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THIS WEEK'S FEATURED STORIES

Happy Campers: State park lets vacationers enjoy the simple life

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

On a recent vacation in Georgetown County, Ron Smith and his family soaked up sun on the beach, rode bicycles through Huntington Beach State Park, observed the area’s wildlife and roasted marshmallows under the stars.

As vacations go, it was a great and memorable time, the family agreed, and better yet, it came with an extraordinarily reasonable price tag without the cost of a hotel room or house rental attached. The Smiths stayed instead in a camping trailer parked at one of the park’s full service campsites. Cost for those sites — the park’s most expensive — is around $30 per night.

“The price is right,” said Smith, an Upstate resident. And with water, electric and sewer hook-ups on the sites, the family doesn’t miss a thing hotel rooms offer, he added.

“We’ve got everything we need,” Smith said.

State parks in South Carolina have more than 3,000 campsites in scenic places, but the 133 sites at Huntington Beach are always among the top-ranked and most in-demand. In 2010, 4,600 families camped at the park. It also has sites for campers who prefer to rough it with tents and tarps, but most are for trailers and RVs.

“We’re full pretty much from Easter to Halloween,” said Brenda Magers, park manager. “The park has such spectacular natural resources — the ocean, fresh water and brackish water, and a huge diversity of wildlife and birds — that really sets it apart and brings in a lot of people.”

Birding enthusiasts come in to observe specific species, such as the painted bunting or spoonbill. Alligators, which can be seen from the park’s causeway, are always a point of interest for visitors and were of particular fascination to Smith’s grandchildren, Whitley Wilkes, 12, and Seth Wilkes, 8. The kids also visited the park’s education center, where there are touch tanks and mounds of information about local wildlife.

“There’s no swimming pool or arcade, or those types of services like you find at Ocean Lakes or Pirateland,” campgrounds in Myrtle Beach, Magers said. “That’s just not what we are. It’s a different set of amenities.”

The Smiths were regulars at another campground before they were won over by Huntington Beach. They’ve been camping for 20 years.

“We used to go to Edisto,” Smith said. His brother, Mike, discovered Huntington Beach first and encouraged the rest of the family to visit.

“It’s one of the last natural beaches around and it’s close to food and shopping,” said Mike’s wife, Ginger.

The brothers and their wives, along with Ron’s daughter and son-in-law and their two children all stayed at the park last week. It’s a chance for them all to reconnect and spend quality time together.

“That’s first and foremost the reason why people come here,” Magers said. “It’s a break from the cycle of electronics and multimedia life. They can slow down and really focus on their families.”

Ron said the park seems safer than other places he has stayed, which gives him more peace of mind and his grandkids get a bit more freedom. “At a hotel, a kid wants to run to the Coke machine and you worry about will they make it back,” he said. “Here you still watch them, but it’s not the same.”

Don Morgan, an elementary school art teacher in Bamberg County, camped by himself at one of the park’s tent sites last week. He said his stays at the park are a chance to enjoy the outdoors, peace and solitude.

“If you just listen, you can hear the egrets,” he said. “In the mornings, you can hear cardinals and mockingbirds and crows.”

It was his third trip to the park this season. He plans his entire summer around the availability of park sites, he said.

He has never camped with a trailer or an RV.

“I’d rather be outside as long as the bugs aren’t too bad,” he said.

If they are very bad, or if it gets too hot and humid, he sometimes goes to a movie to cool off in the theater.

His site was set up with a hammock tent, with tiny lights on the cords to keep him from tripping over them in the dark, a table underneath a tarp, and a camp chair where he spends part of every day reading.

He brings several good books with him on every trip, along with an art kit in case inspiration strikes, but he always spends more time reading than working.

He goes to restaurants for most of his meals. With what he saves on lodgings, he can spend more on food and entertainment. But he also brings a single pot. With that and a pound of shrimp, he’s all set for a perfect meal, he said.

Like Morgan and the Smiths, Tom and Linda Barnhardt of Kannapolis, N.C. started out camping somewhere else. They used to stay at Pirateland when their son was growing up. The pool there was an attraction then, but with all Huntington Beach has to offer, they don’t miss it at all.

“We like being outside and they’ve got a little bit of everything,” Tom said. “There’s a nice walkway to the beach, the pier is nice and it’s out of the rat race up there” in Myrtle Beach.

They get to enjoy it all for less than $300 a week.

“That’s a lot better than you’ll get in any motel,” Tom said, and that’s one of the top reasons he loves camping.

The Barnhardts started staying at the park about 10 years ago and from the first trip, they were hooked, they said. In addition to the park’s beauty, its campsites are also larger than generally seen at other campgrounds, allowing campers to spread out, and the nightly fees, which start at $17 for tent sites, are often half the price of other campgrounds.

“It may not be apples to apples, but it’s definitely fruit to fruit,” Magers said.

Like many campers, the Barnhardts usually stay at the park three times a year. They like to stay two weeks at a time, but their summer stay was an abbreviated one this year.

“We messed up this time and didn’t get reservations,” Tom said.

Peak season for the campground is April 1 through Oct. 31 and people hoping to reserve campsites during that period have to reserve a full 11 months in advance. Bookings aren’t accepted any earlier than that and campers know if they aren’t quick they’ll miss out.

“Getting reservations is always a trick,” Ron Smith said. “You better be on the phone with speed dial.”

The maximum stay during the peak season is 14 nights on three different sites for a total of 42 nights.

Being able to bring pets on camping trips is another perk. The Smiths brought two dogs, a beagle-whippet mix and a Weimaraner, to the park with them. If they weren’t camping, they would have to either board the dogs or find a hotel that would accept pets, adding to the cost of their vacation and potentially creating additional worry about how their pets are faring in their absence.

The ability to bring pets is another top reason people say they prefer camping to other accommodations, Magers said, and a quick drive through the campgrounds offers plenty of evidence. A number of walkers on the tree-lined path to the beach are accompanied by dogs and pets are visible at many of the sites sitting outside with their owners.

The Barnhardts’ travel with their cat, a tabby named Gracie, who likes to sit in the window of their trailer.

Travis and Sandra White of Warrenton, N.C., camp with their Bichon Frises, Winston and Lexie.

“They go everywhere we go,” Travis said on his way to the beach with the dogs. His wife was ahead of him pulling a wagon filled with chairs and other supplies for an oceanfront afternoon.

In decades of travel, the couple has rented houses and condos, as well as rooms in hotels, motels and inns. But none can beat the combination of convenience, comfort and affordability of their camping trailer, they said.

“We even have a timeshare, but we never use it,” Travis said.

They started camping in Myrtle Beach, but were driven south as campgrounds there got more crowded. They liked the quiet at Huntington Beach as much as the scenery and have been regulars for about eight years.

“The beach here is a thousand times better than the Outer Banks,” Travis said.

The only thing missing is a laundry service, he added.

“You can’t beat the price or the cleanliness,” Sandra said. “It has so much to offer.”

In addition to the wildlife, the beach, the marsh and the education center, the park is home to Atalaya, the former home of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, built just a few short steps from the beach. The structure is often compared to a castle.

“It’s unique and there’s no other like it,” Magers said. It’s also a National Historic Landmark, one of a lonely two in the state park system.

The Whites spend a lot of time on the beach during their visits, but they also like to walk around and talk to other campers. Everyone always seems friendly and open, and they’ve made a lot of friends since they started camping.

Ron Smith said he anticipates a lot more people will try and get hooked on camping as a result of the economy. He noted that more vehicle tags at the campgrounds were from South Carolina this year. Most are usually from out of state.

“That has to be economy-related,” he said.

And it probably means a lot of other people will start falling in love with Huntington Beach State Park.

“I think the jig is up,” Smith said.

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