Ashley River Road, a short 11 mile stretch of South Carolina’s Highway 61, may be one of the shortest roads to earn the distinction of “National Scenic Byway,” but it packs in more than enough to make it the perfect day trip from nearby Charleston. If you’re in the mood for beautiful scenery and touring the plantations of the old south, you’ll love this trip…
Ashley River Road (aka Highway 61) starts as four lanes as it leaves Charleston, but it quickly goes back to 2 lanes of scenic beauty as you enter the Ashley River Historic District. The drive takes you down a road lined with hickory and oak trees with the occasional palmettos and Spanish moss mixing in to create a beautiful canopy.
While a beautiful drive, Ashley River Road’s real draw is the historic plantations along the way. Once, over 20 plantations occupied this stretch of road, but today only 3 remain for you to enjoy: Magnolia, Middleton Place, and Drayton Hall.
Heralded as “Charleston’s Most Visited Plantation,” the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is much more than just a beautiful home. The Magnolia features some of America’s most beautiful gardens as well as nature train, a boat tour, a zoo & nature center, and a “From Slavery to Freedom” exhibit.
From the Magnolia Plantation:
Founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, Magnolia Plantation has survived the centuries and witnessed the history of our nation unfold before it from the American Revolution through the Civil War and beyond. It is the oldest public tourist site in the Lowcountry, and the oldest public gardens in America, opening its doors to visitors in 1870 to view the thousands of beautiful flowers and plants in its famous gardens.
While the 30 minute tour of the plantation house is impressive and well-worth the $8 admission fee, the gardens of the Magnolia Plantation are what you’ll remember most. Unlike most gardens in America, the Magnolia Gardens are very informal… Nature is allowed to grow and create a landscape that mirrors the Garden of Eden more than the formal gardens we’re accustomed to touring.
If walking the massive gardens seems tiresome, the Magnolia offers a nature train for only $8 which will help you experience all the property has to offer:
Experience history and wildlife on this action-packed tram tour of the plantation’s wetlands, lakes, forests, and marshes. Naturalist guides help you spot alligators, turtles, egrets, and herons in native habitats. You never know what you might see. One minute you’ll glimpse an alligator sliding off a bank and the next you’ll turn your head to catch a great blue heron spearing a fish. And as you ride through the landscape, guides bring its history to life. From a row of slave cabins to 19th century rice ponds and a Native American ceremonial mound that evoke the plantation’s complex past. The tour will bring to life the true landscape and culture of the old South. With more than 600 acres of wildlife habitats and gardens, it can be difficult to see everything there is to see on foot. The nature train allows you to view a large portion of these wonderful areas in a entertaining and educational way.
After spending several hours exploring the Magnolia Plantation, chances are you’ll have quite the appetite. Grab a quick bite at their Peacock Cafe where you can enjoy your meal outdoors with the beautiful grounds all around.
While the gardens at the Magnolia Plantation may be less formal, the gardens at Middleton Place are more landscaped, but equally beautiful. Middleton Place says:
The Garden Club of America has called the 65 acres “the most important and most interesting garden in America”. Centuries-old camellias bloom in the winter months and azaleas blaze on the hillside above the Rice Mill Pond in the spring. In summer, kalmia, magnolias, crepe myrtles and roses accent a landscape magnificent throughout the year. The Gardens have been planned so that there is something blooming at Middleton Place year-round.
After touring the gardens, you’ll have a chance to tour the “house museum.” The house dates back all the way to 1755 and has remained in the same family for over 320 years. As the birthplace of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the house has a unique place in American history, and visitors are taken back in time as they tour the antique furniture, fine silver, rare books, and family portraits throughout the house.
Along with the house and gardens, guests can also tour the Plantation Stableyards where costumed interpreters show how African slaves used to work. From weaving to potting, these interpretive artisans give you a glimpse into 18th and 19th century life on the plantation as an enslaved African.
If you’re looking to spend the night along Ashley River Road, Middleton Place’s 55 room Inn is the perfect place to rest, relax, and enjoy the scenery. The property also features a restaurant serving lunch and dinner.
The only Ashley River Road plantation not set fire by Union troops during the Civil War, Drayton Hall sits today just as it did in the 19th century. A National Historic Landmark, Drayton Hall was also an instrumental place during the Revolutionary War:
Drayton Hall became a field headquarters for Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander, and several thousand troops encamped on the grounds. Six days later on March 29, approximately 8,000 British troops crossed the Ashley River at Drayton Hall to lay siege to Charleston. That summer, the house became the headquarters of another British general, Charles Cornwallis.
In 1782, the British gave way to the Americans. General “Mad” Anthony Wayne set up his headquarters at Drayton Hall until the British finally evacuated Charleston just before Christmas. Peace had returned. The house had survived, but its fields, ornamental gardens, and many of its buildings would have to be rebuilt.
Today Drayton Hall welcomes visitors as they learn about everything from the house’s unique history to the role of slavery in America. As guests enter the grounds they pass the Memorial Arch, a marker for one of the oldest African American cemeteries in America. For history buffs and lovers of Georgian-Palladian architecture, a tour of Drayton Hall is nothing short of unforgettable.
Just a short hop from Charleston, Ashley River Road is the perfect day or weekend trip for lovers of scenic drives, beautiful gardens, and American history.
More in the Off the Beaten Path series: