Friday, September 14, 2018

Huntington Beach and Atalaya

With Hurricane Florence bearing down on the Carolinas, I thought I would pay homage to an iconic coastal state park and the most recent of our coastal South Carolina adventures - Huntington Beach State Park. Huntington Beach (along with others including Myrtle Beach, Edisto Beach and Charles Towne Landing) has been closed until further notice due to mandatory hurricane evacuation orders. There is some irony in that our Labor Day trip was the result of two previous hurricanes; it was after Hurricane Hugo that the south campground was abandoned, but this year 42 new full-service campsites were added to this southern-most point of the park, and we were invited to take a look for ourselves. Hurricane Matthew changed our initial plans, but a few weeks ago we packed up and headed to the coast to enjoy the last bit of summer in what had been a relatively hurricane-free season so far. Now we are holding our breath while Mother Nature does her thing…

The Atalaya inner courtyard and watchtower at Huntington Island State Park

Although just 15 miles south of Myrtle Beach State Park, Huntington Beach couldn’t be further from Myrtle in style. The quiet, near empty beaches are just as appealing, even more so if you don’t fancy setting up your beach umbrella inches away from the next family. Book a site in one of the campgrounds and enjoy beach access away from the hustle and bustle at the public beach access points; even on our Labor Day weekend visit we virtually had the beach to ourselves.

A great starting point is the Park Office. The building also houses camper registration and the gift shop; this is the place to pick up ice for your coolers, wood for the evening’s campfire, and get that park stamp in your Ultimate Outsider book. They’ll also have info on the week’s programs, which during our stay included a snakes and reptiles program, crabbing catch and release, hikes with rangers, and guided tours of Atalaya.

This National Historic Landmark home of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington is located between the South Beach Access and South Campground. Take a self-guided audio tour or a ranger-led tour of the picturesque, Moorish-style home that was the winter retreat of the renowned 20th-century sculptor. Named ‘Atalaya,’ a Spanish term for watchtower, the house was designed after the Moorish architecture of the Spanish Mediterranean Coast. From the fascinating, square form of the outer walls to the grassy inner courtyards; from the 40ft tall watchtower (which actually was the water tower) in the center to the bear pen for Anna Huntington’s ursine models – Atalaya is a picturesque refuge that has withstood many hurricane-force winds. In tribute to Mrs. Huntington, the annual Atalaya Arts and Crafts Festival is held in the Castle next week, during what annually is the fourth weekend of September; stay tuned to the SC State Parks website for more info how this might be affected by Hurricane Florence.

The Atalaya grillwork was designed by Anna Huntington

Archer Huntington designed Atalaya, but Anna’s influence is everywhere – from the grillwork she designed for the windows, to the spacious indoor/outdoor studios and the facilities to host the animals she traveled with. Locally hired workers alternated between construction on Atalaya and Brookgreen Gardens (just next door) in the early 1930s, and the home was used up until Mr. Huntington’s death in 1955. Admission is $2/person, but the really adventurous can wait until early November when guests can spend the night in Atalaya, complete with ghost stories by the campfire, nighttime beach walks and dinner/breakfast (for pricing and more info see Huntington Beach official website).

Watching it rain over the ocean

The east side of Atalaya faced the ocean and the pristine Grand Strand beach, although today the view is of scrub and maritime forest. However, the surrounding area has always been well known to birders, who for years have been coming to see some of the more than 300 species that have been recorded in the park. Visitors looking to spot wildlife will want to check out one of the four trails within the Park, the best known of which might be the Atalaya Straight Road; the 0.5 mile trail leads directly from Atalaya west between Mallard Pond and Mullet Pond. Between 3 to 7pm it is common to see alligators moving between the ponds, but sightings aren’t restricted by the clock; on our visit we spotted a giant gator hanging out near the trail in the early afternoon. Reptiles, birds, spiders and wildlife galore – bring binoculars, pick up a bird list at the Park Office, and heed the warnings to stay on the trail!

A snowy egret and a roseate spoonbill in Mullet Pond

The three miles of beach can be easily accessed from the South and North Beach Access points, as well as from the campgrounds. Beachcombers will enjoy hiking along the beach another 1.2 miles up from the north access to the very northern tip of the Park and the jetty, passing through the bird sanctuary and enjoying the ocean breeze. We hit the beach at different times of day, and each time had a slightly different experience. With low tide we dug up mole crabs and watched them burrow back in. High tide brought with it a shark’s tooth for Lauris to find. While the morning meant an almost-empty beach and cooler temperatures, dusk/twilight was perfect for hunting sand crabs. Even during the heat of the day we saw numerous birds, crabs and even jellyfish (yes, jellyfish, so careful in the water).

Even crabs need love

If you want to see dozens of crabs without the effort of chasing after them on the beach, try walking out on one of the two boardwalks over the marsh. Much of the park is salt marsh, one of the world’s most productive eco-systems. The 1/4-mile Kerrigan Trail and the 0.1 mile Boardwalk extend out into the saltmarsh and freshwater lagoon for exceptional wildlife viewing; visitors may spot pelicans and alligators, as well as catching rare glimpses of nesting loggerhead sea turtles and roseate spoonbills. There is a parking area at the first intersection after entering the Park/admissions and driving across the causeway; it gives access to the walkways and viewing points along the causeway, with frequent alligator sightings as well as excellent birdwatching almost any time of day.

We saw these baby alligators near Mullet Pond, but the 8ft giant was in Mallard Pond

Florence isn’t the first hurricane to come ashore on the beaches of the Carolina, nor is it likely to be the last. While we wait to see what the results of Hurricane Florence will be, please stay safe. Heed evacuation warnings, don’t drive into water, and be mindful of downed wires. Our beaches are ever-shifting, and hurricanes, while significantly affecting our coastline, are a natural occurrence; time will tell what Florence does with the Carolinas.

*** Sculpture by Anna Huntington can be found in nearby Brookgreen Gardens, or if you are in the Upstate, visit Andrew Jackson State Park to see her piece Boy of the Waxhaws. For my first post on Huntington Beach State Park, click here.

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