An Adventurer’s Travel Log: St. Phillips Island

Hello, fellow Adventurers, and welcome to my travel log! As an avid explorer of nature’s hidden treasures, I can say with confidence the destination described hereafter is a particularly special gem. As I’m sure you already know—the destinations which require a bit of extra planning and which take you completely outside the realm of your everyday life are the destinations which stick in your memory. No doubt, I’ll be dreaming of the boneyard beaches and ancient trees of St. Phillips for many nights to come. But, wait! I’m getting ahead of myself.


Below, you’ll find a detailed account of my travels. It is an adventurer’s greatest duty to bring back tales of their expeditions (if not actual treasure). I hope my travel log will help you plan for your next adventure. May you take heed of my mistakes and inspiration from my wonder. And, of course, I’ll see you back here after my next excursion!


6 am


The morning of my adventure, my travel companion and I made an early start. Before dawn, with sleep still in our eyes, we packed our bags for what was sure to be an all-day outing. Tennis shoes. Jackets. Bottled water. Oranges. I slathered a thick coat of sunscreen over my face, then found a journal for my field notes. After grabbing a light breakfast, we set off.


Any adventurer aiming to have a successful expedition must plan accordingly. We knew a two-hour drive would deliver us to our destination. We also knew to arrive at least thirty minutes early to ensure we had enough time to check-in before the ferry departed at nine o’clock. Knowing these tidbits of information is essential to having a good trip.


During our quiet drive, while my companion caught up on sleep, the sun crept steadily over the eastern horizon. The moon, waning and gibbous, slid over to make space. Burnished autumn leaves, adorning trees alongside the highway, came alive with the light and resembled miniature flames. As we left Charleston behind and neared Beaufort, a thick fog rolled across the road. Trees gave way to marshlands, their long grasses slick with morning dew.


We crossed many bridges and through small towns before reaching the haven of Huntington Island State Park.


9 am


After purchasing our admission tickets, we parked and made our way to the Nature Center. While my companion stopped to admire the resident snakes and turtles cared for within the main office, I introduced myself to our park ranger. The park rangers at Huntington State Park help to facilitate expeditions! Once outside, our park ranger successfully wrangled all twenty-five adventurers into a tram and drove us down to the dock, where our vessel awaited. A team of fellow adventurers were pulling on their wetsuits and preparing for a kayak expedition when we arrived. We waved hello before boarding our boat.


9:10 am


Our vessel was manned by a splendid crew! The captain and two guides had us settled and ready to depart within ten minutes. We’d spent barely a second out on the open water before a few bottlenose dolphins came to see us off! These dolphins were particularly social, sticking close to our boat as our guide informed us about the ecosystem of the estuary.


An estuary is the brackish connection between inland rivers and the great sea. Copious amounts of spartina—a highly salt-tolerant species of grass—act as a shelter for juvenile fish, the favorite food of our bottlenose friends. Now late October, the golden-green grass was nearing the end of its perennial life cycle. In winter, the grass would perish, wash onto the shores of nearby beaches, and act as the first step in the formation of dunes. These dunes would then act as the first line of defense against the battering winds and high waves next hurricane season.


The morning was brisk. Clear skies, from end to end; sunlight glittered on the green waves. Green from the presence of phytoplankton, our guide informed us. Though we couldn’t see to the bottom, we could rest assured this was some of the clearest, cleanest water in the world. (As a South Carolinian, this is now a point of pride.)


Eastern Brown and White pelicans circled a spot nearby and we soon learned we weren’t as popular as we’d once thought. As our bottlenose friends ventured off, our guide explained the key differences between dolphins and manatees. While manatees must seek fresh water sources to drink from, dolphins obtain the entire share of their water intake from the fish they eat. While manatees must seek seventy-five degree waters up and down the coast, at least three-hundred dolphins call the estuary at Huntington Island State Park home all year round. Dolphins are social, incredibly smart, and even have distinct cultures and accents. Our dolphins—the ones which live in South Carolina—fish using a method called strand feeding. This technique requires a pod of dolphins to create waves which push fish onto the beach, thus stranding them. Then, these dolphins nearly beach themselves attempting to obtain the fish. It’s quite a lot of work, but it gets the job done.


As we sped towards St. Phillips, the boat churned a fine wake and salty spray misted our faces. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of approaching your destination.


10 am


Upon our arrival, we disembarked from the vessel. Many of us used the restroom, as this would be our last opportunity for at least forty-five minutes, and donned bug spray (which my companion and I forgot to pack). Rule Number One: Pack bug spray. Before long, we boarded our tram, which would take us through the forest and to the other side of the island. Our land guide warned us of alligators, snakes, low-hanging branches, and thick roots poking out of the ground. From her warning, we each knew we were trekking into a place not made for humans.


Aboard the slow-rolling tram, we descended into the old maritime forest, with its virgin growth. While perhaps not quite primordial, the towering trees were at least four-hundred to five-hundred years old. The slanted remnants of certain parts of the forest told of a hurricane-pummeled past, but our guide said these fallen trees acted as highways for the little animals. We stopped by what could have been a Native American oyster mitten—a large pile of oysters hundreds of feet inland. This mitten called to mind a storied past, from before the Spanish ships landed and the island was named for a European king. These ancient oysters, as they degraded, made the soil basic and gave rise to trees like the Eichen Red Cedar and the Prickly Pear.


The rumbling chatter of multiple conversations concerning planned hikes and the squeal of the tram came to another halt when we spotted a pair of Roseate Spoonbills. As the pink birds circled overhead, barely anyone paid heed to the equally marvelous Woodstork. (But then, perhaps we would’ve if it had been carrying a baby.)


We passed by swamps, home to alligators bigger than those you’d likely find in your backyard, and tree trunks as wide around as two hula hoops. The desiccated husks of trees long dead carved paths through the otherwise dense forest. Spanish moss draped the branches like bunches of lace. Our guide informed us the island was really just a series of troughs and ridges. A mixture of fresh, brackish, and salty waters provided homes for different amphibians and reptiles. Though there were opportunities to disembark along the main road and chart our own paths, many of the adventurers stayed aboard until we arrived at our final stop.


10:50 am


We disembarked from the tram at a collection of picnic tables near the beach. Through a small copse of trees, we could see the endless expanse of ocean and hear the gentle wash of waves. With another warning—we would need to be back by 1:15 pm or risk being left behind—the land guide left us to our exploring.


My companion and I took a short seven-minute walk along a nearby trail and arrived at the beach. The smooth, bleached bases of trees were scattered everywhere. Stripped of skin, sanded down by years of exfoliation, and baked under the sun—these bones shone like silk strands. My companion and I found a good place to set up our gear, rolled up our pants, took off our shoes and socks, and waded calf-deep into the awaiting water.


What a delightful shock the cold was to our senses! With only sea and sky and sand, there was nothing left to do but giggle. We looked around and the beach was empty of our fellow travelers. Our only company were the Monarch butterflies which flitted by every few seconds, on their way to find food and continue their fall migration.


We stood in the water and ate our oranges. We walked along the coast. We climbed bone trees and made sculptures in the sand, as though we were children once again. Though we lamented not bringing sandwiches (rule number two: bring enough food), we were full with joy. So full, in fact, our two hours passed in the blink of an eye. After plenty of sun and play, we were ready to reboard the tram at 1:15.


2 pm


Once again, the boat was waiting for us at the dock. We boarded, old pros at this point, and settled in for the ride back. Our bottlenose friends returned, even more friendly for having known us before. They kept close to the boat, then ventured off, then came close again—almost like a game. As our trip drew to a close, a pensiveness descended over the group. We were united in our appreciation of the day. After spending such a time together, as adventurers, we returned to our starting place. And, as T.S. Elliot wrote in ‘The Little Gidding’:


“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, remembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.”


Until next time,


The Coastal Adventurer

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Isle of Palms Rentals

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Take in the stunning beauty of local creeks and waters from one of our kayaks or SUPs. Walk-ups are welcome or call / text to book and we’ll be ready when you are. All gear and instruction provided.

Call or text 843.884.7684 to book.

Outpost Location

Need A Guide?

If you really want to get a feel for the local history, identify the native wildlife, and get to special places, you'll need someone experienced to show you the way. We'll get you there.

Check out our Isle of Palms tours.

Rent a Kayak or Paddleboard Click to Book via Text