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Back to Nature: Three Lowcountry camping excursions close enough for a quick weekend escape

Back to Nature: Three Lowcountry camping excursions close enough for a quick weekend escape
October 2022
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Load up your camper or pack the tent to explore the outdoors during our best season



Up the Coast: Nature Adventures Outfitters

Along the stretch of coast from northern Mount Pleasant to Georgetown, opportunities for outdoor exploration abound—as well as a few ideal places to camp—thanks to the intersection of protected land and public trails. This time, our destination is Nature Adventures Outfitters—a waterfront campground which also offers kayak rentals and guided tours—headquartered about nine miles south of the village of McClellanville. The wooded property was once part of a plantation and previously developed as a church conference center and retreat.

Directions lead us to an unpaved road off Highway 17, driving our 1990 Westfalia camper slowly oceanward as the path gets ever more narrow; the forest seems as if it’s leaning in on both sides by the time we cross a timber bridge over a saltwater creek. Soon we reach a cluster of rustic campsites along the Intracoastal Waterway—there are no electric hookups or fancy RVs here, just a tucked-away patch of waterfront with a shared dock and sites that can be reserved for tent camping and small rigs like ours.

Within minutes of setting up our camper-van to face the water, we see a large sailboat cruising past under motor power. Beyond is an unobstructed view of the maze of marsh and islands of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. “Everyone comes for the trail,” says the guy in the next campsite when we meet. He’d just returned from hiking a few miles of the Palmetto Trail and would be sleeping in a tent atop his Jeep.

Back at our site, we settle in and watch the Intracoastal for a while before the sun sets. The campground is full, and some people have campfires going in pits. Neighboring campers are mostly locals—a family from Charleston and another from Summerville, as well as a group of Boy Scouts from Charlotte and one man from Washington, DC, who’s visiting his son at the College of Charleston. Across the way there’s laughter and conversation at a low-key level through the evening until one by one, each campsite goes dark and quiet. Tents are zipped up, and all’s still. Then it’s just the sounds of nature—a whippoorwill calling out for hours, and right before dawn, the hoot of an owl in the trees. This is the essence of camping. We’re all a little closer to the sights and sounds of the night and the natural world.

Hungry in the morning, we drive to the McClellanville Diner for shrimp and grits, biscuits and coffee, and many customers are in hunting camouflage. By midmorning, we’re exploring shops along Pinckney Street in the village and the McClellanville Arts Center’s show of youth art—including paintings of saltwater vistas like those we’ve been seeing from our campsite. Before we leave, we stop at Carolina Seafoods for a pint of pickled shrimp and a couple of whole blackfish that we can cook on the grill for another campfire night, watching boats cruise past.

(Left to right) A swimmer in Port Royal Sound; A sign at Barefoot Bubba’s & The 19th-century Hunting Island lighthouse.

A Beach Stay: Hunting Island State Park

Driving south to the sea islands around Beaufort, we cross Lady’s and St. Helena on our way to Hunting Island State Park, one of the most popular campgrounds in South Carolina. In recent years, storms have carved out stretches of the sand here, but there are still some 100 campsites under tall palmetto trees and pines.

We arrive during a warm weather spell in the spring, and I notice many of the other campers wearing bathing suits—the vibe and scenery is downright tropical. Campsites may have a $100 tent, but more likely a $50,000-plus RV rig, outdoor furniture, and patio lights; license plates are from across the country.

After we set camp for the weekend, I find the nearest beach access path a few sites over and take the short walk to the ocean. Camping with the beach mere steps away is the draw here. The waves and sea breeze are just beyond the dunes, and once beachfront, I kick off my flip-flops and take in the scenery. A line of more than a dozen pelicans flies overhead following the shore, and the beach is wide at low tide. In one direction, the Hunting Island lighthouse rises above the tree line. Time to swim.

Later, we drive out a few miles for some provisions on the remote, rural islands. At the tiny cottage that houses Bradley’s Seafood on St. Helena Island, Bertha Bradley scoops up a couple handfuls of creek shrimp for our dinner and puts them in a bag with ice. We also stop at the tiki bar-styled Barefoot Bubba’s for hand-scooped praline ice cream, before exploring this fascinating part of the world further.

At LyBensons’s Gallery on St. Helena Island, Rev. Kenneth Hodges curates a large gallery of Gullah and African art and collectibles, including the colorful works of woodburning artist Rev. Johnnie F. Simmons. In the next room are black-and-white images by Hodges of key figures in the civil rights movements in Atlanta and the Lowcountry, and the gallery owner also shows us a model of a bronze statue that he says will one day be placed in downtown Beaufort to recognize contributions of abolitionist Harriet Tubman during the Civil War.

A few miles away down Lands End Road on St. Helena is the Fort Fremont Historical Preserve, built in the late 1800s as a naval base until operations moved to Charleston. We see few other guests, but there’s a modern visitor center and a mobile phone app for a self-guided tour. We climb the fortifications and follow pathways to views overlooking Port Royal Sound before returning to our home base.

While the park is full, and families and friends gather in rings of beach chairs arranged outside of RVs, it doesn’t feel crowded. There’s space and privacy in the jungle-like maritime forest and topography of ancient ocean sandhills. And there’s the interest of people passing by every few minutes or so—on skateboards or bikes or pulling carts on the way to and from the beach, kids and dogs in tow.

(Left) One of the “Zun” (a combo of the words “Zen” and “sun”) tent cabins on the property; (Right) Paddling from one of the Zun campsites.

In-Town Tenting: Woodlands Nature Reserve

For a local getaway, we leave the camper-van at home. This time, we’re heading to the cabins and trails at Woodlands Nature Reserve, 6,000 acres along Ashley River Road across from the Middleton Place Equestrian Center.

Opened to the public in 2019 by the Duell family of Middleton Place, the property is protected by conservation easements and frequently hosts outdoor events centered on arts and music. A glamping option for overnight stays is available here in the custom-designed “Zun” tent cabins—named as a combination of “Zen” and “sun.” Built on a platform with canvas walls and a screen door positioned to take advantage of breezes, each one houses a king-size bed that’s ready for guests to bring their own sleeping bags or bedding. Some of the tent cabins are clustered together, while others are secluded. We follow the unpaved roads to a pair of lakeside Zuns. I notice small solar-powered fans inside, and outside is a fire pit, picnic table, and dock with no other structures in view.

“You’re 25 minutes from downtown, and it feels like the middle of nowhere” is how one of the Woodlands staffers describes the woodsy, rural setting, and she’s right. We see more wildlife than people during our visit—including rabbits, quail, butterflies, and deer, and when I try paddleboarding on one of the lakes, I hear the rat-tat rhythms of a woodpecker on a nearby tree. With lakes from former quarrying, a blackwater swamp, and expansive natural areas and miles of trails to explore, guests are encouraged to bring hammocks, bicycles, kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards.

Camping—whether in the tent-cabins or in spaces for tents and RVs—plays a big part in the seasonal Woodlands events that combine nature-based outings with art, food, and music, like the mushroom-themed “Artcelium Fest” held in July. Even when there’s no event happening, the vibe here is free-spirited (a stretch of sand at one of the lakes has been dubbed “Buddha Beach”), and welcoming for an easy outdoor escape.

Drive In, Gear Up: Before a trip, customers can bring their car or truck to Oxbow Road Adventures to be outfitted with gear for camping excursions.

The Gear Guy

Want to camp but don’t have a clue where to start? Local naturalist and backcountry guide Chet Morse, who worked with the Charleston County Parks system for a decade, opened Oxbow Road Adventures on the peninsula this year.

The outfitter developed his business plan when he noticed a renewed interest in camping during the pandemic. Morse recommends camping spots to customers and helps get them ready for travel with gear that they can rent or buy. Inside Oxbow, a converted shipping container in a corner of Tradesman Brewing’s large parking lot on the upper peninsula, customers can choose cargo boxes, rooftop tents, racks for surfboards or bikes, hitch-mounted cargo baskets, and other accessories. “The idea is to rent what you need when you need it,” he explains, “and the extra space allows you to bring some extra toys and people, your kids and dog.”

Morse often escapes to the North Carolina mountains and can provide recommendations for excursions there. Closer to Charleston, some of his favorite destinations include Woodlands Reserve and Edisto Beach State Park (within 50 miles of Charleston) and Santee State Park, in Santee, about a 75-mile drive. 1647 King Street Ext., Charleston; oxbowroadadventures.com

CAMP NORTH - 32 miles from downtown Charleston

STAY
Nature Adventures Outfitters: 15 rustic sites for tents, camper-vans, and pop-up campers on the Intracoastal Waterway, overlooking Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. No electricity or water hookups; no RVs allowed; from $35 per night. Kayaks, paddleboards, and camping gear are available to rent. 1010 Reverend Perry Rd., McClellanville; natureadventureoutfitters.com

Buck Hall Recreation Area: Tent and RV campsites, boat landing, picnic shelter, and trailhead connections to the Palmetto Trail; from $28 per night for a rustic tent site. 1099 Buck Hall Landing Rd., McClellanville; recreation.gov

EXPLORE

  • Carolina Seafoods, Inc.: Fresh fish and shrimp for the grill, as well as pickled shrimp and oysters. 22 Oak St., McClellanville; (843) 887-3845
  • McClellanville Arts Center: Gallery, studio, and shop. 733 Pinckney St., McClellanville; mcclellanvilleartscouncil.com
  • McClellanville Diner: Shrimp and grits, biscuits, banana pudding, and other Lowcountry specialties. 9905 Hwy. 17 N., McClellanville; (843) 887-4499
  • Oscar + Cornelius: A collective of gifts, jewelry, accessories, and decor, as well as vintage finds and paintings. 824 Pinckney St., McClellanville, oscarandcornelius.com
  • Sewee Outpost: General store for provisions, including mini pecan pies, boiled peanuts, and beverages, plus boating and fishing gear. 4853 Hwy. 17 N., Awendaw, seweeoutpost.com

CAMP SOUTH - 88 miles from downtown Charleston

STAY 
Hunting Island State Park: About 15 miles east of Beaufort, 100 campsites in walking distance to the beach, many with shade of the maritime forest, from $40 per night for rustic tent sites. 2555 Sea Island Pkwy., Hunting Island; southcarolinaparks.com/hunting-island

EXPLORE 

  • Barefoot Bubba’s: Beachwear and ice cream. 2135 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; (843) 838-9222, barefootbubbasurfshop.com
  • Bradley’s Seafood: A small, family-owned market for local shrimp and fish. 1452 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; (843) 838-2924
  • Fort Fremont Historical Preserve: A battery of historical buildings from the former naval base site on a bluff overlooking Port Royal Sound. 1124 Lands End Rd., St. Helena Island; (843) 255-2152, fortfremont.org
  • Gay Fish Company: Seafood market owned by the Gay family since the 1940s where fishing boats unload their catch. 1948 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; @GayFishCo on Facebook
  • LyBensons’s Gallery: African, African American, and Gullah art and antiques. 870 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; Facebook: @LyBensons
  • MacDonald MarketPlace: Gift shop, housewares, and antiques. 853 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island;  macdonaldmarketplace.com

CAMP AT HOME16 miles from downtown Charleston

STAY 
Woodlands Nature Reserve: A 6,000-acre private reserve open to the public for kayaking, paddleboarding, disc golf, equestrian trails, and music and arts events; camping in safari-style “Zun” tent cabins, each with a king-size bed; as well as primitive camping sites. 4279 Ashley River Rd., woodlandsnaturereserve.com