From my comfortable seat on the Nature Train I could see beautiful blooming flowers in the gardens one moment and twelve foot long alligators in a moss-covered pond the next. The open air trolley ride was certainly the highlight of my visit to Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, but it wasn’t the only memorable moment. A self-guided walk through the Audubon Swamp Garden, a forty-five minute boat tour, and exploring the Plantation House rounded out my amazing day at this hidden Charleston attraction.
The Audubon Swamp Garden
When you first say “swamp garden” out loud you may think of something out of a horror movie or at best something dirty and grungy. But the Audubon Swamp Garden couldn’t be more beautiful. As I walk along a series of paths and footbridges I find myself surrounded by blooming flowers, lush greenery, and peaceful silence. I walking pace slowed the longer I spent in these gardens. I found any excuse to take a seat or simply stand in the middle of a path. How could a swamp be the most naturally beautiful place in the Lowcountry?
Wooden footbridges cross the ponds and waterways of the swamp. One is painted a vibrant red and another a brilliant white that contrasted starkly with the dark greenery. Each bridge leads to a new path in a different direction as the paths crisscross over each other and spin a web of exploration around the swamp. I find it difficult to choose which direction to go because every which way I look is inviting. I think I could spend days exploring these paths.
But I had only an hour because I had a tour coming up and I didn’t want to be late.
The Nature Train
Before you get excited, or possibly dismayed, at the prospect of riding a train around the swamp you should know it’s just a long series of open air trolley cars pulled by a tractor. I was excited even before our tour guide hopped into the driver’s seat, flipped on the speaker system, and began with his humorous and educational spiel.
I sat at the edge of the car armed with two camera bodies ready to capture photos near and far. My massive 300mm lens sat in my lap ready to use at a moment’s notice. The trolley trudged along the bumpy gravel road through gardens, forests, and around ponds.
I was looking at the lush green foliage to my right when the Nature Train came to a sudden stop. Our tour guide’s voice became hushed and quite as he spoke through the speakers. “If you look over to the left you’ll see an alligator sunbathing on a wooden platform rising out of the pond and if you look closely you’ll see a turtle near his back legs.” Everyone suddenly leaned to the left and shifted the balance of the trolley cars. I whipped out my big lens and snapped a few photos. I couldn’t decide if this turtle was the alligator’s best buddy or maybe dinner later.
The Plantation House
I hopped off the Nature Train at the Plantation House just around the corner from the ticket office where the tour began. The house is a different design than what you would expect of a plantation house in Charleston: more squat than the taller plantation houses with a stucco finish and a small tower that is probably is a sunroom of some kind. It still had the familiar wrap around porch with a roof supported by massive columns, though.
The guided tour lasted about half an hour but I spent another hour just walking around the large home. It was just as beautiful outside as inside with a nice garden in the front, hanging flower pots on the porch, and gorgeous views. As the tour guide pointed out the period furniture and decor I was surprised to learn Magnolia Plantation & Gardens is still owned by the original family who moved here in 1676! Sixteen generations of the Drayton family have lived here and still own the property after all these years.
Getting to Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
Magnolia Plantation may be the most-visited plantation in Charleston but it’s also one of the furthest to reach. In fact unless you had this programmed into your GPS and specifically sought it out you wouldn’t even know it was there! I think the remoteness is part of the charm.
The plantation is located on Ashley River Road about thirteen miles from downtown Charleston. It takes about half an hour to get there.
Ashley River Road, also listed as Highway 61, begins at Highway 17 just after crossing the Ashley River. It’s the primary road through West Ashley so it’s easy to find and navigate through about a dozen traffic lights. Just after passing underneath I-526 the road becomes two lanes and whisks you away from the hustle and bustle into the quiet nature of the Lowcountry.
If you are arriving via interstate you can take Exit 212 on I-26 onto I-526, then take Exit 11B onto Paul Cantrell Boulevard. Turn right at the first traffic light onto Magwood Drive. At the end of that road turn left onto Ashley River Road.
Parking is free at the plantation and there are usually parking lot attendants to help you find a parking spot.