Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Myrtle Beach State Park (Blog Hike #499)

Trails: Sculpted Oak and Yaupon Nature Trails
Hike Location: Myrtle Beach State Park
Geographic Location: south side of Myrtle Beach, SC
Length: 1.6 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2014
Overview: A flat lollipop loop nature hike to a world-famous beach.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Myrtle Beach, drive Kings Highway (US 17 Business) south 4 miles to the signed state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, and pay the small entrance fee.  Park in the Activity/Nature Center parking area on the left, which is reached immediately after passing the park office on the right.

The hike: So you want to go to world-famous Myrtle Beach, but you also want to lose the crowds and do some hiking.  This combination sounds impossible, but it is obtainable if you come in the winter and do the short nature hike described here.  The winter part of this recommendation is essential: on nice-weather summer weekends the park can become so crowded that you must wait for someone to exit the park before you can enter it.  When I came here on a mid-December afternoon, parking lots designed to hold hundreds of cars had only 5-10 cars in them.
            The park exists today thanks to a land donation from Myrtle Beach Farms in 1934.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also worked here; they built some picnic shelters and other structures that are still in use.  Today the park is an oasis of trees and sand amidst the development that typifies the Grand Strand.
            For hikers, the park features two short nature trails neither of which form loops by themselves.  However, combining the two trails with a short beach walk forms the nice lollipop loop described here.  As such, this hike lets you see everything the park has to offer and get some relaxing beach time in the process.
Inland trailhead: Sculpted Oak Nature Trail
            From the parking area, cross the park entrance road using the marked crosswalk to reach the signed trailhead for the Sculpted Oak Nature Trail.  The single-track dirt trail heads west through the maritime forest across nearly level land.  Some interpretive signs help you identify the more common trees in this forest, which include oak, witch hazel, and holly.
            Just shy of 0.2 miles, the Sculpted Oak Nature Trail turns left where a signed spur trail to a pond continues straight.  The pond is only a couple hundred feet away, so you may as well hike the short spur.  A small wooden platform overlooks the shallow algae-covered pond, which featured no observable activity on my late-afternoon visit.  The fact that the park entrance road lies immediately on the other side of this pond may be one reason little wildlife frequents this area.
Algae-covered pond
            The trail going forward from the pond leads out of the park, so you need to retrace your steps to the Sculpted Oak Nature Trail and turn right to continue your journey toward the beach.  At 0.3 miles, you reach the intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike.  For no particular reason, I chose to turn right and begin the Yaupon Nature Trail, thus using the rest of the Sculpted Oak Nature Trail, which continues straight, as my return route.
            The Yaupon Nature Trail derives its name from the yaupon holly, which has oval-shaped leaves in contrast with the pointy leaves of the more common American holly.  The word yaupon comes from the Catawba Indian word yop for tree.  The yaupon holly lives mostly in coastal areas, while the American holly is common throughout the southeast.
            The trail meanders through more maritime forest as it gradually curves left while some man-made dirt mounds appear on the right.  The sounds of busy Kings Highway remain audible until you get almost to the beach, where they get drowned out by waves lapping on the shore.  0.7 miles into the hike, the trail passes a small freshwater wetland on the left.
Freshwater wetland
            Just after passing the wetland, you come out beside a picnic shelter and restroom building, where the Yaupon Nature Trail ends.  To get to the beach and continue the hike, angle right across a parking area and walk down a concrete walkway labeled “Walk S4.”  This walkway uses a wooden boardwalk to cross a narrow set of sand dunes covered with sea oats to reach famous Myrtle Beach.  Turn left to begin the beach portion of this hike with the ocean on the right and sand dunes on the left.
            There is nothing like a walk on the beach.  The soft white sand by the dunes contrasts with the darker firmly wave-packed sand closer to the water.  Sea shells dot the sand, and small birds comb the shallow water for a meal.  The wooden state park fishing pier juts far into the seemingly infinite ocean.  There were only a few people here when I came in mid-December, but this area becomes very crowded in the summer. 
State park fishing pier
            The beach walk lasts for 0.3 miles.  To continue the loop, exit the beach at the point marked “Walk S1,” which is the last beach access south of the fishing pier.  Note that the state park beach continues another 0.6 miles to the north past the pier, so a detour may be in order if you wish to spend more time on the beach.
            The other end of Walk S1 deposits you at another parking area, where you need to angle left to find the signed trailhead for the Sculpted Oak Nature Trail, our return route.  This trailhead is located beside another restroom/changing building.  You quickly pass some live oak trees with twisted trunks, likely the sculpted oaks for which this trail is named.
Beach trailhead: Sculpted Oak Nature Trail
            The trail soon crosses the freshwater swamp on a short boardwalk as it heads back into the maritime forest.  At 1.3 miles, the Yaupon Nature Trail enters from the left as you close the loop.  Continue straight and retrace your steps 0.3 flat miles to return to the Activity Center parking area and complete the hike.

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