The 71-degree sunshine glistened along soft blue ripples as they gently tapped the stony shoreline of Horlbeck Creek. It was a beautiful Friday morning at Mount Pleasant's Palmetto Islands County Park, a marshy slice of nature tucked away in the corner of a quickly expanding city.
From the familiar scent of pluff mud and sight of scurrying crabs along the marsh trails to a state-of-the-art playground ready to make any kid's outdoor dreams come true, the 943-acre Charleston County park is just one of the Tri-County area's many recreational landscapes.
It's one that comes with nice perks, like paddleboat rentals, a kayak launch, an off-leash dog park and the star of the show: a 50-foot tall observation tower with a spectacular view.
In the sticky summer months, on-site water park Splash Island cools things off with slippery slides, rushing jets and a lazy river. Before sunset, the central grassy meadow is home to picnic blankets, soccer matches and giggle-inducing crabwalking. The picnic shelters become birthday party venues on the weekends, and charcoal barbecues send the smell of hotdogs and hamburgers wafting through the woods.
It's a place that generations have gathered. Melissa McCants, a 35-year-old Summerville native who now lives in Park Circle, grew up going to either Palmetto Park or Charles Towne Landing, a historic site in West Ashley, on the weekends.
"I remember when the playground was wooden," says McCants of the now spongy "Big Toy" complete with a jungle gym, swings, seesaws and a variety of other fun climbable objects.
She passes an orange slice and animal crackers to her four-year-old son Ben, who was just scootering down the path to the Observation tower.
"I grew up with my parents taking me here, and now I take my kids here. It's one of my favorite parks," says McCants.
She's joined by longtime friend Megan Cannon, who sits across the picnic table with her own 2-year-old son Rhame. Her 2-month old naps in an adjacent stroller.
"I love the paved trails here for running or walking with the stroller," says Cannon, who says she's been to many a birthday party at the park as well.
Above, in the magnificent architectural wooden Observation Tower, Stephanie and Jeff Leary climb the many steps to the top with their 1, 3, and 5-year-olds. The couple had never been to the park before but were trying it out while on vacation from Richmond during spring break.
Isle of Palms firefighters had recommended it during a stop by the fire station a few nights before. The Learys had also been to the James Island County Park.
Though the parents were excited about the views, the kids were more interested in the slides, tunnels and other accompanying hideaways to the tower. Stephanie got a quick view of the marsh with an awed "wow" before hustling down the stairs after her girls.
Down the trail toward the water, some panting tongues and muddy paws were making their way by the shore. Diana Bangsund and recently adopted lab/hound mix Stella from Lowcountry Paws were wandering along the marsh.
It was both Stella and Bangsund's first trip to the Palmetto Islands County Park.
"I'm trying to visit as many different spots as I can since I moved here," says Bangsund, who moved to town five years ago from Seattle. She works as a fuel mixer for nitro dragsters, but spends a lot of her time off the clock outdoors, reveling in the local weather.
She was really enjoying the dirt-path nature trails at the Mount Pleasant park.
"It's a lot different weather than Seattle," she says with a joyful laugh. "I'm loving it."
Spend a day in the park:
Palmetto Islands County Park, Mt. Pleasant
- Scale the 50-foot-tall Observation Tower for incredible views
- Take the kids to the Big Toy playground
- Seasonally, enjoy cooling off at Splash Island
- Walk or bike the trails to Nature Island
- Let the pups run loose at the dog park
- Rent pedal boats and bikes or bring your kayak for the kayak launch
- Book picnic table and barbecue space for a birthday party, family reunion or friend gathering
- Enjoy creek fishing and crabbing
- Go on a scavenger hunt to find all the accompanying signs for the park’s mobile interpretive tour
James Island County Park, James Island
- Scale the 50-foot-tall climbing wall
- Bring a group and test your endurance during the Challenge Course
- Rent discs and play on the 18-hole disc golf course
- Let the dogs romp at the large off-leash dog park
- Rent kayaks, pedal boats, stand-up paddleboards or bikes to explore the park’s waterways and miles of trails
- Make a splash at the Splash Zone waterpark
- Get adventurous and stay overnight in the campground, or in one of the park’s three-bedroom cottages
- On select dates, enjoy events on-site in the park such as the Lowcountry Cajun Festival, Reggae Nights Summer Concert Series, Yappy Hours in the dog park, the Holiday Festival of Lights and more
Wannamaker County Park, North Charleston
- Visit the area’s largest waterpark, Whirlin’ Waters, seasonally
- Get soaked on the splash pad, a free water feature of the park
- Explore paved and nature trails throughout the park
- Bring your mountain bike or hike along the Wannamaker North Trail
- Play in open meadows or on the park’s large play hill, a favorite spot for rolling in the grass
- Let the kids romp at the Tot Lot and Fun Lot playgrounds, divided by age
- Cast your line for some freshwater fishing
- Challenge friends to a match at the volleyball courts or horseshoe pits
- For an adventure, try bike and boat rentals
- Let the fidos run free at an off-leash dog park
Caw Caw Interpretive Center, Ravenel
- Traverse over seven miles of scenic trails and boardwalks with wayside exhibits
- Learn more in the exhibit hall, highlighting the park’s natural and cultural history
- View former rice fields from the 18th century and thousands of naturalized tea plants from a 20th century tea farm
- Try to spot a variety of wildlife on site; it's known as a birding “hotspot” and favored habitat for many wildlife including deer and alligators
- Register for a nature programs
- Take a guided canoe tour
- Join the park’s early morning bird walks twice weekly with a certified naturalist
Johns Island County Park (Mullet Hall Equestrian Center), Johns Island
- On select dates, be a spectator at a variety of horse shows and competitions at the equestrian center
- Bring your bow and arrow for the archery range or try the 3-D archery course
- Go horseback riding or hiking along miles of trails
- Enjoy annual events like the Harvest Festival or Mullet Haul Trail Run
Waterfront Park, downtown
- Take a photograph in front of the iconic Pineapple Fountain
- Wear your bathing suits and splash through the park's other, many-jetted fountain
- Get beautiful views of the bridge and more along the Cooper River
- Catch some breezes while swaying on the pier's bench swings
- See a spectacular sunset
Gahagan Park, Summerville
- Let the kids have a ball at the Plantation Playground
- Scale a large climbing wall
- Spend hours exploring walkways, overlooks and climbing structures
- Pack a picnic or use the picnic tables for a birthday party or gathering
- Play ball at the baseball, softball and football fields