Monday, December 29, 2014

Huntington Beach State Park (Blog Hike #501)

Trails: Marsh Boardwalk and Sandpiper Pond Nature Trails
Hike Location: Huntington Beach State Park
Geographic Location: south of Murrells Inlet, SC
Length: 2.9 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2014
Overview: A combination nature hike and beach walk with good bird-viewing opportunities.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Huntington Beach State Park is located 3 miles south of Murrells Inlet on the east side of US 17.  Enter the park and pay the small entrance fee, then drive across a short causeway with wetlands on either side.  Once across the causeway, turn left and drive another 0.1 miles to the Nature Center, which is on your left.  Park in the asphalt parking lot in front of the Nature Center.

The hike: Located less than 15 miles south of world-famous Myrtle Beach, 2500-acre Huntington Beach State Park was the second beach state park I visited on my December 2014 South Carolina lowcountry hiking trip.  I thought Myrtle Beach was nice…until I came here.  The park’s somewhat remote location, wide beach, tall sand dunes, and numerous saltwater and freshwater wetlands make it a major birding and sightseeing destination in northeast South Carolina.
            The park is named for Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, who owned a winter home named Atalaya on this property.  Archer Huntington was a noted scholar in Hispanic art and culture, while Anna was a noted sculptor who has a work featured at Andrew Jackson State Park, which is described elsewhere in this blog.  Their former home is open for tours 9am-5pm daily.  The park came to be in 1960 when the state leased 2500 acres from Brookgreen Gardens, which is located directly across US 17 from the park.  Brookgreen Gardens is another worthy destination for nature lovers, but its entrance fee is considerably higher than the park’s.
            In addition to the obvious amenities, the park offers a 130-site campground, 3 reservable picnic shelters, and a nature center.  Huntington Beach State Park is also a top birding destination, as everything from shorebirds to woodland songbirds to wading birds to ducks will be seen on these grounds.  The park features only one hiking trail of substance, the 1-mile one-way Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail.  By combining the nature trail with a marsh boardwalk and a beach walk, you can form the semi-loop described here that gives you a taste of almost everything the park has to offer.
Heron on marsh boardwalk
            Either before or after your main hike, you should take a few minutes and walk the Nature Center’s marsh boardwalk.  The wooden boardwalk extends 0.2 miles into the park’s saltwater marsh, thus providing great views down the marsh toward the ocean.  On my visit, I saw a blue heron, several egrets, and schools of small fish.  The park also has a freshwater marsh.  Whereas the saltwater marsh is located here on the north side of the causeway you drove in on, the freshwater marsh is located on the causeway’s south side.
Trailhead: Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail
            The main part of this hike starts on the Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail, the signed trailhead for which is located across the park road from the Nature Center parking area.  Very quickly a trail exits right for the campground; it will be our return route.  Angle left to continue on the gently rolling sandy track through a maritime forest featuring stunted oak trees.
Hiking through stunted forest
            0.3 miles from the trailhead (or 0.7 miles from the start if you hiked the marsh boardwalk), you reach the first of three overlook platforms for Sandpiper Pond.  Sandpiper Pond is a long but narrow shallow-water pond that was filled with ducks and geese on my visit.  Sand dunes can be seen beyond the pond.  The Atlantic Ocean beyond the dunes can be heard but not seen from here.
            The trail continues north through a dense shrubby understory.  My approach flushed out a large number of songbirds including cardinals, robins, and sparrows.  The soft sand under foot makes the going a little more challenging than would otherwise be the case.  0.9 miles into the hike, a spur trail exits right to the second overlook platform.  This platform is located closer to the pond than the first one, and your approach will scare off any nearby birds if you are not careful.
Sandpiper Pond
            Back on the main trail, the trail crosses a couple of the pond’s small feeder streams on wooden footbridges.  At 1.5 miles, you reach the north end of the pond and the final overlook platform.  This wheelchair-accessible platform is reached by walking up a ramp; it offers a view down the length of the pond.
            Just past the last overlook, the Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail ends at the beach access parking area.  To continue this loop, turn right and hike the wooden boardwalk through the sand dunes to reach the beach.  The firmly packed sand on this wide, gently sloping beach is perfect for many activities including beach combing, bird watching, and of course hiking.
Looking north up Huntington Beach
Seashell on Huntington Beach
            The state park beach extends to the left (north) 1.5 miles to a jetty.  Your poor depth perception beside the ocean makes the jetty look closer than it is.  You could extend your hike by walking up to the jetty if you want some extra beach time.  To begin heading back to the trailhead, turn right and start walking south along the beach.  This beach walk lasts for almost 1 mile, and I enjoyed every inch of it.  Shorebirds such as plovers and gulls are sure to make an appearance.
            2.5 miles into the hike, our route turns right to leave the beach via the campground beach access.  This point would be almost impossible to find but for a white plastic post planted in the sand dune bearing the word “campground.”  Be sure to keep an eye out for this post, or else you will surely miss this turn.
Campground beach access
The campground beach access trail passes through the dunes on soft sand, crosses the edge of Sandpiper Pond using a wooden boardwalk, and enters the campground near campsite #35.  To get back to the Nature Center, turn right on the paved campground road, then angle right again on the paved road that accesses campsites #103-133.  The signed trail to the Nature Center exits the campground to the right near campsite #105.  The trail immediately plunges into the maritime forest and quickly intersects the Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail to close the loop.  A left turn and short forest walk return you to the Nature Center parking lot to complete the hike.

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