Take a step back in time and explore the history and beauty of the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Located just 10 miles from downtown Charleston, the Magnolia Plantation is a must do adventure in the South Carolina Low Country. The acres of lush, winding garden paths are perfect for a romantic stroll or letting kids burn off some energy. Wildlife and an abundance of flowers blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.
The Thomas and Ann Drayton traveled from Barbados to establish the 390 acre plantation in what was then the British Charles Towne colony in 1676. Over the years the Drayton family grew to become one of the prominent political and economic forces in the Charleston area. Nestled on the banks of the Ashley river, the Magnolia thrived as a rice plantation for decades. In the mid-1800s Reverend John Drayton led the plantation through major changes.
Rev. John Drayton inherited Magnolia in the 1840s. During this time he began to develop the gardens. He is credited with introducing azaleas to North America and using camellias in a garden setting. Both of these beautiful flowering bushes feature prominently in the plantation gardens. During the Civil War, the original home was burned to the ground. The current house is a Colonial era structure brought down the river from Summerville and expanded. After the war, the gardens continued to expand though the abolition of slavery meant the rice plantation economy could no longer continue.
Magnolia’s gardens were first opened to the public as an attraction in 1870 to generate income. Beginning in the 1970s the gardens went through a series of improvements, which have led to today’s success as a major tourist draw to the region. The plantation now includes several tours, a conservatory, historical buildings, and a petting zoo. Visitors can easily spend most of a day exploring the grounds.
Planning Your Visit to Magnolia Plantation
The plantation consists of the house, various gardens, historic buildings, a conservatory, and petting zoo. Several tours are offered ranging from a tram ride through the gardens to a guided exploration of five former slave cabins. The tours are each charged separately from admission, so decide before you arrive which options you’d like to add, if any. Also, plan on arriving early. Magnolia has become a very popular attraction, as has Charleston, and it’s not unusual to see tour buses arrive at the plantation. Getting an early start will mean a much more enjoyable stroll and less crowded tours.
Once you’ve purchased tickets, your first stop should be the orientation theater for a 30 minute film about the history and details of the Magnolia plantation and Drayton family. Once you’re finished, head out into the gardens, unless you have a tour scheduled. There is a conservatory filled with tropical plants, including dozens of orchids. This building is often overlooked and is a real treat for the senses.
Magnolia’s Magnificent Gardens
The vast gardens are the main reason most visitors come to Magnolia. There are several sections, ranging from formal mazes to more natural winding pathways around ponds and wooded areas. The path along the Ashley river includes an observation tower offering stunning views and a perfect outpost for bird watchers. Avid photographers will enjoy the early opening hours before many visitors wander through and disturb the wildlife.
While there is always something in bloom, my favorite time of year to visit is in April or early May. The famous azaleas and camellias are both in bloom and the summer heat and humidity haven’t arrived yet. A word of caution to non-locals. Despite being near populated areas, this is still the low country, meaning there are an abundance of poisonous snakes and alligators living in the swampy area. You will likely encounter smaller gators in the garden ponds; just give them plenty of room. There are adult gators in the rice pond and river areas. Also keep a sharp eye out of snakes in the foliage areas and keep your kids from darting off. Incidents are rare, but do happen.
Magnolia Plantation Tours
Various tours are offered to enhance your visit. Some are worth your time, while others can be skipped. Most tours cost around $8, so here are the descriptions and a bit of advice to help you choose.
Plantation House Tour – Half hour guided tour of the first floor of the plantation home. Not really worth it in my opinion. There are much more extensive home tours to be found in downtown Charleston.
Nature Train Tour – It’s really more of a tram ride along the pathways. This is a great option for visitors who can’t get around easily or if you’re short on time. Otherwise, walking the gardens is much more enjoyable.
From Slavery to Freedom Tour – Excellent 45+ minute guided tour. Learn a good bit of African American history in the region and get a look inside the five cabins on the property. Homes range from the 1850s to around 1900. Slaves were an integral part of plantation life, not just as rice field labor but also as assistants in developing the garden.
Rice Field Pontoon Boat Tour – If you have time, I recommend the boat ride. You’ll learn a good bit about growing rice and get up close and personal with some large alligators along the way. Approximately an hour.
Audubon Swamp Garden – In the front area of the plantation is the swamp garden. If you’re interested in local wildlife and want to see what the natural landscape looks like, I highly recommend a walk thorough the swamp. In recent years they have improved the walkways, so it is easy to get around. You’ll see many native plants and trees, plus birds and alligators.
*Sunday Morning Bird Watchers – It’s a bit pricey, but this little known walk is more popular with locals than tourists. Call ahead to book this activity since a limited number of spots are available.
Food Options at Magnolia
The Peacock Cafe offers a wide variety of breakfast lunch items and snacks to keep everyone happy. Sandwiches, salads, snacks, and ice cream treats are available. Prices are reasonable for a tourist destinations with sandwiches and burgers ranging from around $4 to $9. I like to order a classic pimento cheese sandwich with a proper glass of sweet tea when I visit. There are covered picnic tables next to the building and a large grassy areas to relax or let the kids run loose.
Magnolia’s Petting Zoo and Nature Center
The petting zoo is a real treat and both kids and adults will love wandering in the enclosure among goats, chickens, and peacocks. You’ll also find several native species and a reptile building to explore. On weekends you can attend nature lecture in the zoo’s Alligator “Amphitheatre” to learn about the local wildlife. The zoo is a great way to close out your visit to the plantation. If you’re lucky, the peacocks will pose long enough for some great pictures.
Magnolia Plantation Visitor Tips
Here are a few tips to make your visit to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens an enjoyable experience.
- Arrive early. The plantation opens at either 8:00 or 8:30 depending on the season. Get in before everyone else to enjoy a quiet and relaxing stroll and less crowded tours.
- Check for discounts. The Magnolia website often has discount offers on admission or package deals with tours. Pick up some Charleston travel brochures for local attraction and dining coupons.
- Keep an eye on the weather. It can get insanely hot and humid July through September. Avoid visiting in the afternoon and be sure to keep hydrated. The cafe sells bottled water, cool drinks, and ice cream.
- Magnolia hosts several special events throughout the year. Check before you go and maybe take part in the annual ladybug release or a special history festival.
- A note of caution: If you’re not familiar with the local wildlife, keep an eye out for alligators and snakes and leave them alone.
For more information on ticket prices, times, and special events click here to visit the official Magnolia Plantation and Gardens Website.
If you’re visiting Charleston and looking for a real Low Country experience, explore the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. You can learn all about the local history and wildlife while also enjoying one of the best gardens on the East coast. For more local history add the nearby Middleton plantation gardens, untouched Drayton Hall, and ruins of Colonial Dorchester to your itinerary You may only be ten miles from downtown Charleston, but you’ll be transported back to another century. Next up, read Boyd Roger’s fantastic article for more fun activities in and around Charleston, South Carolina.