The beaches and coves of Charleston are forever etched into my mind from my childhood family vacations. When we lived in Charlotte, we would come down to Charleston and Kiawah Island every year and I was so happy to return as an adult. As it turns out, I had just as much fun

Kayaking Charleston was an unforgettable treat
Day 21-22
Miles: 3,300

After spending close to 20 days completely in the Appalachian Mountains, I was ready to get back to the Atlantic Ocean. I'll soon be in Chicago so when I stopped in Greenville for the night, I figured that 250 miles was the closest I'd be to the ocean for a while. I made a spur the moment decision to head south to Charleston and take a stroll down memory lane. My 48 hours in Charleston were as poignant as they could be.

If you're just tuning in, I've been on a 5,000 mile road trip thoughout the American South which has mostly included the mountains and valleys of the Appalachians. While I've made it to the coast in Maryland and Delaware briefly, my main destinations have been national parks and summits. This was not originally in the cards but my taste for the ocean got the better of me. As I mentioned in my post about Sassafras Mountain, I haven't been to South Carolina in about 15 years. Returning as an adult on my way to a new life in Chicago was a much different experience than going as a shy 8th grader! I needed to keep things on the cheap because I still had about 2,000 miles of travel and the expected moving costs of relocation. I had a great time (without being too primitive) at the low cost of $150. (I suppose it helps to have your own mountain bike and kayak!)
My first look at Charleston in 15 years

Wandering Folly Island at sunset
Where I stayed

I think I must have been awake by 4:45AM on Charleston day 1. I was too excited. As I sped down the freeways from Greenville and through Colombia, I had a 90's mix tape on the radio which really brought back the memories of Charleston. We used to load up my Dad's Civic with all of our beach stuff and drive down the shore from Charlotte and that mid-90s mix tape is probably my first memory of music. Yes, Counting Crows, Live, Smashing Pumpkins, Goo Goo Dolls and Stone Temple Pilots are as strongly nostalgic as old polaroid pictures to me. When I finally made it to Charleston, I visited the downtown Visitors Center for some help. I think its funny that most hardcore travelers, like me, avoid visitors centers. I mean, they really are the best sources of information because its generally run by locals who love their location. I'm glad I stopped in- Charleston is one of the largest cities on the southern Atlantic Coast and I didn't want to waste time googling things when there were beaches to wander. I'll try and relay the information I learned here.

For campers, James Island Campground is the best place to stay. It is central to nearly everything and it is pretty darn cheap. I stayed in the tent site for about $50 for two nights. That's been a pretty standard price for the majority of my road trip. The campground itself has all the basic amenities and an added benefit of being a county park. This means you get complimentary entry to all the county parks and beaches. So I didn't pay anything more to hang at Folly Beach or Kiawah Island.  
Biking down the beach was one of my favorite things
Charleston is a perfect walking city
Folly Island: Great for 20s-30s somethings and young families

One of the things I picked up on very quickly was that each island and area of the town has somewhat of a specific demographic that they tailor to and anybody outside of that demographic will probably not want to be there. Folly Island is a bit quirky and has a surf-town feel. Actually, for this Californian, it felt a lot like Huntington Beach or Seal Beach. There are genuine surf shops, places to get a burger on the cheap and pretty unrestricted access to the beach. The break wasn't particularly good today but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. Folly Island bills itself as the "Edge of America". Coming from Maine made me want to contest this title a little bit but I enjoyed the atmosphere anyways. The county park at the very edge of the island was perfect for me to set up "base camp". I parked here and spent a few hours on the beach and playing in the waves. It is about 1.5 miles outside of town which is easily beach cruiser-able. I hopped on my bike and was downtown in a matter of minutes. For those looking to go really cheap, you are allowed to park right off the main street for free if you can find a spot.

The downtown area and the pier had a pretty young scene. Of course there's a full range of ages anywhere you go in Charleston but the bulk of the people were either my age or young families. There were lots of restaurant options and if you're the type that prefers a $1.50 budlight, you're all set. I preferred getting some microbrews and crabcakes at the Folly Beach Crab Shack. Actually most of the restaurants in the area were not too astronomically priced. You can't go to Charleston and not get a bunch of seafood and crabcakes...
Kayaking around Folly Island
A Beach Cruiser and a Kayak

There's two things you absolutely need to bring or rent while on the shore: a beach cruiser and a kayak. There isn't a better way to efficiently and gloriously see everything around the massive natural environments of coastal South Carolina. I benefited from the fact that I happen to own both of these and I've been driving them all across the country at the expense of having horrible MPG. That extra cost was well worth it when I made it here.

Keeping up with the theme of cheap and locally-recommended, I stopped in a boat shop and discovered that the Folly Beach Public Landing was a damn good place to put in a kayak. It wasn't just good for Folly Beach, it was one of the better places in the entire area according to the shop owners. Best of all, it was free!!

Having a 16.5 foot touring kayak really helps in a place like this. The massive estuaries and wetlands of Charleston are dominated by strong currents and tides. I was really fighting for it in some places. At the same time, I was surrounded by legions of porpoises and dolphins as well as waterfowl. I don't think I've ever been in a place that was so urban and so wild at the same time. The porpoises in particular seemed to be fascinated with a big yellow kayak. They swam right up to my boat as if to say hi.
I felt like I could have touched one... they were so close to the boat

If you come here, don't leave without going kayaking (Folly Beach)
You might think that you could see the same from a motorboat but don't go to Charleston without renting or bringing a human-powered boat. The benefit of a kayak (or canoe) over a motorboat was that I could get very close to all the wild areas of the estuary. There are many areas which are closely protected and discourage landing but you can get very close in a kayak. The noises of all the birds, frogs and insects was like a symphony. I doubt you could have the same experience in a powerboat.

I couldn't believe how much I accomplished in day 1. I slept well but I was eager to awake for more adventures
There are many places that are only accessible by kayak
Kiawah Island on the Cheap

As I said earlier, every island and part of the city appeals to a different demographic. Kiawah Island is an ultra-affluent resort area of the island that generally caters to wealthy retirees, golfers and some families. The lack of beachfront bars and the massive private gate tends to ward off the kind of crowd that I saw at Folly Beach. However there is another county park here that is open to the public. Kiawah Beachwater Park is cheap and accessible to folks like me. Note that all beaches in Charleston are publically accessible regardless of whatever is overlooking the shore. I spent another few idle hours on the beach either playing in the waves or enjoying the scenery. Kiawah Island seems to make everybody's list of Top 10 Beaches in the United States. I second that!

Back to my beach cruiser basics, I took off around the island on my fat tires. Biking on the beach is freely available to the public and I went all up and down the island. Who would have thought that I could access this otherwise pricy area for just the cost of admission to the county park?
You don't have to be a millionaire to be here!
Downtown Charleston

It was about time for lunch so I headed back in to town and had some awesome Mahi Mahi Tacos at the Charleston Crab House. After that, I just walked around the downtown area and historical districts. I was surprised at how much you could see by just walking. Certainly Charleston is best seen by foot. The area will appeal most to the history seekers and general shoppers with the massive downtown Charleston City Market. I'm not much of a shopper myself but the market did have some genuinely interesting things mixed in with some kitschy things. I preferred the shore walk and battery walk.
Charleston's answer to the Golden Gate
I enjoyed walking more than shopping
Mt Pleasant and Sullivans Island

Mt Pleasant seemed a bit more like a bedroom community for most of greater Charleston but it was a fun place to poke around. Shem Creek Park had some great boardwalks through the estuaries and would have been another excellent place to put in a kayak. It is a good opportunity to see the natural beauty of the harbor as well as the city lights. Crab Bank Island was supposed to be a great little kayaking spot right offshore. Unfortunately for me, there was an impeding thunderstorm which prevented this. Oh well, something to come back for, I suppose!

Just south of here, Sullivans Island had some nice beaches and another small "downtown area". This island clearly was for renters and residents as there is much less infrastructure for the general tourist. I would have liked to have rented a little condo here. If you're looking for a much quieter atmosphere with a nice beach, this would be your place.
Shem Creek Park (and thunderstorm!)
Did this trip have to end? Sunset was upon me as I headed back to James Island Campground. I felt like I had sufficiently explored the area at a relatively low cost. I think I was really exploring it more for future trips that will involve a longer stay and more activities. It would be easy to imagine myself coming here year after year just as I did with my family when I was a child 

Final Lessons:

  1. Go to the Visitors Center- they are generally quite helpful
  2. Each island and location has its own demographic that it appeals to.
  3. Don't go to Charleston without renting a bike and kayak.
Well that's a wrap for me. I turned my sights back towards the mountains and hit up Congaree National Park along the way. But when I pulled away from the coast, my thoughts were still with Charleston.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!