South Carolina's beaches serve many purposes: vacation respite, home for wildlife and tourism moneymaker. 

But as more people discover the charms of the Palmetto State's coast, reaching the beach — and enjoying this public resource — is becoming more complicated. 

For the most part, the state's beaches are public, but their public access is largely shaped by the amount and cost of parking by the beach. Beach communities must provide "full and complete" public access to the beach to be eligible for publicly funded beach renourishment.

A few areas don't qualify, including Daufuskie Island; Fripp Island; Harbor Island; Seabrook Island; Kiawah Island outside of the Beachwalker County Park; Dewees Island; and DeBourdieu Colony.

Angela Howe, legal director of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, said that South Carolina's protections of the beach as a public resource fall roughly in the middle of the pack compared with the rest of the country.

The three states with the broadest definitions of public beaches are Texas, Oregon and Hawaii, Howe said. The most restrictive laws exist in some New England states, such as Maine, originating in colonial-era law barring recreational activities in favor of maritime industries. 

Surfrider, which has chapters around the county dedicated to protecting beaches and the ocean, has fought legal battles with private property owners in a handful of states over beach access. In many of these disputes, homeowners blocked paths to the beach near their properties, Howe said.

"We want to make sure that new generations of people learn to enjoy and love and then protect (the ocean)," she said.

Grand Strand

In the Myrtle Beach area, which sees an estimated 18 million visitors annually, beach access parking lots are plentiful. In some areas, public lots and paths onto the beach are at the end of every avenue. There is no public beach parking at the northern tip of the city, however, at the Grande Dunes resort complex and The Dunes residential neighborhood. 

Myrtle Beach converted all of its public parking to a rate of $2 and hour or up to $10 a day in 2016, a move that angered some who live just outside the city and who previously parked for free in lots on the city's residential north section. City residents can get a special sticker that exempts them from paying for metered spaces. 

North Myrtle Beach has several lots near the shore. Visitors also often park in the grassy median in some sections of Ocean Boulevard, which has sparked a lawsuit from residents along the road. 

In Surfside Beach, the city charges anywhere from 50 cents to $2 an hour in its 12 lots, depending on how close they are to the pier.

Charleston area

Several beach communities around Charleston tightened their parking policies in recent years in an attempt to shift day-trippers away from residential areas. Residents sometimes complain of beach-goers trashing their yards on their way to or from the sand. 

In Isle of Palms, a rogue sign might appear on a residential street every so often with a "no parking" warning. They look official but actually come from residents, Town Administrator Linda Tucker said, and are usually removed by town police. 

IOP has two public parking lots near Front Beach that cost $1 an hour. Parking in the right of way along portions of 3rd through 9th Avenues is free during beach season. It's also free on Palm Avenue between 21st and 40th Avenues and between 42nd and 57th Avenues.

Sullivan's Island does not have a municipal parking lot, but its visitors generally park in the shoulders of public streets. It recently limited that parking to only one side of the street to ensure clear passage for emergency vehicles.

At Folly Beach, there are free spots on Center Street and paid spots on East Arctic Avenue, near the Washout and in lots near beach paths. Prices range from $2 and hour to $15 a day.

Parking in the right of way elsewhere is allowed for free, but motorists must follow the list of parking rules on the city's website

Hilton Head

Public access to the beach is complicated by Hilton Head Island's recent history, which saw the development of several gated, planned communities. About 70 percent of the island is inside these communities. They range from semi-open to so restrictive that motorists have to pay to get inside. 

Within the private Sea Pines community, there are separate beach access paths for property owners and for vacationers, said Scott Liggett, of the town of Hilton Head. 

But the town also started putting aside land in the 1990s for public beach parks. There are now eight, with a total combined 1,800 parking spaces, he said. The most popular is Coligny Beach Park, which includes restrooms, showers and changing rooms.

Residents and landowners on the island can buy two-year parking passes for $30. Metered parking prices depend on the lot.

State Parks

Four beachfront parks, Myrtle Beach State Park, Huntington Beach State Park, Hunting Island State Park and Edisto Beach State Park offer an easy way to get to the beach. Admission is $3.25 for seniors, $5 for adults and $3 for children over the age of 5. Visitors can also buy a $75 park passport for unlimited access to all of South Carolina's 47 parks. 

Beach-goers can also check for a way onto the beach on the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's beach access website.

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.