Island Hopping in the Carolinas

by Kristy Tolley

Escaping to a private island for a little R and R is a bucket list item for many. Whether you’re planning a day trip or a longer stay, you’ll find many popular islands in the Carolinas to explore. Here are four you should add to your list.

1. Hunting Island, South Carolina

I’ve visited Hunting Island many times — both as a day tripper and an overnight camper. Whichever way you choose to experience Hunting Island (I recommend both ways!), it’s easy to fall into a tranquil rhythm during your visit. More than 1 million people visit each year, making it the state’s most popular state park. Seek out land and marine wildlife along the five miles of unspoiled beaches or on the miles of trails throughout the island’s dense maritime forest. The beach provides nature’s own playground for kids with its tree “boneyard.” Because Hunting Island is a barrier island, over time erosion has brought down pine and palmetto trees. Don’t miss a climb up the lighthouse. It’s the only publicly accessible lighthouse in South Carolina. It was originally built in 1859 and rebuilt in 1875 after it was destroyed during the Civil War. It was moved to its current location a mile inland in 1889 due to severe beach erosion. The view from the top is worth every one of the 167 black cast iron steps it takes to get there — expansive views of the Atlantic Coast and the maritime forest. Stop by the Nature Center for an in-depth look at Hunting Island’s diverse habitats. If you’re overnighting it, plan a sunrise hike on the Nature Center Scenic Trail that leads to the southern stretch of beach.

2. St. Phillips Island, South Carolina

While you’re at Hunting Island, book a naturalist-led ecotour to St. Phillips Island. For almost four decades the island was a private beach retreat for media mogul, producer and conservationist Ted Turner. It’s no wonder Turner wanted the island all to himself — it’s a nature lover’s paradise. You can almost envision what it was like for those who stepped foot on the island for the first time in the turn of the 18th century. During his ownership, he carved out a handful of trails through the maritime forest and restored habitats for wildlife like loggerhead sea turtles, Eastern indigo snakes and fox squirrels. In addition, the forest teems with saw palmetto, live oaks and southern magnolia trees, providing a home for bobcats, alligators, sea turtles and varied species of birds like bald eagles, painted buntings and others. Although he did build a beach cottage and caretaker’s house that overlook the ocean, Turner made sure to impact the island as little as possible. He even attached a conservation easement (held by the Nature Conservancy) to the deed to protect its future from overdevelopment. Only ten additional structures are allowed to be constructed on the island. Hunting Island State Park acquired the island in 2018. The park’s eco tours provide you the chance to learn more about the island from a naturalist, chill along the beach and hike the interior trails. If a day isn’t long enough for you to explore, consider booking the 3,3500-square-foot Turner House for a week. You can rent just the house (tours will continue to run during your stay) or go all out for an exclusive rental of the entire island (public tours closed during your stay).

Harkers Island

3. Harkers Island, North Carolina

Situated just east of Beaufort, this quiet island has retained its small-town charm and tucked-away ambiance for centuries. The island was a destination for Europeans in the 1500s, then an escape for hurricane refugees during the 1800s. If you seek a slow-paced escape without sacrificing some of the conveniences of the day, Harkers Island can deliver. A year-round population of about 1,200 people the island provides a quiet, “no crowds” place to vacation and enjoy the simpler life. It’s long been a lure for fishermen and mariners, and is still a popular spot for fishing today. Go it alone or let an expert guide take you out. There are several charters from which to choose. Add a visit to the Cape Lookout National Seashore to your “must do” list while you’re here. The Island Express Ferry service departs from Harkers Island. You can also book an inshore charter to take you over, if you prefer. Cape Lookout National Seashore boasts miles of pristine beach, ample birdwatching opportunities, a historic village and, of course, the iconic lighthouse. During your stay on Harkers Island, set aside time to check out the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum. Here you’ll learn all about the area’s water-fowling heritage, including the traditions of decoy carving, boat-building and commercial fishing. Behind the museum you’ll find the start of the Willow Pond Loop Trail. This short and easy trail wends around a freshwater pond and rewards hikers with gorgeous woodlands and wetlands views.

4. Bird Island, North Carolina

Beautifully undeveloped, Bird Island is the perfect place to immerse yourself in nature and your thoughts. Pristine white beaches, high dunes and more than 1,200 acres of salt marsh and tidal creeks await visitors who make the 1.4-mile walk from the Sunset Beach pier to get there. The island is blissfully void of houses, cars, traffic, restaurants and other distractions. It’s one of 10 sites that comprise the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. It’s designated Audubon Important Bird Area (IBA), a program designed to identify natural areas and landscapes that are vital to birds and their habitats and protect them. You’ll likely spy snowy egrets, blue heron, sandpipers, laughing gulls and other birds. Other wildlife includes alligators, deer, sea stars and even goats. Loggerhead sea turtles also make their way to Bird Island to lay their eggs each year. If you like to fish, there are great spots just off the island where you might catch grouper, redfish, sea bass and other types of fish. Perhaps the most notable draw for visitors is the Kindred Spirit Mailbox. The inspiration for Nicholas Sparks’ Every Breath, the community mailbox has held the dreams and thoughts of thousands of people since it showed up in the late ‘70s. The mailbox holds a handful of journals and a few pens. Grab a journal, sit down on the nearby wooden bench and pour out your thoughts. If you aren’t inclined to leave a note, you might just find inspiration in reading others’ personal thoughts, hopes and messages. However you choose to spend your time on Bird Island, it won’t be wasted.

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