Steeped in history and tradition—and of course a fair amount of controversy—the plantations of South Carolina offer a surreal glimpse into the Lowcountry's storied past. The cultivation of rice, indigo, and other cash crops around the Lowcountry brought an incredible amount of wealth to Charleston. And much of the wealth was invested in plantations. Some of the largest and most successful of Charleston's plantations are still around today, preserved as national historic sites, and serving as destinations where visitors can walk the grounds, and capture a glimpse into a fascinating—if not dichotomous—time in Charleston's history.
Walking onto a Lowcountry plantation is a heavy experience. Balancing the sheer bucolic beauty with the dark reality of how these antebellum plantations once operated leaves you feeling a little overwhelmed. But it’s our history, and plantations serve as a reminder of Lowcountry heritage, as well as a window into how far we’ve come as a community.
Home to acres of cypress trees, low-hanging live oaks, blackwater swamps, Spanish moss, and hundreds of species of flora, these plantations are fantastic places to visit for outdoor lovers who moonlight as history buffs. Whether it's a quick day hike, a family picnic, an easy bike ride, or just a pleasant stroll through time, these are places so loaded with history, you’ll be able to feel it deep down in your bones.
With 60 acres of cypress and tupelo blackwater swamps and 125 acres of waterfowl refuge, Magnolia Plantation is a bustling wildlife and nature center in the midst of Charleston county. Founded in 1676, the Plantation is as old as it is embedded in Charleston culture, and exploring the gardens will help you realize why. Magnolia Plantation was one of the first rice plantations along the Ashley River. Evidence of this is visible from the remaining dikes and irrigation canals, built over 300 years ago, used for cultivating rice. Today, Magnolia is where you'll find the most extensive collection of flowers and other flora native to the Lowcountry in the Southeast. As far as attractions go, Magnolia is second to none–attractions include an on-site zoo, multiple gardens, a rice field boat tour, and a plantation train tour that leads you through the marsh, lakes, and forests on the property.
As far as aesthetics go, Middleton Plantation takes the cake. This plantation, seated on the banks of the Ashley, has remained with the same family (The Middletons) for over 320 years, and is considered America's oldest and most important landscaped gardens. And that's only a drop in the bucket of this site's history. Go here for self-guided tours around the stable grounds, in the house, and through the gardens. Guided tours are available, but this plantation is best taken in by walking around and experiencing the sights for yourself.
Drayton Hall Plantation
Drayton Hall was the once headquarters of the Drayton plantation empire that spanned from Georgia to South Carolina, and incorporated over 100 different plantations in the two states. This site is located just down the road from Magnolia Plantation, making it easy to knock out two plantation visits in one day. Be sure to take the self-guided grounds tour, as well as the professionally guided house tour. Out of all the house tours of the plantation's around Charleston, this one ranks among the highest. This house is the oldest preserved plantation home in America. Upon its construction, it was immediately regarded as a palace, and every artifact inside has a story behind it.
Boone Hall Plantation
Boone Hall is the oldest operating plantation in the Lowcountry. Nowadays they're growing pumpkins, strawberries, and other small-scale crops–a drastic change from cash crops like the cotton and pecans that first generated revenue for the plantation. They host an annual oyster roast too. Boone Hall offers the best insight into Gullah and slave history out of any plantation in the area. There are special tours dedicated to telling the plantation slaves' stories, as well as a house tour, and open-air coach tour of the grounds. Boone Hall is right over the Ravenel Bridge in Mount Pleasant, an easy trip to make from downtown.