Charleston Beaches 101

One of the first things you’ll need to establish when you move to Charleston, or to a new neighborhood in Charleston, is which will be “your” beach. Our beaches may look the same, but they’re very different from one another.

First, a little geography lesson:

There are 22 barrier islands, or “Sea Islands” in South Carolina, but not all of them have the kind of beach where you’d want to spend a Sunday. There are six popular beaches for locals:

  • Pawley’s Island
  • Isle of Palms
  • Sullivan’s Island
  • Folly Beach
  • Kiawah Island

Pawley’s Island

Pawley’s Island is about an hour north of Charleston. You may be wondering: If you live in the Charleston area, why would you dive an hour when you could drive 10 minutes to go to a beach? Three reasons: Nostalgia, vacation, or you’re visiting Brookgreen Gardens.

Locals who grew up in Charleston often have fond memories of spending summers on Pawley’s Island. It wasn’t unusual (and still isn’t) for families to rent a beach house for the summer, or for a long summer vacation, and decamp. Some natives still drive to Pawley’s out of nostalgia, or because that’s where they’re vacationing from Charleston. The other reason to visit Pawley’s Island is for a refreshing dip after a stop at Brookgreen Gardens, a vast and lush outdoor garden and sculpture museum that is a favorite road trip from the Holy City.

Pawley’s Island is great for families because it has a large parking area, great shelling, picnic areas, restroom facilities, and snack bar.

Isle of Palms

Moving south from Pawley’s, Isle of Palms (IOP) beach is accessed either by the Isle of Palms Connector or via Sullivan’s Island (and the Ben Sawyer Bridge in Mount Pleasant.) The Isle of Palms crowd is mostly visitors with rentals on the beach or just across the street. There are a few elevated beachfront restaurants, an ice cream shop, a pizza shop, and a handful of boutiques and beach gear stores. There are lifeguards, restrooms, and showers near the boardwalk by the VFW, making this Charleston’s most family-friendly beach.

You do have to pay to park in the lot or at the meters on the IOP beach, but for now, parking in the grassy easements in front of houses is still free. Isle of Palms beaches are shallow with gentle waves and less wind than other Charleston beaches. After a storm, shelling is particularly good.

Dogs are allowed on the beach off leash from 5:00 p.m. until 9:00 a.m. from April 1st – September 14th. After September, hours change to 4:00 p.m. until 10:00 a.m. Dogs on leashes are always allowed.

Sullivan’s Island

Sullivan’s Island beach is smaller and has no facilities. The beach also has relatively deep tide pools between the boardwalks and the ocean after high tide. Wind and current are stronger than on the IOP beach, making it a favorite for windsurfers. On the plus side, Sullivan’s is quieter, and the crowd tends to be locals. Because there aren’t any facilities, there tend to be fewer children.

The tide pools warm up quickly in the sun, so some people treat them as natural hot tubs (nice when the ocean isn’t quite warm enough yet.) They are deep and can contain critters, so it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on kids. Station 18 by the lighthouse is a favorite place to stake out a spot: The shipping lane runs right up to the beach, and it’s fun to watch cargo ships pass so close.

Dogs on the beach must wear a special license and collar, which can be obtained at the island’s Town Hall. (In real island spirit, dogs are allowed in Town Hall.) On-leash and off-leash hours are a little complicated, but can be found on the island’s website.

Folly Beach

Folly Beach is Charleston’s most famous beach. With a laid-back hippie culture, more seafood restaurants and pubs than you can shake a stick at, restrooms, parking, and surf-able waves, Folly has it all. It can be tricky-to-impossible to find free parking here, but paid parking is ample. This beach is family-friendly, surfer-friendly, and always has something going on at the pier.

Dogs don’t need a license, but they do need a leash at all times. In high season (May to end of September), they’re only allowed on the beach between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. In winter (October 1 through April 30), they’re always welcome.

Kiawah Island

Beachwalker County Park is the only public beach on Kiawah Island. There are great amenities such as a dressing area, picnic spots with grills, a boardwalk and handicap-accessible ramp, restrooms, and beach gear rental. The beach has complicate opening hours, so if you’re headed to Kiawah, check their website.

Whichever becomes your favorite, Charleston’s diverse beaches are a short drive from all of our Saussy Burbank communities, and offer something for every mood and occasion.

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