By Cele & Lynn Seldon

The great outdoors means different things to different people. Lush landscapes, active adventures, immersive natural habitats, fresh air, and more can be found in all kinds of parks, attractions, preserved lands, and recreation areas. But exploring an island that had been private for over 40 years and that has maintained the unspoiled topography, rugged vegetation, and endangered animal habitats of a bygone era is a rarity. Such is the mystery of South Carolina’s St. Phillips Island.

Located at the mouth of the Port Royal Sound, sandwiched between Hilton Head and Beaufort along the coast of South Carolina, St. Phillips Island is a 4,690-acre barrier island that was once the private island of media mogul, Ted Turner, and is now the crown jewel in the South Carolina State Parks system. 

Purchased in 1979 with the goal of environmental conservation, Turner spent the next 40 years turning this rugged piece of Lowcountry real estate where few others had gone into a private family refuge. Charging the island caretaker, Ray “Boogie” Tudor, with creating accessibility throughout the pristine island, a magical, almost prehistoric paradise was cultivated creating a robust trail system, restoration of many endangered animal habitats, and the building of two ocean-front homes—a 2,177-square-foot caretaker house and a relatively modest (at least by today’s private island standards) 3,351-square-foot residence.

By 2017, Turner’s use of the island had dwindled and, wanting to sell to someone who would fulfill his lifelong commitment to land conservation, he approached the state of South Carolina. Within the next two years, the two had come to an agreement and St. Phillips Island became part of Hunting Island State Park and opened to the public for the first time in 2019.

South Carolina Coastline
South Carolina Coastline

Not your typical state parks offering, St. Phillips Island has remained largely unchanged from when it changed hands, apart from updating and renovating the main house. Offering day-long tours departing from the Hunting Island Nature Center with Charleston- and Beaufort-based Coastal Expeditions, visitors enjoy a thirty-minute naturalist-narrated tour up the Story River to the St. Phillips Island boat dock. From there, guests can either engage in their own private trail walking and bird watching, or board a tram for a 30-minute ride through the wilderness to the inland trail system and unspoiled beach.

However, the entire enclave might not be what is expected from a barrier island. The integrity and history of the South Carolina coast — along with its geology and maritime flora and fauna — has been preserved. The trails are rugged, the bugs can be plentiful and the history is always palpable. Even the beach is not typical, in that 75% of the barrier island is a maritime forest, with infrequent beach accessibility and, at low tide, there’s a mystical “boneyard beach” covered with gnarled and weather-worn trees and roots. 

Although St. Phillips Island doesn’t conjure up images of a tropical beach resort, its unspoiled wilderness is a naturalist’s paradise, with massive magnolias, large dwarf palmettos, oak trees, loblolly pines, deer, alligators, fox squirrels, reptiles, and close to 300 species of birds, categorized seasonally. It is completely unspoiled, where the only human disturbances are generally your own footprints. The splendor of the island comes from hiking, birdwatching, and exploration, and it seems to serve as a spiritual reminder of Mother Nature’s role in the grand scheme of the world. 

The only sense of the modern world comes at the main house, which is available to rent seasonally. Renovated and updated, the house accommodates 10 with five bedrooms, five baths, a gourmet kitchen, a living area and massive screened-in porch serving as the perfect respite for multiple couples and extended families. It also comes with a full range of amenities for a spectacular island getaway, including outdoor cooking spaces, a fire pit, fishing equipment, and kayaks. Plus, bragging rights that you are vacationing on your own private island.

If you go St. Phillips Island, South Carolina

Hunting Island State Park: $4-$8. Daily, 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (9:00 p.m. during Daylight Saving Time). 2555 Sea Island Parkway, Hunting Island. 843-838-2011, www.southcarolinaparks.com/hunting-island

St. Phillips Island Ferry: $65 for adults; $35 for children under the age of 12, in addition to State Park entrance fee. Check in for tours at Hunting Island State Park Nature Center, 2809 Sea Island Parkway, Hunting Island. 843-881-4582, www.coastalexpeditions.com or www.stphillipsislandferry.com.
Spring tours run on Saturdays, departing at 10 a.m.

Tips: St. Phillips Island is a remote barrier island with very few amenities. Dress in layers, wear closed-toe walking shoes and a hat. Only bring what you can carry and store on your lap, including water, food, sunblock, and insect repellant.