Article for January - February 2007
Field Trip: Huntington Beach State Park
by Mary Heyward Belser
photography by Michael Foster
One of the most frequently visited parks in the Southeastern United States, Huntington Beach State Park comprises 2,500 acres of coastal paradise. The park is located on land purchased in 1930 by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, whose intent was to use the land not only as a winter retreat but also as a nature preserve where wildlife could be studied in their natural state.
Today the property is divided by US Highway 17. To the west lie Brookgreen Gardens’ expansive, beautifully manicured grounds, which showcase the sculptures of Anna Hyatt Huntington. The Eastern portion of the original estate is now Huntington Beach State Park, brought under protection of the state in 1960. It was on this coastal acreage that the Huntington family built their fortress-like winter home in the Spanish Mediterranean style with Moorish architectural elements. They called the home Atalaya, meaning "watchtower" in Spanish. Today, park rangers refer to it as "the castle," and one look will explain why. Atalaya is open and free to tour, but the home is only one of many reasons visitors return to Huntington Beach State Park again and again.
1 The park is located between Murrells Inlet and Georgetown. To get there from Georgetown and locations to the south, drive north on US Highway 17. The park entrance is 20 miles beyond Georgetown on the right. When approaching the park from the north, drive south on US Highway 17 to find the entrance two miles south of Murrells Inlet on the left. The entrance is clearly marked, and signs along the road will let you know when you are getting close from either direction. Closing time at the park varies depending upon season, but gates open at 6:00 a.m. all year. The park office is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Be sure to ask about the variety of programs offered to individuals and groups throughout the year. The fee is never more than $5 for a one-day pass—less for children, students and South Carolina seniors.
2 The majority of the park (1,460 acres) consists of salt marsh, tidal waters and maritime shrub. The remaining 1,040 acres are made up of 750 acres of forest, 90 acres of fresh and brackish marshland and 200 acres of beach. To make such diverse natural habitats accessible to the public, full-time park rangers must maintain miles of trails, build observation decks and boardwalks, and keep beach and camping areas safe and clean. In addition to outdoor duties, the staff run a well-supplied general store and a beautiful 2,500-square-foot education center. The education center provides live examples of local reptiles and aquatic creatures, a large classroom for school and scout groups and an ecological wet lab, where the approach to wildlife is a hands-on, scientific learning experience. All year long, Huntington Beach State Park offers an abundance of opportunities to learn and explore the ecologically diverse and unique coastal plain of South Carolina.
To fully experience the park's bountiful wildlife under the best possible conditions, visit on a sunny, winter day. The park is still bustling with activity during winter months, and there are fewer mosquitoes, spider webs and snakes to detract from your fun. Perhaps best of all, winter at Huntington Beach State Park is one of the most exciting destinations for bird enthusiasts from all over the United States. More than 300 species of birds have been recorded at the park, and visitors can get a birding checklist specific to the park at the education center. Encounters with unusual or rare species of birds in winter may occur in any of the unique ecological habitats throughout the park, but a great place to begin your birding adventure is the Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail. This two-mile wooded trail parallels Sandpiper Pond and provides some exciting bird-watching opportunities. To learn about the trail, it is important to first know a little bit about the pond.
3 Aptly named by Anna Hyatt Huntington for the birds she saw most commonly there, Sandpiper Pond is also a popular spot for a wide variety of other birds, including least terns, common laughing gulls, wood storks, black-necked stilts, great egrets and black skimmers. In winter months, the abundance of food provided by the pond makes it an excellent stopping point for many species of migratory birds seeking the warmer waters of the South. In recent years a white wagtail was even spotted here, a long way from its native Russia! Birding enthusiasts from as far away as California come to Huntington Beach State Park each winter for the rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of such unusual birds. Their efforts almost never go unrewarded. On any given winter morning, an experienced birder may catalog more than a hundred species.
Sandpiper Pond was originally fed by the Atlantic Ocean via a natural inlet carved in the sand across the beach. High tides brought an abundance of fish, crabs and shrimp across the beach and deposited them in the pond. This regular supply of food created a sanctuary upon which birds and other wildlife could depend for daily sustenance. Unfortunately, the effects of the Murrells Inlet jetties, and later of Hurricane Hugo, created the need for beach replenishment. The project blocked the inlet, creating a dire situation for the wildlife it helped to sustain. Without the inlet, Sandpiper Pond would be overgrown by vegetation and would eventually vanish forever. With this in mind, a grant was written by a partnership led by the Friends of Huntington Beach State Park. The goal was to obtain authorization and funding to bulldoze a section of the man-made dunes to re-create the tidal inlet, which had once been provided by nature. For the first time ever, the state awarded a grant to remove sand from a beach, making the pond a stable source of food once again. It was a bold move, but in April of 2005, the inlet was reopened and the wildlife began to return to feed in the pond's shallow waters.
4 The Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail also depends upon the pond to provide a habitat for the birds so many visitors come to see. The trail begins across the parking lot from the education center and winds through the maritime forest that borders the pond. As you walk the well-marked trail, be sure to stop at the four raised observation decks. From the Maxwell Observation Deck overlooking the pond and the beach beyond, you can expect to see rails, herons, ibises, pelicans, gulls and skimmers. Keep an eye to the sky for the ospreys and eagles also known to fish these waters. Observation decks also provide a better vantage point for viewing birds of the forest—chickadees, mourning doves, woodpeckers, cardinals and wrens, to name a few. Do not be surprised to see something uncommon along the way, or at least to meet someone else who has.
5 When you arrive at the north end of the beach, you have come to the end of Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail. However, to add to your adventure (and a total of six miles to your hike), continue walking down the beach to the jetty. In winter, this is the area where you will spot species of birds never seen in South Carolina during other seasons. Here, the harlequin duck, piping plover, razorbill and cinnamon teal may make appearances. To experience Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail as well as the jetty, take your time, your bird guide, a camera and binoculars. Allow at least four hours and savor every moment along the way. Your next visit will not be the same. Nature will always offer something new.
Mary Heyward Belser is a free-lance writer living in Charleston.
Field Trip thanks park naturalist Steve Roff and park ranger Mark Davies for their time and insights during two very interesting tours of the beach and trail.