Most visitors know Charleston has amazing architecture, historic homes, incredible restaurants and a vibrant shopping district. But what they may not realize are the spectacular natural forests, parks and activities that showcase the area’s coastal environment and natural resources.
While you’re visiting, put an eco-tour, outdoor adventure or nature hike on your list of things to do. Many of these activities are great for older children and teenagers eager to get out on the water, hunt for shark’s teeth or tackle a zipline.
ON THE WATER
Many visitors are eager for a chance to get out on the water. Charleston has three main public beach areas at Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms and Folly Beach. Here you can walk the shoreline collecting seashells or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, rent a waverunner, go tubing or book a para-sailing tour for a bird’s eye view of Charleston’s beaches. Some companies also rent boats so you can spend a day relaxing on the water. (For more on local beaches, check out our Charleston Beach Guide.)
Anyone looking to get in some vacation fishing can visit the Mount Pleasant Pier or Folly Beach Pier (ccprc.com) and pay a nominal daily fishing fee. Rod rentals and bait are also available. Or book a fishing charter for an offshore or deep water salt-water fishing experience.
Try your hand at kayaking, canoeing or standup paddle boarding. Plenty of adventure companies offer guided tours, lessons and rentals so you can explore areas like Shem Creek, blackwater swamps, the Edisto River and more.
If you’d like to catch a view of dolphins, search for shark’s teeth or wear out your camera snapping sunset photos, try an eco-tour to Bulls Island. A boat ride to Bulls Island is perfect for spotting sea turtles, dolphins and dozens of bird species. Then explore 16 miles of trails and 7 miles of beaches.
Or visit Capers Island, an undeveloped barrier island between Dewees Island and the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. This government-owned island is protected from development so visitors have a chance to see an unspoiled coastal area. Be sure to explore boneyard beach, named for the tree skeletons and stumps left on the beach because of erosion and bleached white by the sun.
Head up Highway 17 North, past Mount Pleasant and into Awendaw, where you can both see birds of flight and fly like a bird yourself.
The Center for Birds of Prey is a 152-acre Avian Conservation Center easily accessible from Highway 17 North just past Mount Pleasant. In addition to operating a professional avian medical clinic for injured birds of prey, the center offers on-site and outreach educational programs, conducts research and studies, and participates in international conservation studies.
Plan Your Visit: Center for Birds of Prey, 4719 Highway 17 North in Awendaw. Hours: Thursday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guided walking tours are offered at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., followed by flight demonstrations at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Admission: $15 for adults; $10 children 6 to 18; free for children under 6. Info: thecenterforbirdsofprey.org | 843-971-7474
Just down the highway from the Center for Birds of Prey is the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center. It offers a number of educational programs, including a lecture series, hands-on conservation programs for children, guided wildflower walks quarterly and seasonal guided kayak trips. The center is also home to four endangered red wolves – one of the most endangered animals in the world. A red wolf feeding and discussion program is available Thursdays at 3 p.m. and on Saturdays at 11:30 a.m.
Plan Your Visit: Sewee Visitor & Environmental Education Center, 5821 Highway 17 North in Awendaw. Business hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Info: fws.gov/seweecenter | 843-928-3368
Also located in Awendaw is Charleston Zip Line Adventures. Soar among the tree-tops in a two-hour zip line canopy tour through the trees at heights up to 65 feet. Cross two sky bridges and brace yourself for the grand finale zip of more than 700 feet. There is a Kids Zip Line Adventure for ages 5 to 13 and a 60-foot climbing wall.
Plan Your Visit: Charleston Zip Line Adventures, 1152 Guerins Bridge Road in Awendaw. All participants must be at least 10 years old and weigh 70-250 pounds. Zip Line Canopy Tour is $79 per person. Reservations are suggested. Info: charlestonziplineadventures.com | 843-928-3947
Need more high-flying adventure in your life? Check out Wild Blue Ropes Adventure Park on James Island. With three levels of difficulty to accommodate a variety of ages and skill levels, you can craft your own adventure with more than 70 challenges extending 35 feet above the ground.
Plan Your Visit: Wild Blue Ropes, 1595 Highland Ave. in Charleston. Tickets: $19 to $45. Hours: Friday 3-8 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (hours may vary by season). Reservations are suggested. Info: wildblueropes.com | 843-502-4066
The Charleston County Parks system has a number of ways to appreciate and experience nature. In addition to beach parks at Isle of Palms, Folly Beach and Kiawah, there are dog parks, a climbing wall, bike and walking trails. Splash around with the kids at one of three water parks (open weekends only in May; daily in June). These various parks are located all around the area, including North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, James Island and more.
If you’re looking to learn more about Charleston’s history in an outdoor setting, book a boat or walking tour. Several local tour companies offer boat tours around the Charleston harbor with guides pointing out historic landmarks. Walking tours cover Charleston history, the local cuisine and even Charleston’s spooky past with a ghost tour.
Or simply explore the city on your own. There’s nothing better than leisurely strolling the streets of Charleston on a warm spring day. You can pause to admire local architecture, gardens and one of the city’s many parks and green spaces.
For more wildlife exploration, check out Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site, a nature retreat in the heart of the city. The park marks the site of the first permanent European settlement in South Carolina. Visitors can immerse themselves in 80 acres of English park gardens and 7 miles of nature trails (open to bikes) – with a good chance of spotting wood storks, alligators and coastal wading birds. The park is also home to an Animal Forest zoo with bison, puma, black bears, otters, birds, wild turkeys and more.
Plan Your Visit: Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site, 1500 Old Towne Road in Charleston. Admission: $10/adult; $6.50/S.C. senior; $6/youth age 6-15; free for children 5 and younger. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Info: charlestownelanding.travel | 843-852-4200
Located past Summerville off Interstate 26 West is the Francis Beidler Forest, an internationally recognized old-growth swamp. Within its 16,000 acres is the second oldest bald cypress tree in the world, native wildlife and multiple bird species. Take a peaceful self-guided tour along the 1.75-mile board-walk trail, venturing into the heart of the swamp.
Plan Your Visit: Audubon Center & Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest, 336 Sanctuary Road in Harleyville. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; admission is $5-$10. Info: beidlerforest.audubon.org | 843-462-2150