Cypress Gardens is a 170-acre nature preserve and botanical garden owned and operated by Berkeley County. The gardens were originally part of Dean Hall, a rice plantation in 1750. The rice plantation relied on plenty of fresh water from the nearby Cooper River, so workers dug a large pit, fitted it with water gates, and flooded it with fresh water. Years later, it had fallen into a sad state of disuse, which created the swamp, when Benjamin Kittredge bought the property to make a duck hunting reserve. On June 1, 1963, Kittredge’s son donated the property to the City of Charleston, who intended to keep the gardens open to the public. In 1996, Berkeley County purchased the property from Charleston when they decided they no longer wished to upkeep the gardens.
THE SWAMP IS THE CENTERPIECE of the gardens and the object of several film and television productions. Films like The Patriot (Dir. Roland Emerich, 2000), The Notebook (Dir. Nick Cassevettes, 2004) and television mini-series North and South (Created by David L. Wolper, 1985) took advantage of the swamp as a filming location. But when it’s not being used to film a scene of a revolutionary militia trudging through a swamp, you can take a boat ride and enjoy it for yourself.
The boat trails on the swamp take about 30 minutes for a casual tour. Signs posted at the boat dock ask that boats be returned within an hour so others can take advantage of this unique opportunity. How many other botanical gardens allow you to take your date, spouse, or closest friends out on a boat in a swamp?
You can take a small boat out with up to four people for a self-guided tour. As far as I could tell you can’t exactly get lost, but I know some people who can get lost with the first direction. If you don’t want to row yourself, or if you just enjoy listening to the interesting stories and information, you can take a guided boat tour. The guided tours take small boats that can hold about three more people, though you can fit a few extra little ones in the boat if you want. They have a few larger boats for groups, which can go out for a self-guided or guided tour. These boats can hold up to about 15 people for an amazing time. Do you have any idea how fun it is to watch four people trying to paddle on the same side of a boat at the same time and nearly drive themselves into a giant tree in the middle of a swamp? Hey…at least the boat riders were having fun, too!
YOU CAN TAKE ONE OF THE MANY HIKING TRAILS around the swamp for a different view. The botanical garden features a .98-mile Main Path that circles around more than half the swamp. This path is level, made with hard-packed gravel. It’s an easy hike and is even handicap accessible. I would like to say a person with a wheelchair would be able to stroll around this path, but it may become difficult at times. While the path is hard-packed with small gravels, the footbridges are rather steep to cross, especially alone.
The Main Path takes about 25 minutes to walk, but you can access many side trails and additional loops to extend your hike. The .29-mile Meadow Path takes a detour around the Wedding Gazebo, but provides beautiful scenery. At the further edge of the Main Path you can access the .6-mile Kittredge Path, which is a more natural path without gravels and often sandy. This loop path will eventually lead back to the Main Path, but not before you find more loop trails. The .37-mile Southern Nature Trail loops around the far edge of the swamp and is a smoother trail to walk than the Kittredge Path. The last loop trail is the .97-mile Perimeter Trail that guides you through the forest past the edge of the swamp, eventually taking you back to the Southern Nature Trail.
Altogether, the nature trails include about 3.21 miles of trails that would take about 2-3 hours to walk. The trails are all level and easy, most of them offering various views of the swamp from different angles. For the casual visitor, take the Main Path to the Kittredge Path and then back to the front gate. It’s a 1-hour walk with views of the Wedding Gazebo, several footbridges, wildlife, and the swamp.
I cannot stress the importance of bug spray when visiting the gardens. Mosquitoes are like ninja assassins: they look for the weakest spot and attack. Although I sprayed myself from head to toe with bug spray, I missed my nose. Nothing hurts more than a mosquito bite on the tip of your nose. The warmer months from about May – September can get very hot and muggy, so be sure to bring a bottle or two of water. Various plants will bloom in October and then again about April or May, so plan your trip accordingly for the best flowers.
YOU CAN VISIT SEVERAL BUILDINGS for an added element to your trip to Cypress Gardens. Start along the trail to the Visitor Center, but save this for last. Instead, walk around the side to the Bird Exhibit. It’s small with only a few birds, but still something to check out. Next, head back to the Butterfly House. This was probably my favorite stop because I love shooting photos of butterflies (one of my friends poked fun saying it was easy to shoot photos of a butterfly inside a large building, but I beg to differ!). The Butterfly House has more than just butterflies; you can also find a bee hive, turtles, and a few bird species. Just be sure not to take any of the butterflies with you!
Next, head to the back for the Heritage Museum & Heirloom Garden, then the Swamparium. I love aquariums. I’m a total aquarium nut. But when I saw a 38 pound catfish and native Amazonian fish swimming in tanks the size of my Ford Explorer, my jaw dropped. Suddenly my Nikon D300 with 150mm telephoto lens looked tiny. They also had a few alligators and giant snakes. I don’t think I ever could have worked on the set of Snakes on a Plane.
Just next door you’ll find the Alligator Display, an outdoor area with a couple of American alligators on display for you to see. Don’t even think about getting close; if the alligator doesn’t get you, the electric fence will. Then again, who would want to get close to an 8′ long alligator? Dean Hall stands beside the outdoor display, a place for meetings, but it was closed the day I visited.
Head over to the Nature Center & Children’s Garden for fun with the little ones. After all, if you’ve taken a two-hour, 1.6 mile hike around as swamp, taken a 30-minute boat ride, and then gawked at enormous fish, it’s about time the kids had some fun!
Finally, take a short walk through the Visitor Center & Gift Shop. You can find lots of gifts from mugs to t-shirts, pamphlets and brochures, and small knick-knack items to clutter a house. It’s a great way to end an amazing day at the gardens since this helps Berkley County continue to operate the gardens.