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Camping offers a unique way to enjoy our coastal plain
Whether in a tent in some remote wilderness, an RV, or even a fully equipped cabin in the woods, camping is a time-honored way to decompress, reconnect with ourselves, our friends and our family, and to get a dose of healing nature. When most coastal residents think of camping, western North Carolina and the Smokies first come to mind. But you needn’t plan a five-hour trip to the mountains for an outdoorsy getaway. Surprising to some, the Grand Strand, and nearby environs, have plenty of options ranging from the communal experiences of commercial campgrounds, the semi-private state park options, and even a few backwoods locations in the far corners of Horry and Georgetown counties.
Before it gets too hot to really enjoy a few days in the out-of-doors, dust off your old camping gear, stock up on a few supplies, and find out for yourself just what you’ve been missing. Nature’s calling!
Where to Go
Camping can be scary for the uninitiated. Visions of bugs, critters, reptiles large and small, a lack of flushable toilets, and even backwoods marauders have turned the bravest of men and women into sniveling cowards reluctant to leave the comforts of home. If this is you, don’t immediately discard camping as something you might dislike. You can still enjoy some of its benefits without really roughing it.
Here’s a brief rundown of some camping options, from the tamest to the wildest, all within an hour’s drive for most of us living along or visiting the Grand Strand.
A longtime mainstay of summer tourist crowds and snowbirds, commercial campgrounds offer ready-made accommodations and resort-style amenities right at the ocean’s edge. At Lakewood Campground (www.lakewoodcampground.com), for example, for around $50 per night in April you can pitch your tent and also get Wi-Fi, electric hook-ups, cable TV, running water, hot showers, and full use of the resort’s amenities. While it’s called “camping” and can be loads of fun for first-timers and families, it’s not exactly roughing it. Other commercial campgrounds in the area offer similar rates and perks, as well as RV sites and villas, which are small condos in the woods, complete with bedrooms, kitchens and full bathrooms.
We’re blessed with two state parks on the Grand Strand, both of which offer year-round camping and unspoiled access to the ocean and maritime forests. Huntington Beach State Park (www.southcarolinaparks.com) in Murrells Inlet and Myrtle Beach State Park both offer tent and RV sites, and Myrtle Beach State Park also has apartment-like cabins for rent. Less glitzy than the commercial parks, these state parks still offer some amenities for those afraid they might get bored, but the natural setting of these nicely maintained parks is the real draw. Nature centers, hiking trails, a fishing pier at Myrtle Beach State Park, and guided nature programs are all options for making your stay, whether in a tent or something a little more comfortable, worth the trip.
In addition to tent sites with “hook-ups,” i.e. water and electricity, both state parks offer overflow tent sites, which are less crowded, a bit more rugged, and a bit cheaper. Regardless, hot showers and bathrooms are located nearby for all campers.
While the commercial campgrounds and our state parks are good options for a little local camping R&R, how about really roughing it?
Call of the Wild
Unless you own rural property (or know someone who does), primitive camping, as it’s known, can be tricky, but not impossible, to find in our region. By “primitive” we mean hiking or boating into a remote spot without any “hook-ups,” pitching a tent, foraging for firewood and being alone with nature, and only the occasional, if any, passersby. Sure, you’ll still likely be within walking distance of a paved road, and within earshot of the Myrtle Beach International Airport traffic, but you’ll also be immersed in nature in a way that is quite different from going to a campground and very different from your routine at home.
The 5,347 acres of the Waccamaw River Heritage Preserve (www.dnr.sc.gov) offers such camping, free of charge, with no permits required. The Heritage land is a jigsaw puzzle of acreage all long the Waccamaw River from the North Carolina border to Conway. Maps are available on the South Carolina DNR website. This bottomland hardwood ecosystem comes alive in the spring, and trails leading to the riverbank, sandbars, and other scenic vistas are there for the adventurous hiker/camper. Take lots of bug spray and good boots, it can get wet and muddy. It’s recommended that you take an afternoon (with map in hand) to first scope out good logistical points of entry and egress, and to find the best, driest spots for a future camping trip once you are satisfied with the location.
Slightly further out, no more than an hour or so from Myrtle Beach, the Little Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve straddles both Horry and Marion counties with some 9,000 acres of forestland and blackwater river camping opportunities. Here you’ll be along the Little Pee Dee River and several oxbow lakes, teaming with otters, raccoons, birds, mink, bobcats and, of course, birds of a dizzying variety.
Both of these preserves are well known for birding, their rare plant and animal life, and unspoiled coastal plain beauty.
So what might the Grand Strand camper want to have along? If you’re in one of the drive-in parks, might as well bring it all; laptop, cell phones, DVDs, portable refrigerators, big screen TVs, bicycles, et cetera. But if you plan on backcountry or primitive camping, you’ll need only the essentials, a little courage, and a sense of adventure.
Pack a small but sturdy tent, sleeping bag, foam (or other) sleeping pad, bottled water, or better yet, a small, portable water purifier, matches, a lighter, lanterns (propane or battery), camera, a small cook-stove, a collapsible Boy Scout-styled mess kit (for cooking and eating), food, bug spray, a pack shovel, 50 feet of parachute cord, toilet paper, a radio, collapsible water bucket, and eco-friendly camp soap. Don’t forget prescription medicines and personal toiletries. You’ll need to hike all of this in to the campsite secured inside a sturdy backpack.
If you’re planning more than two days away, you’ll want to consider freeze-dried food (available in the camping sections of most outdoor stores); it’s much lighter than other canned or packaged food, and therefore easier to transport. If you’re a fisherman, make sure your license is valid and pack a telescopic fishing pole to try your hand at catching dinner—the rivers are teaming with big fish.
Because you won’t be climbing any mountains or hiking terribly long distances, it’s OK to pack a little heavy, but don’t overdo it. Make sure you can fit it all, and practice by loading the pack and walking a half-mile or so to see how well you fare.
Park your car safely, legally, and remove valuables. Boat landings offer a good choice for your vehicle, and the DNR website lists these locations with directions. You’ll also find well-worn trails leading along the riverbanks, which are the only place you’re allowed to camp, but feel free to day-hike anywhere within the preserves.
But don’t get lost. A GPS, and a good understanding of its operation, might prove invaluable.
Besides leaving your detailed camping itinerary with someone you can trust to miss you if you don’t show up at work on Monday, it’s best to camp with a buddy. Besides being more fun, it’s good to have each other’s backs. You might get cell phone reception, so pack that smartphone, and consider an external battery charger or solar charger. A small radio with weather band can be invaluable, but cancel your trip before you leave if the weather looks iffy. There’s no sense in wandering around the woods wet and miserable or in dangerous conditions.
Always pack a basic first-aid kit, which won’t help you much in a serious emergency, but could at least ease your discomfort from a minor calamity, such as headaches, blisters, minor burns and cuts.
Take fire alerts and dry weather very seriously. Don’t be the one responsible for the next wildfire in our region. You have a legal and moral responsibility to tend to your campfires and forgo them completely if it’s unsafe to burn.
Pack it in, pack it out, and leave no trace. This is the credo of good hikers and campers everywhere. While it’s generally OK to bury human waste, trash must be hiked out of the camping area and disposed of properly. Leave your campsite looking like you were never there. The next campers, and the indigenous wildlife, will appreciate that.
It’s hard to think of Horry County as a home to Yogi and Boo Boo, but it is. No one knows for sure exactly how many black bears live in the Heritage Preserves and other nearby undeveloped lands, but it’s not a bad idea to practice good bear hygiene. Place your food and dishes in a bag, strung up in a tree by a long rope, well away from your campsite. If you can, avoid cooking where you sleep. Don’t take food into your tent.
Bears have a keen sense of smell but are very shy, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll see any on your expedition. Just be aware they’re out there, and that this is their home. Pack along some bear spray or a bear horn if you’re really worried.
Don’t let this long list of safety reminders dissuade you from a real camping trip in the nearby wilderness. When the weather is right and you’re well prepared, there’s nothing like getting back to nature and absorbing the miraculous healing power of the great outdoors.
Camping, even overnight, can give you an unexpected emotional, and, some say, spiritual lift, many times greater than a short trip to the beach or a park. Set aside a few days to explore what the region’s earliest Native American inhabitants, colonists and homesteaders knew all along. There’s beauty and wonder in our coastal plain. Get out in it.