nearby on land allowing visitors to see the infrastructure of a sailing vessel.
The other unique feature of this state historic park is the Animal Forest. A casual paved trail leads from the visitor center to this natural zoo habitat where visitors can find deer, herons, turtles, black bear, and puma. The path winds between one animal habitat after another and if you’re lucky a racoon family or blue heron might hop across the trail in front of you.
The best time to visit this coastal state park is fall and spring when the weather is less humid. Blue herons are common throughout the year so you’re sure to spot a few while walking or biking through the park. Reenactments are less common outside the summer months and you might run into a school field trip during the spring making September and October the best months to visit, rent a bike, and enjoy the day.
Edisto Beach State Park
This little state park has had a rough couple of years after Tropical Storm Julia and then later Hurricane Matthew swept up the coast in 2016. But after nearly a year of renovation work the oceanfront campground has reopened better than ever and visitors can once again fall asleep in their tents or RV’s to the sound of waves crashing on the beach (the campground will officially open again on September 1, 2017). The park is a bit unique because it is split between the campground and beach access on Edisto Island and the Education Center and hiking trails on the main land.
The Education Center is the best out of all the coastal state parks in South Carolina. The large center features exhibits on wetlands and nature habitats, environmental conservation, and local history. Several hiking trails branch out from the Education Center into the coastal wilderness along the waterway for fun day trip escapes. The trails are short and easy to hike and sometimes offers views of osprey, deer, and alligators.
The best months out of the year to enjoy this state park are October and May. Chances are some of the local restaurants and outfitters will still be open before closing for the off-season but it will be quieter on the island with smaller crowds. The weather is usually quite pleasant especially on sunny days.
8377 State Cabin Rd, Edisto Island, SC | (843) 869-2156 | http://southcarolinaparks.com/edistobeach/introduction.aspx
Hunting Island State Park
The most popular park in the state comes with several very good reasons: gorgeous beaches, hiking trails, wildlife viewing, an amazing campground, and the only lighthouse in the state visitors can still climb. The oceanfront campground typically books months in advance, especially for the summer months, weekends, and holidays, but if you can manage to snag a site for a few nights you’ll probably love every minute of it. The small fishing pier on the inlet is a great place to catch your dinner for the night but don’t forget to stop at the little one-room animal center before walking out. If you enjoy walking the park has no shortage of trails on the beach and marsh side of the island (just don’t get stuck out there like I almost did).
The most unique feature of this park is the Hunting Island Lighthouse. For just $2 per person (free if you have a Park Passport) you can climb the 167 steps to the top and enjoy breathtaking views from the metal balcony wrapped around the light. From this vantage point it’s easy to see the wide, clean beaches and lush coastal forest that comprises all of the state park. When you return to the bottom be sure to stroll through the outdoor exhibits and visit some of the buildings that were once a vital part of maintaining the lighthouse.
The best time to visit Hunting Island State Park is anytime that isn’t summer. Summers are hot, humid, and crowded, making it difficult to find a campsite and a bit uncomfortable to spend an entire day outside. Instead try visiting the park in September, October, April, or May. The weather will be comfortable enough for shorts and shirts with little to no humidity and you will probably be able to get a campsite (if it’s not a holiday weekend).
2555 Sea Island Parkway, Hunting Island, SC | (843) 838-2011 | www.huntingisland.com/