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It’s as wintery as Hunting Island gets and I’ve arrived at the North Beach campsite in short sleeves. The sea air drifts by at a comfortable 60°F as sparrows chirp from the treetops. I head past camp for the water, passing through a thin ribbon of maritime forest. Scuffing through the stubby shore grass and into the sand, I look past the tide line; a jumble of uprooted trees stretches down the coast for maybe a mile, the bleached and battered remains of centuries-old oaks, pines, and palmettos toppled by Hurricane Dorian in 2019. Despite the relatively easy access, there’s nothing civilized about this stretch of Atlantic coast. The ocean is far too mercurial a neighbor for that. I wonder: What will it wash up at my campsite this time?
Turn by Turn
1) There’s no overnight parking in the southern section of Hunting Island State Park, so have a friend drop you off at the Lagoon Access Trail at parking lot J and hike 1.5 miles south. The trail weaves in and out of the maritime forest next to the well-protected saltwater lagoon.
2) A wooden overpass at mile 4, located at the terminus of the Lagoon Access Trail, marks the eastern end of the Nature Center Scenic Trail and crosses the lagoon en route to the southern end of the island.
3) Follow the Nature Center Scenic Trail .1 mile west to the junction with the Maritime Forest Trail.
4) Veer north onto the Maritime Forest Trail and follow it 1.7 miles through the interior of the island.
5) When you reach the intersection with the Diamondback Rattlesnake Connector leave the trail to go .4 mile east on Hunting Island Drive until you reach South Beach.
6) At low tide, or an hour on either side, hug the shoreline 1.7 miles north through tumbled driftwood and scattered maritime forest to your camp at one of the primitive North Beach sites. Keep a safe distance (5 feet) from the dozens of loggerhead, green, and leatherback turtle nesting sites up along the high tide line, and make sure to pitch your tent away from the nests.
7) Leave the beach the next morning and walk .2 mile west along the campground road to the Magnolia Forest trailhead, then turn west (hiker’s left) onto the Magnolia Forest Trail and go 1.3 miles south. This trail connects the north and south sides of the island and passes through a magnificent magnolia forest. Crouch low to pass under an impressive fallen pine crossing the path at mile .9.
8) At mile 1.5 follow Hunting Island Drive 1 mile in a general southeast direction to return to parking lot J and your shuttle.
Snag one of the ten primitive beachfront sites at North Beach, in the dunes just above the high-tide line. The campground (a mix of RV and tent sites) is mostly car-accessed and can get crowded, but it’s well worth a few neighbors, many of whom return year after year.
Hunting Island’s marshes and coastal forests are home to orioles, hawks, bald eagles, kingfishers, and herons. The tall pines are favorite perching spots for the raptors, while the great blue herons prefer coastal marshland. Visit during the winter to catch the annual songbird migration, when neo-tropical songbirds such as cerulean warblers brighten Hunting’s undergrowth.
Trailhead 32.3639, -80.4437 Season Year-round; December to February is the best time to visit. Permit Required for overnight ($40 per party per night, two night minimum); reserve online or at the visitor center.