From the front of the tour boat I had a commanding view of Charleston Harbor, which is why I guess it took me a few minutes to realize the boat was heading toward the wrong side of the harbor. By the time the boat pulled up to the dock at Liberty Square a sinking feeling had lodged deep within my chest as I realized the mistake I had made. But soon enough I was laughing it off on a water taxi and by that evening I was finally able to reflect on everything I had learned with my trip to the Fort Sumter National Monument.
My first visit to Fort Sumter was innocent, and easy, enough. There are actually two ways to hop on a boat to get there, and by boat is the only way you can visit the fort on a tiny island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Not even private boats are allowed to dock at the fort. So my first time to the fort started with a $2 parking fee at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mt. Pleasant.
I had been aboard the USS Yorktown before, but still I would take another tour once I came back from Fort Sumter. How could I be this close to the WWII-era aircraft carrier and not climb up to the flight deck? I didn’t have to pay admission to Patriots Point if I didn’t want to do it, but rather once it was my turn at the ticket office window I could have just bought a ticket for the tour boat ride to the fort.
The tour boats have a set schedule of departure that varies throughout the year. My first time over was in January so I was down to just one possible tour time from Patriots Point. That still worked out great for me because I was back in time to enjoy the Yorktown for about two hours. The boat ride was pretty gentle, but I’ve seen days where winds make the harbor waters pretty choppy. If I was prone to motion sickness I think I would’ve taken some pills before boarding the boat.
The ride over takes about thirty minutes. During that time a pre-recorded narration of the tour plays through the speakers. I was able to get up and walk around the boat, finding a nice perch at the front where I could watch the tiny fort on the horizon grow larger. The wind stung a little bit, but I imagine no those hot and humid summer days this would be a welcome relief. Before I knew it the boat was pulling up to the modern dock and I was about to explore inside the fort for the very first time.
The tour inside starts with a short introduction from a national park ranger just inside the entrance to the fort. This area was part of the thick walls with low ceilings and kinda cramped with a massive cannon pointed toward a porthole. It was actually a bit intimate for the first intro to the fort’s interior.
After the intro we were free to roam as we pleased. I always follow this same rule when exploring museums or parks: stay to the right. It’s really the best way to ensure I don’t miss anything and Fort Sumter is one of those times that it would be easy to miss something. The inside is huge.
A long matte black addition runs right through the middle of the fort side-to-side from the entrance. This was a WWII-era addition to the fort when it was used to watch the harbor as German U-boats patrolled the waters. It’s an eye sore, destroyed a good portion of the fort’s interior, but it was also necessary to protect Charleston and shipping during the world war. A set of stairs climbs up to the back half of the fort that was filled in during this addition (an elevator will get you up there if you need it).
The back half is filled in at level with the top of the walls. It’s a great place to look at the front half and realize just how much of the fort has collapsed over the centuries. It also provides a pretty good view toward the Atlantic Ocean; to the far left you can see the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse and to the right the Morris Island Lighthouse. If you’re lucky a cruise ship or cargo ship will be entering the harbor.
Usually visitors only have about forty-five minutes to explore the fort’s interior. However, if you ask ahead of time the tour operators allow people to stay inside the fort when the tour boat leaves. It is very important to coordinate with the tour operator, however, to make sure there is a second boat coming after the first that will take you back to your car! Otherwise, you end up like that one time I took this option but got on the wrong tour boat.
The tour boats alternate between one from Patriots Point and one from Liberty Square. I took the first boat from Patriots Point where I had parked my car. I watched that boat leave and spent some extra time exploring the fort’s interior. It was so much fun having the entire place to myself! Then the second boat arrived. As people boarded it about forty-five minutes later to leave I hopped on board with everyone else. It was a warm day so I mozied to the front for a view of the harbor during the return trip.
It wasn’t until I was about halfway back that I realized Patriots Point was off to the right. Far to the right. That’s when I realized I was on the wrong boat and heading for Liberty Square on the opposite side of the harbor. As soon as I got off the boat I chatted withe gentleman at the ticket office, told him about the mistake I had made, and he directed me to a place where I could catch a water taxi back to Patriots Point. Along the way I got to see a pod of dolphins swimming nearby and a gorgeous sailboat cruising beneath the Ravenel Bridge. It was a fun mistake, but unless you enjoy fun like I do be sure to coordinate your extra stay at the fort to prevent this from happening to you!
After years of visiting Fort Sumter from Patriots Point I finally decided to visit Liberty Square (properly instead of by accident and immediately leaving). Parking at this location is a little different; at Patriots Point visitors pay $2 per vehicle for a large surface parking lot and a short walk to the ticket office, but here there is very limited street parking (mostly handicap) and then a parking garage a bit further away.
Liberty Square is a large public space just a few minutes from downtown Charleston. The square is home to the South Carolina Aquarium, the Fort Sumter National Monument museum and gift shop, and a few other scenic boat ride companies. The College of Charleston has added some classrooms down this way now so you will most likely see college students walking down Calhoun Street (running if they are late for class).
The museum, gift shop, and ticket office are located on the second floor of a long, rather drab looking brick building. There is a long staircase leading to the top or an elevator if you prefer or need that option. I picked up some tickets for the tour but I had an hour to kill so I headed inside for the museum.
The museum is rather nice. There are lots of artifacts, history, photos, and videos. It does a great job of explaining important historical events surrounding the Civil War and Charleston. I could’ve breezed through the museum quickly if I had needed, but with an hour to kill I took my time. The museum is free, by the way, so even if you don’t want to do the boat tour to the fort you should still visit the museum.
There is absolutely no difference in the tours offered from Patriots Point and Liberty Square. Parking is easier and cheaper at Patriots Point, but it takes about 15-20 minutes to get there from downtown depending on traffic. Liberty Square is the closest from downtown and there is a nice museum and gift shop to explore.
The boat ride is about thirty minutes each way. On windy days the water can chop just enough to rock the boat. It won’t be like an episode of Deadliest Catch, but if you are prone to motion sickness you may want to take something in advance.
The fort is handicap accessible, just be aware that the uneven brick paths and grassy areas will make it difficult for walkers and wheelchairs. You can certainly find enough to enjoy if you have a walking handicap, though.
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