Visiting Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston, SC is a unique experience. Out of context, a day at Magnolia Plantation might seem like a bit of a mish-mash: a visit to a petting zoo followed by a tour of historic gardens, maybe a tram or boat ride, a bag of boiled peanuts, and then a walk through a swamp before heading back home or to your hotel. But, in execution, a day at Magnolia Plantation is so much more. It is a unique experience for all of the right reasons; and, whether you are on vacation or you are a Charleston local, it is an experience you won’t soon forget.
The Petting Zoo: A Mandatory First Stop
We (my wife, my young daughter, and I) arrive at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens early. This is our modus operandi, as we prefer to avoid the crowds whenever possible. As it turns out, this was a particularly good idea today, as the facility’s several gravel parking lots are filling up already. There are some tour buses near the ticketing booths as well; but, fortunately, thanks to the sprawling nature of the property, we won’t feel crowded or rushed all day.
Once we get our stickers to prove that we paid the entrance fee, we walk through and make what has come to be a mandatory first stop at the petting zoo—or, partial petting zoo to be more precise. While there are deer and goats roaming amongst the people that are all more than happy to be pet and fed (bring quarters so that you can buy a handful of feed from the dispenser by the wooden entry door), there are also signs that strongly advise against approaching the gardens’ free-range peacocks. There are snakes, turtles, various small mammals and an alligator that are for viewing only as well.
Once we make our loop through the zoo, which takes about twenty minutes with our daughter feeding the deer (and the previously unmentioned potbelly pig), we leave through the same wooden door and turn left. Just past the Peacock Café—where we will return for some boiled peanuts later in the day—there is a large fenced grazing area with horses and donkeys that are more than happy to receive some pets from our daughter as well. While many people visit the Plantation House or take the award-winning guided "From Slavery to Freedom" tour, we don’t have a reservation, and we prefer to explore the grounds and learn at our own pace.
Exploring the Gardens at Magnolia Plantation
The crushed gravel paths through the gardens at Magnolia Plantation make for an easy stroll, though keeping your bearings can be a bit difficult if you haven’t been here previously and you don’t regularly reference your map. We start by heading toward—and over—the Red Bridge, which is one of the most picturesque areas of the entire grounds. The red bridge stands in stark contrast to its deep green surroundings and the blackwater pond below, and this is one of the few areas where we had to wait for other visitors to leave so that we could take a photo.
From there, we head past the historic Plantation House and turn right toward the banks of the Ashley River. On the way, we pass walls of azaleas in full bloom, camelias, pyracantha, and the old-growth magnolias that give the gardens their name.
Once we reach the river, we take a short break before making the trek to the gardens’ wildlife observation tower. While it takes a bit of effort to get here, we are rewarded at the end. Climbing the tower offers unobstructed views of the former rice fields that are now a waterfowl refuge, bordered by a U-shaped bend in the Ashley River.
You can walk around the waterfowl refuge, but on our family-friendly visit we decide to head back. We retrace our steps for a while before walking the long way around another blackwater pond that we previously saw only briefly. This takes us to one of Magnolia Plantation & Gardens’ other main features, the White Bridge. While different in style from the Red Bridge (much more formal, with black railings and large wooden arches reflected perfectly in the water below), the White Bridge is similarly picturesque. It is also where we spot one of a small handful of alligators we will see during our visit lounging on the pond’s banks.
We make one more push to the Bamboo Garden before heading toward the hedge maze. Our daughter checks it out briefly, but after a couple of hours we are all ready for a snack—and a bathroom break. I wait in a short line for boiled peanuts while the others make the short walk from Peacock Café to the rest facilities, then we sit down at one of the faux-wood cement tables (they look better than it sounds) and relax for a few minutes under the late morning sun.
The Audubon Swamp: A Worthwhile Stop Before Heading Home
Although there is more to see, for a family outing, we’re happy with the ground we’ve covered. But, there is one more stop I want to make before we head home: the Audubon Swamp.
While the gardens have their own history, visiting the Audubon Swamp on the way out feels like going back in time. To get here, you have to leave the main parking lot and head toward the exit. Before you get back to Ashley River Road, you will see a sign and a small parking lot on the left. A well-maintained boardwalk weaves through the swamp, with black water cypress rising out of the water and duckweed providing a green covering that hides who-knows-what below. Even though it requires an extra stop, walking through the Audubon Swamp is well worth it, and it was one of my personal highlights from the day.
Superlatives and a Well-Earned Reputation
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens describes itself as, “America’s last large-scale romantic-style garden.” As the website goes on to explain:
“A good definition of a romantic garden is an ‘Extravagant Liar.’ Truly, this is what a romantic garden is designed to do, to ‘lie’ you into forgetting the normality of everyday life. Romantic Gardens are designed to take the viewer to a place where emotion takes precedent [sic] over reason. . . . Form, balance and symmetry are thrown to the wind and these gardens are designed to appeal directly to the soul.”
The gardens’ natural beauty and commitment to acknowledging and confronting their history have earned national acclaim. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens has been named among "America's Most Beautiful Gardens" by Travel + Leisure Magazine, and it’s not hard to see why. Magnolia Plantation is a popular wedding and event venue as well, with locals and out-of-towners alike scheduling events at the Conservatory, Carriage House, and other venues on the property.
Plan Your Trip: Visiting Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston, SC
Whether you are a Lowcountry local or you are visiting Charleston on vacation, visiting Magnolia Plantation & Gardens is a good way to spend a long morning or afternoon. Here are some tips for planning your visit:
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens is located in Charleston’s historic Plantation District, just outside of West Ashley. From downtown Charleston or Folly Beach, you can take Ashley River Road all the way to the gardens. Alternatively, if you find yourself on I-526, you can head west on Glenn McConnell Parkway, make a right at the end onto Bees Ferry Road, then turn left onto Ashley River Road at the next T-junction.
Hours and Best Time to Visit
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens’ website currently says that the gardens open daily at 9:00am (except on Christmas Day) and close at 5:00pm (except on Christmas Eve, when they close at 3:00pm. Go early to avoid parking and ticketing delays and to minimize the time you have to wait to take photos without other visitors in them.
Food and Drink Options
The Peacock Café in Magnolia Plantation & Gardens sells food and drinks, and the outdoor seating is perfect on warm Charleston days. The Charleston Coffee Exchange at the intersection of Bees Ferry Road and Ashley River Road is a local favorite that brews locally-roasted coffee, offers breakfast sandwiches and smoothies, and sells muffins and other treats from a local bakery.
Exploring the Gardens
Keep your map with you, as the trail intersections in the gardens aren’t always well marked. It is easy to get turned around and end up heading back toward the entrance without exploring many of the gardens further in. Using the map on your phone (in satellite view) to see where you are in the gardens can be helpful as well.
PRO TIP: You Can Go Back to Magnolia Plantation & Gardens Free for Seven Days
When you pay for admission into Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, you can return for free any time over the next seven days. This means that you can go two weekends in a row at no additional cost. While vacationers might want to make the most of a one-day visit, locals can explore until they are ready to head home then come back again to check out anything they might have missed (or, in our case, to say “Hello” to the animals once again).
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