With a historic lighthouse, campsites, a fishing pier, salt marshes and a visitors' center with its own lagoon, South Carolina’s Hunting Island is a hidden gem people outside the region don't really know about. And with that cool salty breeze, it’s a great place to find a respite from the sticky South Carolina heat.
From the moment you drive through the entrance at Hunting Island State Park, you know it’s a special place. Thick, forested trails jut out in every direction, winding their way through 5,000 acres of South Carolina’s exquisite lowcountry. There are five miles of beaches to stroll, each one a little different from the others. Lined with pillowy sand dunes and tall grasses, these beaches are home to protected sea turtle nests that appear in this spot every year from May to October.
Hunting Island is the most popular state park in all of South Carolina, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. We spent a Saturday during peak season on the island, and the beaches and trails felt wide open. Just the occasional beach comber and small families, but absolutely no crowds to be found. After spending the day scouring the island, we discovered quite a bit of helpful information.
This is how you should spend your time on South Carolina’s Hunting Island.
The Hunting Island Lighthouse
It might be safe to say this is the quietest century the Hunting Island Lighthouse has ever seen. It was originally built in 1859, was destroyed during the Civil War, then rebuilt in 1875, and by 1889 it was dismantled and moved 1.3 miles (2 km) inland thanks to erosion (more on that later). The black and white lighthouse remained in use until 1933, guiding ships between Charleston and Savannah from its perch 136 feet (41 m) high above the sea.
It’s 167 steps to the top, which I’m sorry to say we didn’t get to climb because it was closed for renovations while we were there. When it reopens, it’ll be the only lighthouse in the entire state of South Carolina that is still open to the public. The lighthouse has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970 and is believed to be haunted by a girl whose father was the keeper. She reportedly fell (or threw herself over if you prefer the more sinister version) from the observation deck, somewhere around the turn of the century.
If you’ve never been to a driftwood beach before, you’re in for a real treat. It’s almost like stepping into an ethereal environment that has somehow been frozen in time. Ancient trees stand blanched by the sun, their branches bare and twisted towards the sky. Somehow, the roots of the trees still standing have yet to release their grips on the shifting lands below the surface of the sand and waves. The ones that have toppled over, look like they’ve been scrubbed clean by the saltwater.
It’s almost like walking into a sculptural exhibit where the artists sacrificed their greatest masterpieces to the sea gods. The beach is the result of decades of erosion. As the sea waters rise, the land gives way and is swallowed by the ocean. So, you might want to get here sooner rather than later. It’s the most beautiful place on the island to watch the sunrise.
How to get to Boneyard Beach
To get to this intriguing little haven, you’ll park at the nature center where the pier is located. You’ll see cabins and a gate which lead to a wooded path, lined with soaring trees from the maritime forest. It feels like private property, but it’s not. Once you reach the clearing, you’ll cross the bridge over a saltwater marsh that is dotted with hungry herons, and across the dunes to Boneyard Beach. It’s a short, beautiful walk that is easily maneuverable. This was one of my very favorite places at the park, and it’ll be one of yours too.
Welcome to my other favorite place at Hunting Island State Park, the Marsh Boardwalk Trail. This is a quarter of a mile (.40 km) walk down an old wooden pier. It crosses a salt marsh and onto a tiny, wooded island, with a thick maritime forest-lined dirt trail. At the other edge of the island, you’ll walk out another long pier that leads to a viewing dock, where it’s just you and the horizon. While I’d normally advocate for watching the sunset on the beach, this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever watched a sunset anywhere in the world. And you guys, I’ll be the first to tell you, South Carolina sunsets are on point.
The experience was profound. As the sun slowly sank towards the horizon, it melted across everything it touched, including me. It was like walking into the middle of a watercolor painting, where the artist continued to paint strokes, blending colors and shades around you. The glassy marsh reflected the sky like a mirror, illuminating the grasses and trees from both above and below. It looked like everything was glowing from the inside.
And it felt spiritual. Like I had been granted the extreme privilege to see a sunset the way God intended them to be, not like something that just happens at the end of every single day. This boardwalk out into the marsh was one of my favorite places on our Charleston to Savannah road trip, and I know you’re going to love it too. I would’ve driven from Charleston directly for that moment alone.
The Hunting Island Pier
Hurricane Matthew destroyed the original pier in 2016. Five years and a million dollars later, the new pier opened in 2021 to every fisherman’s delight. And it’s massive. It extends 950 feet (290 m) into the Fripp inlet. For comparison’s sake, the length of the Eiffel Tower in Paris is 1,083 feet (330 m) to the very tip. This makes it possible to fish at depths of 28 feet (8.5 m) down without a boat.
Fishing is a popular pastime at the park, and this is a fun place to see what’s being dragged up from the deep. When you look over to the water below, you’ll see all kinds of marine wildlife depending on how far you walked, including oyster beds, fish, birds, crabs and jellyfish. I’ve never seen more jellyfish in my life, so watch where you walk if come down from the pier and head across to the beach.
Fishing on Hunting Island
A note if you want to go fishing: Hunting Island has a commercial license that covers all pier fishermen. However, if you plan to fish from a boat or the beaches, you’ll need to get a South Carolina saltwater fishing license first.
Stroll along North Beach
North Beach at Hunting Island is a quintessential beach experience. Think low beach chairs, sun umbrellas and the smell of freshly applied sunscreen. Only this beach experience comes with an antique lighthouse with peekaboo views through towering palmettos and slash pines and…shark teeth. It’s true, searching for seashells may be popular pastime on the beach, but so is looking for sharks’ teeth.
As if finding a regular old shark’s tooth isn’t wildly exciting, people have found megalodon teeth on this island. Thanks to my 4-year-old, I know what a big deal this is. South Carolina is believed to have been a hotbed of ancient shark activity, which explains all the shark teeth that wash up on this beach. Megalodons went extinct 3.6 million years ago and were one of the largest predators to have ever lived. One of the most recent fossils uncovered on North Beach at Hunting Island covered the discoverer’s entire palm. Ok maybe this is a little more than your average beach day.
Hunting Island Dolphin Cruise
Because the state park is protected, so are its waterways. And that means it’s a haven for all kinds of wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins who come feast on the abundance of underwater critters. The Hunting Island Dolphin Cruise lasts about an hour and a half and explores local islands and inlets where you’ll also see crabs, herons, bald eagles and all kinds of other wildlife too, not just the dolphins. This is a fun tour for families of all ages, from the wee ones to the grandparents. Tickets start at $40 for adults, $20 for kids 3-12, 2 and under are free.
St. Phillips Island
Quite possibly one of South Carolina’s true hidden gems, St. Phillips Island is an undeveloped barrier island near Hunting Island State Park. The 4,680-acre island was once the private property of a billionaire conservationist. Perhaps you’ve heard of him before, Ted Turner? He bought it in the 70s to protect it from being developed a-la-Hilton Head, and owned it for 40 years before he sold it to the State of South Carolina. Today, you can take a 30-minute ferry over to the island where a tram will take you from the dock to the beach near Turner’s former vacation home. If you just can’t tear yourself away, the house can be rented longer stays. The island is home to a bevy of wildlife and bucolic ecosystems. Just don’t forget to pack your lunch, there’s no place to eat and the St. Phillips Island tour lasts about 6 hours. Tickets are $65 for adult and $35 for kids 3-12. Littles are free.
Hunting Island State Park FAQs
Directions to Hunting Island State Park
Hunting Island State Park is only 16 miles east of historic Beaufort, South Carolina. You’ll cross the Woods Memorial Bridge across the Beaufort River and onto Lady’s Island via the Sea Island Pkwy. It’s a straight shot and only takes about 20 minutes or so to cross St. Helena Island and the Harbor River Bridge onto Harbor Island. Another quick crossing on Johnson Creek Bridge and you’ve arrived on Hunting Island. The views are far and wide, crossing all types of waterways on both sides of the bridges.
How much is a Hunting Island State Park day pass?
Day passes are about $8 for adults, $4 for kids 6-years-old to 15-years-old and free for the little tikes under 5-years-old. There’s a slew of discounts for South Carolina residents as well.
What time does Hunting Island State Park open?
Hunting Island State Park opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. during the winter. The good news is, it’s open until 9 p.m. from March through November when Daylight Savings Time gives us those precious extra hours of sunlight.
Is Hunting Island State Park dog-friendly?
For the most part, yes. There are a couple of caveats like the tip of North Beach where there is a protected shorebird habitat. Dogs aren’t allowed on the pier or inside the lighthouse complex or cabin area. Everywhere else is pretty much fair game unless your pampered pooch is aggressive towards wildlife or other visitors. Oh, and don’t forget your dog’s leash.
Can you camp on Hunting Island State Park?
Yes. Hunting Island State Park has about 100 campsites for RVs or campers with water and electrical hookups. If you’d prefer to sleep under the stars, there are 25 primitive tent sites that have picnic tables, fire rings, and bathhouses nearby. Rates are subject to change, and it’ll cost you an extra $5 a day to bring your golf cart.
Are there places to eat on Hunting Island State Park?
Unfortunately, no. But there are lots of things nearby that you can pack and bring with you to the park. We stashed a picnic basket full of goodies from the Lowcountry Produce Market & Café in Beaufort (which I highly recommend), but you can stop for pizza at Another Slice or Beach Bum BBQ on Harbor Island, about 5 minutes away. Drive 2 minutes further on Sea Island Pkwy and stop at Shrimp Shack if you’re a seafood lover. They’re all local mom and pop restaurants with great, home-cooked food.
Ashley Oñoz-Wright has been a travel writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV for the last ten years. Her work has been featured in Manifesting Travel, Modern Luxury, Sophisticated Living, Greenspun Media Group, Vegas.com and LasVegas.com. She holds a degree in Sociology & Anthropology from DePauw University.