West of the Ashley River, not far from the bedroom communities and shopping centers, residents and visitors to the Charleston area can find everything from world-class golf and watersports to rural farms, barrier island beaches and historic plantations.
It's only 30 miles from the heart of the Charleston peninsula to the county line at the Edisto River, and there's much to explore in between.
Where Charles Towne began
Charleston got its start west of the Ashley, when English settlers in 1670 established a colony at what is now Charles Towne Landing. The location is now a 664-acre state-owned historic site where visitors can learn about the colonial days and tour the closest thing the Charleston area has to a zoo, the 22-acre “animal forest.”
The Ashley River that carried settlers to Charles Towne Landing traces its headwaters to Dorchester County, near Summerville. Ashley River Road (S.C. Highway 61) follows the river's path, past apartment complexes and subdivisions out to the historic, grand plantations that once sent products such as rice down the river with the tides.
Beyond the plantation district extends a broad patchwork of farm, swamp and forest. Rural and cricket-quiet today, the area is subject to extensive development plans.
The main drag
U.S. Highway 17 (Savannah Highway) is the primary commercial road through West Ashley, leading from Charleston to all points south. A walking and biking trail known as the West Ashley Greenway sits parallel to Savannah Highway, running through neighborhoods just south of the thoroughfare.
Those who follow Savannah Highway beyond the strip malls and car dealerships, out past the city limits, can continue on to the country towns of Ravenel, Hollywood and Meggett, and communities including Yonge's Island and Adams Run.
Charleston County's Caw Caw Interpretive Center on Highway 17 near Ravenel offers a glimpse of the area's past, with former plantation rice fields carved from Cypress swamp, and wild-growing tea from a former farm.
A bit farther down Highway 17 sits the road to Edisto Island, which is popular as a quiet family beach getaway, with camp sites at the beach. Edisto also marks the end of the 250-mile-long Edisto River, which is among the nation's longest free-flowing blackwater rivers and is a destination for canoe and kayak enthusiasts.
The river flows into the ACE Basin, a 350,000-acre ecological treasure bounded by the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers, where cypress swamps bleed into saltwater marshes and on to the ocean.
Below the Stono
The Stono River separates the area known as “West Ashley” from other areas on the west side of the Ashley River. Nearest to the city, James Island is home to Charleston's well-regarded and affordable municipal golf course and James Island County Park, which helped launch the area's embrace of off-leash dog parks.
The island is also home to historic McLeod Plantation, and a government marine research center built where the first shots of the Civil War were fired from Fort Johnson. James Island is a suburb of Charleston – much of it is within the city limits – but it's also a place with a strong identity of its own. Residents outside the city limits on James Island have repeatedly sought to create their own town, succeeding most recently in 2012 after courts struck down three earlier attempts.
Farms and beaches
James Island is the gateway from Charleston to Johns Island, one of the largest sea islands on the East Coast. It is also the path to Folly Beach, which is known for the Charleston area's best surfing, and for permissive rules about drinking on the beach. Folly is also known for its close-up views of the Morris Island Lighthouse, accessible at the east end of the island.
Johns Island is confronting suburban growth issues, but remains a largely rural island known for its live-oak-draped scenic roadways, such as River Road, and its farming communities. Angel Oak Park, near Main Road and Maybank Highway, is home to an immense live oak tree said to be the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi River. A battle over plans to develop land adjacent to Angel Oak Park has been raging for years.
Head across Johns Island toward the ocean and you'll find Kiawah Island, named for the Indians who lived there before the arrival of European settlers, and also Seabrook Island. Today, Kiawah is a gated residential and resort community known for top-quality golf and pristine beaches.
One tip of the island is home to Charleston County's public Beachwalker Park, with access to the entire Kiawah beachfront for a small fee. It has been named one of the nation's Top 10 beaches.
Take a different path across Johns Island, on Maybank Highway, and you'll cross Bohicket Creek to Wadmalaw, an island of rural homesteads that range modest trailers to lavish retreats. Near the far end of the island the Charleston Tea Plantation offers tours and public events.