With all of Charleston’s genteel charm, carefully maintained architecture, shopping, and wining and dining, it’s easy to forget the areas that nature offers those visiting this South Carolina city. The Charleston peninsula contains several large parks with grand water features, rich plant life, and statues. But there are just as many small gems that serve as a welcome respite from the downtown hustle.
And then there are the sites outside of downtown. Charleston County parks offer everything from disc golf to cultural festivals to kayaking to social events for your pup. It’s impossible to be bored in these spaces. No matter what you’re seeking, there’s a park that fits the bill. Here are 14 of the area’s finest.
Official travel guides will call this Battery Park or White Point Garden, but everyone else just calls it “The Battery.” The fortified seawall, located on the southernmost tip of the downtown peninsula, is steeped in American war history. It’s also a great place to catch a breeze on a sweltering day. The promenade offers spectacular views of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney, the USS Yorktown, and the Sullivan’s Island lighthouse.
Directly across Murray Boulevard and East Battery, White Point Garden has its own wartime relics. Civil War cannons and numerous statues dot the area. There are rows of oaks and a large gazebo where countless engagement photos has been snapped. Stately antebellum mansions stand directly across South Battery Street. Essentially, this park has no bad angles.
Joe Riley Waterfront Park
This park is a prime example of former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s vision for beautiful public spaces along the downtown waterfront. Riley, who held the office for 41 transformative years, dedicated it in 1990, eight months after Category 4 Hurricane Hugo wreaked havoc along the South Carolina coastline. The park was renamed after him when he left office a few years ago.
The Pineapple Fountain and Vendue Fountain are perfect for parents who want to let the kids run around and cool off without all the apparatus required for a beach trip. Many of the benches are grouped together, just waiting for spirited conversations to spring forth. As Joe Riley elegantly said during the 1990 dedication, “For many, this park becomes a cathedral of the stars, a chapel of the wind, a temple of the sun, a church of the sky.”
Waterfront Park’s strategic location lends itself to further exploration. It’s easy to pop into City Gallery or the handful of other art hotspots nearby. Or you can grab some happy hour reinforcements at The Vendue hotel’s rooftop bar.
Cannon Park is small – sharing its city block with a Walgreens pharmacy – but significant. It’s across Calhoun Street from the downtown hospital district, which is why you might see medical staff soaking in some Vitamin D during a slow moment in their shifts. Or patients’ loved ones taking a respite from the emotional toll of spending time in the hospital. Or area residents taking a brisk lap with their dogs. It’s the outdoor equivalent of a break room.
The charm of this green space is undeniable. There is some playground equipment under the shade of the trees. Cannon Park served many purposes before the city council leased the building on the site to College of Charleston as a museum. A fire destroyed the structure in 1981, leaving only four white Corinthian columns and a curved portico. There are several pastel historic homes surrounding the park, including the Rutledge Victorian Guest House (which is said to be haunted by a girl). Grab a wrap or a smoothie from Brown Dog Deli down the street and bring it here for a midday breather.
Colonial Lake Park
Located in the heart of Harleston Village, Colonial Lake is a large tidal pond with wide, paved walkways surrounding it. No matter how hot it is outside, you’ll see people exercising here. For those feeling less active, there are benches shaded by water oaks. You’ll find the occasional fisher here, too, searching for mullet and shrimp when it’s high tide.
The Moultrie Playground across Ashley Avenue can keep your kids active while you catch up on gossip with an old friend. And then you can mosey on to Second State Coffee or made from scratch Off Track Ice Cream.
This 6.5 acres of greenspace sits at the intersection of two main thoroughfares, King and Calhoun streets. Marion Square is akin to the cool kids’ table in the school cafeteria. Students from nearby College of Charleston love to sunbathe here on warm days. So many big events happen here, like the Wine and Food Festival and Spoleto. Plus, the city farmers market is a prime event every Saturday morning between April and November. Marion Square made national headlines last summer when Charleston City Council decided to remove the divisive John C. Calhoun statue from its bird’s-eye perch – and did so less than 24 hours later.
Some of the city’s best eats and drinks are within a few blocks of here. The interactive programs and summer camps at the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry beautifully blend learning with enjoyment. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Bangkok Lounge, a lovable hole-in-the-wall bar that hosts karaoke seven nights a week. (Bangkok was formerly known as Upper Deck, which was a grimier yet still beloved hole in the wall with Sunday-night karaoke.)
This large downtown park never fails to show off its flora come springtime. A rose collection and other seasonals are planted with care. That and the big gazebo make this a very sought-after spot for weddings and professional photoshoots.
This site has several amenities, like public restrooms, picnic tables, a playground, and free wi-fi. A fitness trail snakes through the 64 acres of live oaks and manicured gardens. There’s also a fountain and a pond.
The park attracts a cross-section of folks since it’s beside the Citadel military college campus and close to the RiverDogs baseball stadium. It’s also across the street from the low key beer-and-burger joint Moe’s Crosstown Tavern and just a few blocks away from state barbecue legend Rodney Scott’s restaurant.
James Island County Park
When you leave the downtown peninsula, you’ll find parks with more acreage and programs backed by Charleston County. This 643-acre site features saltwater crabbing, a waterpark, bike and watercraft rentals, a comprehensive challenge course, disc golf and ample campgrounds. There are a few miles’ worth of paved trails and picnic spots complete with tables and grills when you need to rest and replenish.
The open meadows in this park host many events, like Reggae Nights Summer Concerts, Yappy Hour, the Lowcountry Cajun Festival, and the longtime winter tradition that is the Holiday Festival of Lights. The range of activities make this park a viable choice for just about any group of people, and at $2 a head for park admission, there’s a satisfying more-bang-for-your-buck aspect.
Folly Beach County Park
This park at the western tip of Folly Beach is a great solution to parking hassles if you’d rather throw a few dollars at the problem than deal with street parking at the other end of the island. Entry costs vary seasonally; if you come on bike or foot, you don’t have to pay. You can also rent beach umbrellas and chairs with a photo ID.
Folly Beach County Park has some important amenities like lifeguards, dressing areas, a snack bar, and beach-accessible wheelchairs. The two-level Pelican Watch Pavilion offers an expansive view of “The Edge of America” from its observation deck and can be rented out for events. This park has a lot of out-of-state visitors, which makes it a great spot to play the license plate game. It all comes together for an easy, enjoyable family beach day.
Charles Towne Landing
This is a choice park to satisfy history buffs and nature lovers alike. Driving into Charles Towne Landing is reminiscent of the enchanted forest in a fairy tale. The live oaks lining the trails create breathtaking tree tunnels. They’re hundreds of years old, draped in Spanish moss and complicated history. The setting immediately transports you to a different, slower time in history.
The park is a 664-acre preservation site for the first permanent English settlement in the Carolina colony. The Visitors Center has a 12-room interactive museum, but the historical draws are farther into the park lands. Legare Waring House, an 1840s structure originally part of the Old Towne Plantation, is expertly maintained – as is the lush garden with azaleas, roses, crepe myrtles, and other Southern flora on the western side of the home. The experimental crop garden showcases crops planted by early colonists, such as sugar cane. Visitors can also board Adventure, a 17th-century replica trading vessel docked on the waters of Old Towne Creek. And don’t forget the Animal Forest, a zoo that houses species that the colonists would have encountered in the area.
Old Towne Creek County Park is on the southern side of the thin water line of Oldtown Creek. This site is in the development stages, but it features the popular Wine Down Wednesdays in the spring.
Stono River County Park
This site offers one of the most natural views of Charleston’s flora and fauna. Located just north of the John F. Limehouse bridge, it has a quarter-mile trail that skirts the handful of houses along Moonglow Drive. A boardwalk surrounded by sea grass, pluff mud, and views of the Stono River provides a straight path over the marsh to two islands with trail loops. These pathways are perfect for leisurely, quiet exercise when you want to be silent and get in touch with your inner being. And good news for long-distance runners and bikers: the West Ashley Greenway ends (or begins, depending where you start) in the parking lot.
The park itself doesn’t offer water-entry access, but the Limehouse Boat Landing is directly across the Stono River if you’d rather hit the water than the trails. And it’s easy to pop over to Edisto River Brewing for a cold one or to Gilligan’s for some seafood. Plus, the quaint farm-to-table favorite, Angel Oak Restaurant, always delights with a seasonal menu.
Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park & Pier
Located at the foot of the Ravenel bridge in Mount Pleasant, this waterfront complex has a pier that stretches out over a thousand feet into the Charleston Harbor. The pier has a huge, covered pavilion, fishing tournaments, and a café and gift shop. It also boasts events like Shaggin on the Cooper and Motown in the Moonlight. Fun fact: the pier’s foundation was constructed from pilings of the Silas N. Pearman Bridge, one of the two bridges that used to link downtown to Mount Pleasant.
This area is a favorite for bikers and runners. Not only does it offer a paved path that’s part of the East Coast Greenway, but it offers spectacular views of the Cooper River and other parts of the Lowcountry that make it worth your while to work up a sweat.
Pitt Street Bridge/Pickett Park
When you parallel park your car at the end of Pitt Street and open the door, a distinct smell immediately greets your nostrils: pluff mud. You’ll see its brown-gray gooiness on both sides of the pathway leading up to the bridge; you might even spot some oysters in it. Just beyond the unadorned entrance to Pickett Park is a fiberglass oyster shell installation painted by a local artist as part of Mount Pleasant’s Art on the Half Shell public art project. And, if you’re lucky, you might also find an enterprising child running a pop-up lemonade stand.
This slender gem along the intercoastal waterway encapsulates the tone of a Pat Conroy novel, where the tranquility of nature prevails. That’s partly because visitors can only access it on foot. Once upon a time, this bridge was the only way to get from Mount Pleasant to the beach communities on Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s.
The first stretch is technically considered Pickett Park, which is simply a paved pathway that cuts straight through its watery surroundings until you reach the wooden bridge. It’s a great spot to kayak and canoe with all the snaking inlets coming off the Cooper River. You’ll see some people jogging or biking along the path. Others like to sit on the benches facing the harbor and simply take in the scenery and the breezes. The Pitt Street Bridge is a prime spot to spend a hot, lazy day fishing and crabbing as you watch cars heading to and from the islands on the Ben Sawyer Bridge in the distance.
Caw Caw Interpretive Center
Caw Caw is a little piece of paradise for zoologists, botanists and historians, amateur or otherwise. This low-impact wildlife preserve used to be the site of several rice plantations. Visitors can still spot the rice trunks, canals, and dikes that slaves were forced to construct. It was also one of the key locations in the Stono Rebellion, and as such is one of the sites in the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom program. Many school groups come through Caw Caw each year.
Beyond its historical significance, Caw Caw contains thousands of naturalized tea plants and offers guests the experience of different habitats such as cypress swamps and upland forests. But the center is best known for its diversity of animal life, particularly birds. Waterfowl, great blue herons, songbirds, bald eagles, swallow-tailed kites, wild turkeys, egrets and so many more can be found soaring through the air or foraging for food. Other animals include river otters, deer and American alligators. To preserves the ecosystems, pets and bikes aren’t allowed.
If you go during the winter months, you might be treated to what some call “the rainbow swamp,” which happens when the leaves from the cypress trees fall and start to disintegrate, creating a film on the water surfaces. When the sunlight makes its way through the tree trunks and hits the water at a particular angle, it creates a gleaming rainbow effect.
If you mention Park Circle to a group of locals, they might think you’re only referring to the business and restaurant district on eastern end of Montague Avenue. But the traffic circle that interconnects Montague, Buist, Durant, and Rhett avenues is a fantastic meeting spot for friends that want to enjoy some low-key outdoor activities without the parking hassles of downtown Charleston.
One of the area’s biggest draws is the 19-hole disc golf course, which runs the perimeter of Park Circle’s green space. The North Charleston Farmers Market operates every Thursday from 3 to 7 pm from May to October out of the community center within the circle. The market includes arts and craft vendors, live music, and a rotating roster of food trucks. Barefoot Yoga Studio, which held indoor classes nearby before COVID hit, has rallied with online classes and outdoor sessions on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The natural beauty of the Park Circle Butterfly Garden is sweet fun for young children and their parents. From there, it’s an easy walk to the restaurants, bars and shops on East Montague.
And if your heart craves a water feature, a quick stroll down the southern leg of Buist Avenue takes you to Quarterman Park. Nestled comfortably within a neighborhood, the park has a large pond with a fountain and a path circling it, as well as the resident ducks. If you call ahead with enough notice, you might even be able to secure a charcuterie board from The Gilded Graze and make a picnic out of it.