Hunting Island park manager Daniel Gambrell and other state park officials entered the gates a few days after Hurricane Matthew last fall and into the nightmare the storm left behind.
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The group strapped on waders and trudged by foot through flooded areas and fallen trees stacked precariously like pick-up sticks. The excursion to Hunting Island’s iconic lighthouse is a 20-minute walk but took four hours to navigate that day.
Much has changed in the seven months since.
Gambrell stood in the park Friday under warm sunshine, admiring the sweeping views of the park’s south beach. Dunes, underbrush and pine trees were gone, leaving an open forest of palmetto trees entering the white beach.
“It’s still really pretty in here, isn’t it?” Gambrell said.
That’s the rub as one of South Carolina’s most popular attractions prepares to reopen May 26. Hunting Island is forever changed, but the most of the elements that draw more than 1 million visitors each year are in place.
The beaches on the north and south end will be open to visitors when the gates open again. The south beach was initially expected to require longer to recover.
The 5,000-acre maritime sanctuary was thrashed by the storm, with more than $5 million in property damage. In addition to the trees felled by the hurricane, another 2,500 trees were killed from the saltwater flooding the forest.
Dunes were erased, opening the views of the ocean. Oceanfront campsites were lost and will be replaced by day-use picnic and parking areas.
The 100 campsites are expected to reopen in early-to-mid June with improved electrical and water service. The fishing pier is also still under repair.
About 250 parking spaces were lost. Gambrell pulled his white Ford sport-utility vehicle up to the beach on the south end where the entrance road was washed away and the parking area is now covered in sand.
State park officials might experiment with a shuttle system later in the summer and have met with Palmetto Breeze. But for opening Memorial Day weekend, the remaining 600 to 700 spaces will suffice.
“There’s ample parking,” said Phil Gaines, director of the state park service. “But a shuttle is something that we think is important for the future to be able to handle some of the capacity issues.”
To help alleviate the parking shortage, visitors are asked to carpool and visit during downtimes like weekdays and and early afternoons.
State park officials did what they would to get visitors in the gate for a popular holiday weekend. The park system lost $2 million in revenue from Hunting Island admission and campsite fees.
Volunteers will spend next week building hundreds of picnic tables, painting a new fence around the untouched lighthouse and clearing trails.
New signs in the park caution visitors that dangerous conditions might still exist in some areas. Parts of the park will remain off limits.
Volunteers working the beach this month for the start of sea turtle season were among the first in the park, other than contractors and park officials.
The nature center and part of the pier have been open, but Gambrell has turned away numerous potential visitors unaware of the park’s status, including people with recreational vehicles prepared to camp.
Beachgoers have been directed to Fort Fremont on St. Helena Island or the Sands in Port Royal.
Months of work on the park is still ahead, but the gates will open again soon.
“We’re just really looking forward to having visitors back at the park,” Gambrell said. “Hunting Island is not the same without people in it.”