Morris Island lighthouse at the north end of Folly Beach ©Aaron Hyslop/Shutterstock
With 2876 miles of tidal coastline, South Carolina is a beach-goers dream, whether you’re looking for solitude, family fun, or a spring break vibe. South Carolina beaches entice visitors, not just with the cool, sparkling Atlantic and broad, sandy beaches that hide dazzling seashells. You can see wildlife, dive deep into history, enjoy water sports, and dine, shop, and spa.
South Carolina beyond the beaches
Each of South Carolina’s beaches has its own vibe. Many are a short drive from Charleston, a nexus of southern charm. So, whether you want to steep yourself in luxury or make memories that will last a lifetime without spending a mint, consider South Carolina for your next beach vacation.
Folly Beach features a pier, pelican rookery and lighthouse © Daniela Duncan / Getty Images
Just south of Charleston, Folly Island has the Atlantic Ocean out the front door, and the Folly River out the back door. The intersection of the two waterways created six miles of broad beaches around the island’s perimeter, where visitors can surf and boogie board, kayak and fish, boat, water ski, and more.
Folly Island teems with ocean-focused attractions, including 1000ft Folly Beach Pier, a pelican rookery, and Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve, which has views of historic Morris Island Lighthouse. Sometimes called one of America’s last true beach towns, the 12-sq-mile barrier island which has 2400 residents and a surf-town vibe, is charming and funky, with boho clothing shops and seafood restaurants of every ilk along Center Street. Come for shopping and eating by day, and music and dancing at night. Sample the local favorite She-crab soup.
Explore the Folly River marshlands by kayak – it’s an adventure that’s safe and fun for kids of any age. Get your adrenaline pumping surfing the Atlantic swells. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re a surfer, kayaker, cyclists, boater, you love fishing, or you’re interested in the island’s rich sea-wildlife, complex history, or you’re in search of sandy, romantic sunsets. Folly Beach is a great place for culture too. The Porgy House was home to Charleston authors Dubose and Dorothy Heyward in the 1930s. That’s also where, in 1934, George Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess, based on Dubose Hayward’s novel. Folly Beach also has a rich and storied history beginning with its original residents, the Bohicket Indians.
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Hilton Head in South Carolina is bordered by 12 miles of incredible beaches © Larry Knupp / Shutterstock
Famous for its luxury accommodations, low country-beaches, and 30 world-class golf courses, and 300 tennis courts, Hilton Head was the first eco-planned destination in the United States. Steep yourself in decadent luxury at Hilton Head’s spas, dine in its four-diamond restaurants, and between bronzing and beach-combing, play a round or two. The 42-square-mile barrier island is bordered by 12 miles of stunning beaches, and many of the island’s exclusive hotels have private access. The Gulf Stream keeps the daytime temperature at a delightful 70°F, and the ocean waters are close to the same. While Hilton Head is famous for its high-end offerings, there’s plenty of exploring for families and nature buffs. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to deer and alligators, is a maze of salt marshes and lagoons. Moss-draped oaks, magnolias, pines, and palmettos make it a birder’s paradise. Travelers on a budget will appreciate the public beach access with metered parking available at eight of the island’s beaches.
One of four oceanfront state parks in South Carolina. Edisto Beach, which is on Edisto Island, is a great rustic getaway for nature lovers. A vacation at Edisto beach invariably involves adventure in the great outdoors. The Beach State Park is crosshatched with hiking and biking trails, including the state’s longest system of ADA-accessible hiking and biking trails. Hike, bike, explore the beach, fish, and splash in the shallows. Edisto Beach provides affordable beach fun, based, from furnished cabins perched in the woods, as well as oceanfront and forest campsites.
Edisto Beach is a haven for splashing and swimming or just absorbing the beauty of the mighty Atlantic. The park also has an environmental education center with exhibits on the natural history of Edisto Island and the surrounding ACE Basin. The ACE Basin boundaries include the watersheds of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. When it’s time for the beach, search the mile-and-a-half, palmetto-lined strip of sand called Edisto beach for shiny and colorful seashells, pause to catch a sunrise, and keep an eye peeled for fossils. The park is a nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles.
Enjoy the water at Boneyard Beach (Bull Island) via ferry or kayak © Vince Doyle / Shutterstock
Stepping onto Bull Island—also called Bulls Island, in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, is like setting out on an east coast safari. This nature’s classroom, which is accessible by ferry or kayak, has 16 miles of trails and roads, and seven miles of undeveloped shoreline to explore. The island is known for its bird-life, with more than 293 species recorded there. Kids love spotting a regal American Bald Eagle. Naturalist-guided tours are great for all ages if observing alligators, catching a glimpse of black foxes, and spotting bottlenose dolphins is on your bucket list. The 66,000-acre island is the largest of four barrier islands within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge contains saltwater estuaries, barrier islands, freshwater impoundments, and maritime forests. Bottlenose dolphins raise their calves in Bull’s Island protected creeks, and loggerhead sea turtles nest on the island beaches. Boneyard Beach, named for the bleached skeletons of oaks, cedars, palmettos, and pines that litter a three-mile stretch of beach on the northeast corner of the island, is the island’s most photographed spot. Go for the day or just a few hours. It’s fun for the entire family, and a great day trip from Charleston, which is about 50 minutes from the ferry launch in Awendaw.
South Carolina's beaches range from white sand escapes to private islands for luxury travel © Cvandyke / Shutterstock
Myrtle Beach is South Carolina’s most popular, with more than 19 million visitors annually. Tourists come for the family-friendly attractions, beachfront resorts, entertainment, and of course the white-sand beaches. Crescent Beach, which is one of North Myrtle Beach’s four beaches, is the city’s hidden gem, and the best spot to post up with a beach umbrella and a good book, while the kids boogie board their hearts out, toss a frisbee, or build a sandcastle. Rub elbows with the locals at Molly Darcy’s Irish Pub and Bay Watch Cafe both of which sit right on South Ocean Boulevard. You’ll find plenty of adventure and water sports in North Myrtle Beach. From wakeboarding and jet-skiing to surfing and parasailing, the beach is an adrenaline junky’s paradise.
A private island with ten miles of white sand beaches, Kiawah Island is often called paradise. One of the best beach destinations for a luxury vacation, on Kiawah, a world-class resort and a vibrant village coexist with pristine coastline, 10,000 acres of maritime woodlands, sand dunes, and marshes populated by whitetail deer, alligators, bobcats, seabirds, and sea turtles. The natural maritime setting is being preserved and enhanced for current and future generations. Soak up the sun and splash in the surf—the island is as welcoming to families as adult travelers, then visit the five centuries-old Angel Oak Tree. Grab a meal or a drink at Charleston Tea Plantation and Firefly Distillery. Most beaches are private, accessible to property owners, guests, and renters. Visitors who aren’t staying on the island can sun and swim at Beachwalker County Park.
How to road trip the Southeastern US on a budget