If you’re like most people, you may have thought that swamps were smelly, dirty places. Why do we think this way? Whenever I told someone who isn’t from the south that I would be visiting a swamp garden and nature preserve, they assumed that it would be a gross experience, but it was far from that. There was so much beautiful life all around us as we walked through the garden, which smelled like fresh air and blooming irises, and we saw so many things we wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise due to the inaccessibility and protected status of swamps. If you love the outdoors, you’ll love visiting the Audubon Swamp Garden in Charleston, South Carolina.
Audubon Swamp Garden
Location: Charleston, South Carolina
Address:3550 Ashley River Road
Inside Magnolia Plantation & Garden
Cost: $10 In addition to Plantation & Garden Admission
Parking: Free Parking
Restrooms: Yes, air-conditioned bathrooms at the entrance in the parking lot,
None in the garden preserve
Warning: Stay on paths, do not go near water or leave wooden paths
What is The Audubon Swamp Garden & Why It Exists
The Audubon Society is an American non-profit organization that conserves natural spaces to preserve birds and their habitats while simultaneously supporting biodiversity and environmental activism. This society was named after the same person these gardens were named after, John James Audubon, an internationally recognized painter, hunter, and ornithologist (a person who studies birds). I couldn’t tell if the actual Audubon Society has any connection to these gardens or if it was named as such because John James Audubon was friends with Magnolia Plantation’s owners, the Drayton Family, and Mr. Audubon had spent time at the plantation studying the birds there.
The swamp garden was once a 60-acre freshwater storage area, which men and women who the Drayton family enslaved were forced to use to grow rice around the plantation. After several hurricanes contaminated the freshwater with saltwater, management transformed this area into a wetlands preservation area that is now home to hundreds of species of reptiles, birds, and animals with an elevated wooden walking path through it that allows visitors to see birds nesting, alligators floating in the swamp, blooming swamp flowers, and so much more that would normally be inaccessible due to the isolated nature of swamps.
In writing this, I want to acknowledge that Magnolia Plantation could not have existed nor been able to function the way it did so profitably without the unpaid and exploited enslaved people brought here against their will from Africa. The fortunes of the Drayton family who owned this land, which now educates visitors about the intricacies of swamp ecosystems, would not exist without the work of enslaved people.
Without these enslaved people and their contributions, the Audubon Swamp Garden would not exist today. Without them, John James Audubon would not have been able to study and write about the birds and ecosystems he saw here, nor would his ornithological works have been published around the globe, inspired The Audubon Society, and been included in nearly every single one of my Environmental Science textbooks at the University of Michigan. This breathtaking scenery is just one small piece of the indelible legacy that enslaved people have left on this region and our nation. Some of their descendants still work at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens today.
When & How to Visit the Audubon Swamp Garden
The Audubon Swamp Garden is open to visitors of Magnolia Plantation & Gardens. The hours are the same as the plantation, except when the sun sets before the closing of the plantation, in which case visitors must leave the swamp garden because there are no lights here and as you will read, there are many dangerous species that call this nature preserve home. Many incredible birds, such as common birds in the garden, include pileated woodpeckers, snowy & great egrets, great & little blue herons, cardinals, and anhingas.
If you wish to visit the swamp garden during your trip to Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, purchase the additional ticket to the Audubon Swamp Garden at the ticket counter. You will be given an access code to the electronic gate so that you can enter this protected space. We spent about an hour and a half here, which may have been longer than most because I stopped to take photos frequently. If you plan to bird watch, identify plants, reptiles, or other animals in the vicinity, paint, or anything else, a person could easily spend hours here.
What to Wear
Since the garden leads visitors along an elevated wooden platform path, with guardrails to protect visitors from falling in and to prevent animals such as alligators from coming up onto the walkway, the walk itself was very comfortable, flat, and easy to access. We both wore tennis shoes, comfortable socks, and the clothes we had on from breakfast, a dress in my case, and Robin wore shorts and a t-shirt.
I recommend at least wearing closed-toe shoes and bringing a hat and/or sunglasses, as well as binoculars and a camera without flash.
Safety Concerns at Audubon Swamp Garden
This incredible ecosystem preserve is a wonderful place to learn about swamps, how they function, what lives here, and why wetlands are so important. Having studied Environmental Sciences & Earth Science, I am a huge proponent of educational preserves such as this one. I learned quite a bit about northern wetlands while in school, but this was so much new information for me that I could have spent an entire week observing nature, learning about the different plants and animals that lived here, and seeing a swamp in action. I’m a huge nature nerd, in case you hadn’t noticed by now.
Numerous dangerous creatures call this area home, including venomous snakes (like the one in the photo below, I believe is a cottonmouth snake) and spiders, alligators that can be aggressive, as well as plants that may irritate the skin or allergic reactions if touched. To stay safe and to respect the environment, use common sense outdoor practices. When I was young, my grandfather told me to treat wildlife like a sleeping baby – give it plenty of space, stay quiet, and don’t linger near it so as not to disturb it, and I think that’s great advice!
Do not approach, yell at, startle, or harass any of the wildlife you encounter. Stay on the path, and do not sit or stand on the railing, lest you fall into the black water, which could not only be painful but also could be harboring dangerous creatures just below the surface. Don’t touch plants for any reason, and do not pick wildflowers – it’s against the law.
When traversing areas where the wooden path takes you to dirt paths through the swamp, do not get too close to the water’s edge, particularly if you see an alligator, and never enter the water, even if it’s to wade in a bit. If you’re looking to take close-up photos of something in the waters or in a tree, invest in a great long-range lens. Please read about my favorite camera gear here.
Although we saw lots of snakes, lizards, spiders, turtles, alligators, and large birds, we never once felt unsafe because we stayed respectful and gave them plenty of space. The snake we saw above eventually slithered into the swamp, allowing us to pass without issue. Had it not moved, we probably would have turned back, but aside from that, we didn’t have any close encounters that made us feel uneasy, so don’t be deterred by what’s in the swamp, but do be aware of how to stay safe here, and in other similar places.
I hope this compilation of information helps you have a great, educational, and enjoyable visit to the Audubon Swamp Garden.