There is an island outside of Charleston, SC that is home to Boneyard Beach, an otherworldly driftwood forest right on the ocean. Kristina and her kids explored the island with Coastal Expeditions, who provided us media tickets. Here’s why it should be on your bucket list.
I had seen photos of Boneyard Beach on Bulls Island, which is part of the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge in Charleston, SC, but nothing could truly prepare me for the experience of walking through those old and weathered trees strewn across the sandy beach. It was an experience like no other. And because us here at Kidding Around are always looking for incredible experiences to bring to you, our awesome readers, we had to do this one.
As you can guess, there is only one way to an island and that is by boat. Coastal Expeditions is the company that gets you there, either by kayak or motorized boat. We chose the latter although the kayak trip looked like a lot of fun.
Coastal Expeditions has been running this same trip for 27 years and their guides are extremely knowledgeable about the wildlife refuge and Bulls Island. The boat is large with seating on all sides and benches in the middle. Currently, they require masks only on the boat and the vessel is covered on top and open on the sides so there is plenty of space and ventilation.
There is a big table in the middle of the boat with all kinds of shells and skeletons of animals like alligators, which I’ll get to in a minute. Our guide was an avid birder so on our way out to the island, he was pointing out all kinds of birds and where they were going. Most were just passing through, some even on their way to the Artic. And we got to see some dolphins!
The boat ride is only about 30 minutes but it goes by fast since the entire trip is a lesson on the area and local wildlife, which I found fascinating. I’ve done several salt marsh tours but always learn something new and this was a double bonus for us since it counted as my kids’ homeschool lessons for the day!
Exploring Bulls Island
Once we were approaching Bulls Island, our guide gave us all maps and suggested which hiking trails to attempt (or not attempt) in the time we had. We were on the island by about 10 am and we had to be back to the dock by 2 pm without exception. There are around 18 miles of trails on Bulls Island so it was important to figure out your game plan before getting off the boat.
We chose to take Beach Road to the other side of the island and then walk the beach up to Boneyard Beach, about a 4.5 mile round trip hike. Other hikes you could do lead you through the interior of the island, where a large concentration of alligators live, and up to a cool observation tower. Or you could choose to go northward and see even more gators. That’s also where the best seashell hunting is, although we did find plenty of neat sand dollars and shells on our hike.
While you are not allowed to take any driftwood off the island, you can take home a gallon of shells each. This was music to my kids’ ears since they love to hoard any number of broken items in our house but I put a limit of less than a gallon of what they could take. We found some beautiful shells along the beach and also managed to save a starfish and a few sand dollars. We saw some pretty wild jellyfish also that were enormous.
Because Bulls Island is home to a massive number of gators, it’s important to keep your distance and watch out for them when hiking the interior of the island. Once we hit the levee, we saw a couple big mama gators with more than a dozen babies each on the sides of the levee in the water. We took photos and kept going. At other parts of the island, it’s more likely you’ll actually find a big gator sunning itself on the levee, which you’ll have to get around or make noises and hope it leaves its spot.
Coastal Expeditions has never had a bad experience with gators and gave us a lot of helpful tips on what to do should we see one in our path. Some of the other people on our trip saw a lot more gators than we did and they all came back in one piece!
Let’s get to the good stuff. Once we hit Boneyard Beach, it was like entering another world. The majesty of the trees is stunning. The more you walk into that particular area, the more dead trees you find. They are truly works of art. Some are turned over so you can see their roots that have been whitewashed by the ocean and elements.
We had lunch amongst the trees, which gave us plenty of time to enjoy their beauty. Their long arms stretched in different directions, leafless and many without bark, just shone with eerie wisdom almost. They were taken by the sea, mostly due to erosion, and made into these beautiful specimens that would cause most people to wonder which planet they came from.
The entire experience was peaceful, serene, and unreal. There were 36 passengers on our boat and somehow we had that part of Boneyard Beach almost entirely to ourselves. My kids, ages 10 and 6, also really enjoyed it. We got to pause for awhile and just enjoy the time together, check out the intricate patterns of the trees, look for interesting details of the root systems, and marvel at what we were staring at.
Tips on Going to Bulls Island
Firstly, you’ll need to make a reservation in advance as they do not take walk-ups. Tours are fairly popular so once you have a date you want to go, be sure to book your tickets.
Coastal Expeditions has a great FAQ on their site about heading to Bulls Island but I’d add some other things you may need to know:
- Prepare for your trip with extra water, lunch/snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, hats, and a first aid kit.
- You’ll be hiking so besides wearing comfortable, closed-toed shoes, know your own limits on your – and your kids if you’re bringing them – hiking ability. The hike isn’t hard at all (no mountains there like in the Upstate) but you’ll be going at least between four and five miles and if it’s summer, it’s very hot and humid.
- You can bring bikes! While you can’t ride bikes on the beach, you can ride them on the trails on the island and Coastal Expeditions has plenty of space on the boat to bring the bikes.
- No dogs or pets allowed on the boat or the island.
- Sit near the front of the boat so you can hear everything the guide says. While we caught most of what our nature guide said, we sat in the back near the engine so missed some of it.
- Bulls Island is part of the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge so there will be wildlife and it’s important to pay attention to your guide on the boat and especially when you’re hiking. I was never worried or scared but it’s best to be prepared and pay attention than not.
- There is a port-a-potty at the dock and bathrooms about a 10-minute walk inside Bulls Island. There are no bathrooms on the boat. So plan for that.
- Take the first ferry of the day if you’re going when it’s warm out since you can start hiking when it’s less hot.
Coastal Expeditions runs other tours as well, including kayak and stand-up paddleboarding tours and ferries to St. Phillips Island in Beaufort. In addition to the Bulls Island Ferry, they offer sunrise expeditions to the island a beach drop at Boneyard Beach. They also have summer camps and kids programming.
I cannot say enough about how amazing this experience was for my kids and I. Charleston is a beautiful and interesting city that has a lot to offer families (we have a big guide on the city here) but if you’re looking for something truly memorable where you can be a part of that natural beauty we have here in South Carolina, this is the trip for you. Make your Costal Expeditions reservations here. Tickets are $55/person.
Where to Stay Near Bulls Island
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Use the map below to find the perfect place to stay near Bulls Island.