The boat ride across Charleston Harbor to Fort Sumter was absolutely enjoyable. A narrator on the boat’s intercom gave information about the construction of the coastal fort, first battle of the American Civil War, and pointed out Fort Moultrie on the left. By the time the boat docked thirty minutes later I was ready to explore Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park.
Fort Sumter National Monument
In 1948 Fort Sumter National Monument officially became a part of the National Park Service. Even after Fort Moultrie was transferred to the NPS in 1960 the historical site retained the same name.
Although the NPS website and the narration on the boat to Fort Sumter included information about visiting Fort Moultrie, most people still didn’t know it was something to visit and explore. But then all that changed.
Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park
As a result of the 2019 John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act the NPS site formerly known as Fort Sumter National Monument was renamed Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park.
Although Fort Moultrie had been an active part of the site since 1960 it was just now formally recognized in the title of the site, bringing more recognition to Fort Moultrie. In April 2019 when I took the boat ride over to Fort Sumter I overheard a lady saying, “I’ve been coming here for twenty years and had no idea Fort Moultrie still existed.”
Fort Sumter Tours
Fort Sumter is only accessible via boat, and only by boats authorized by the National Park Service. Visitors can enjoy a thirty-minute ride with Fort Sumter Tours from either Liberty Square in Charleston or Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant.
The boat ride from each location is about thirty minutes and visitors get about 40 minutes to explore Fort Sumter. Each location has a unique vantage point during the ride. Here is what you’ll find at each location.
Did you know? You can stay in Fort Sumter longer than just forty minutes, but it takes some planning. You are allowed to stay behind when the tour boat you arrived on leaves and instead take a different tour boat back. However, you need to make sure you get on the correct tour boat back or you may end up on the wrong side of Charleston Harbor.
Liberty Square is at the end of Calhoun Street on the downtown Charleston peninsula. It’s home to the South Carolina Aquarium, Spiritline Cruises, Schooner Pride, and the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center.
The visitor center includes a very nice museum explaining the history leading up to the American Civil War, the construction of Fort Sumter, and the aftermath of the war. There is a nice gift shop with clothing, books, and souvenirs. The restrooms are located inside at the very back.
The unique thing about the boat ride to Fort Sumter from Liberty Square is Castle Pinckney. On this tour you will get closer to the fort than the other boat tour. While both boats get close enough to see it, the boat from Liberty Square will return on a route that places the old fort very close to the right (starboard) side of the boat.
Note: The visitor center is located on the second floor of the building. Two of the last three times I have visited the only elevator has been broken. There is a ramp entrance at the back of the visitor center.
Getting to Liberty Square
If you are driving across the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge (big white bridge) from Mount Pleasant you will want to take the East Bay Street exit. Turn left onto East Bay Street. At a traffic light turn left onto Calhoun Street.
If you are driving into Charleston on I-26 you will want to straight straight toward the Meeting Street exit. Turn right onto Meeting Street. You will pass the large, open Marion Square on the right; turn left at the next traffic light onto Calhoun Street. Continue straight across East Bay Street.
If you are driving from West Ashley or any point south of Charleston you will cross the Ashley River on Highway 17. Take the exit on the right onto Lockwood Drive. As soon as possible merge into the left lane as you pass beneath a bridge, then turn left onto Calhoun Street. Stay straight several blocks.
When you arrive at Liberty Square use the SC Aquarium Parking Garage on the left just before the end of the street. The parking garage is handicap accessible and about a five minute walk along the sidewalk to the visitor center.
Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum
If you’ve never been to Patriots Point this would be a good time to visit for an entire day trip. This maritime museum is home to the USS Yorktown World War II-era aircraft carrier. It’s hard to miss. You buy the tickets for the boat ride at the same place as admission to Patriots Point. Just saying.
There is a very nice gift shop at Patriots Point, but that gift shop is more about their museum and not Fort Sumter or Fort Moultrie. They also have a concession stand with better food than you’ll find on the boats.
The boat ride from Patriots Point gives you a really fantastic view of the USS Yorktown. The tour begins by looping around the front (bow) of the aircraft carrier and then alongside the left (port) side. The tour then passes a large marina where you can daydream about the sailing boat you’ve always wanted (or maybe it’s a yacht).
This boat ride passes close enough to Castle Pinckney to be able to see it, and you’ll see it again on the return voyage but this is as close as this boat ride will get.
Getting to Patriots Point
Patriots Point is the easier location to access of the two and better as far as late afternoon traffic is concerned.
Driving through Mount Pleasant you will probably be on Johnnie Dodds Boulevard (Highway 17). Turn left onto Magrath Darby Boulevard at a traffic light intersection. Continue straight across Coleman Boulevard onto Patriots Point Road. The parking lot is on the right.
If you are driving from Isle of Palms or Sullivan’s Island you will be on Coleman Boulevard. Continue to the traffic light at Patriots Point Road and turn left.
If you are driving on I-26 or any point inside or south of Charleston you will cross the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge (big white bridge). Stay in the right-most lane and exit onto Coleman Boulevard. At the first traffic light intersection turn right onto Patriots Point Road.
Visitors for both Patriots Point and Fort Sumter will use the large parking lot. It costs a flat $5 per day to use this parking lot. The last time I visited it was cash-only at an admission booth entering the parking lot.
Tips for the Boat Ride
The boats for both Liberty Square and Patriots Point are pretty much identical, so in that regard it doesn’t matter which side you start the tour from. However, there are a few tips for making the best of the boat ride to Fort Sumter.
- Arrive early and get in line. Each boat holds a couple of hundred people so if you want first choice of seating get at the beginning of the line at least twenty minutes before departure time.
- I always prefer to stand outside at the front of the second deck. It’s a fantastic view and no one can stand in front of you.
- There are a couple of tables with chairs inside. Bring your Cards Against Humanity collection.
- There is a concession stand, but it’s like most concessions at ballparks. Strange looking hot dogs with no toppings, kinda expensive drinks, and they serve alcohol.
Exploring Fort Sumter
When you arrive at Fort Sumter a National Parks ranger will ask you to join them for a short ten-minute introduction to the fort. This is optional, however, if you’ve heard it before or would rather start exploring the fort.
You get about 40 minutes inside the fort. Don’t rush because that is actually plenty of time. The route I always use to explore the fort is to start by walking to the right through the casemate and some of the ruins. A set of stairs climbs up the black World War II-era additions to the fort. There is an elevator if you need it and a ranger is always ready to assist.
There is a small museum and gift shop located in the WWII additions. At the very top is a great view looking back into the fort and out across the entrance to Charleston Harbor. There are always large cargo container ships entering or exiting the harbor into the Atlantic Ocean.
It only takes about 20 minutes to walk through the entire interior so feel free to take your time, ask questions, and capture lots of pretty pictures.
Exploring Fort Moultrie
Fort Moultrie has a fascinating history and only a small piece of that concerns the first battle of the American Civil War. It’s named after William Moultrie who built the first fort on that location out of palmetto trees. Do you know what the state tree of South Carolina is?
Begin exploring Fort Moultrie at the very nice visitor center beside the parking lot. The visitor center expands on the entire history of the three forts at this location up to its use during World War II. There is a small gift shop and a whopping 22-minute film on the history of the site.
Technically Fort Sumter is free to access but you have to pay a fee to get on the boat to get there. Fort Moultrie, however, charges a $7 admission fee. Pay close attention, though; that admission fee is good for five days so if you’re visiting the area be sure to come back.
Across the street is the entrance, or Sally Port, into Fort Moultrie. There is a self-guided trail leading through the fort with signs marking the way. The trail takes about 45 minutes to walk entirely, though you can cut it short and leave the fort at any time.
One of the things I love the most about exploring Fort Moultrie are the underground rooms in the earthworks. These rooms were used to store gunpowder. They had to devise a pretty neat way to be able to see what they were doing by candlelight so they would not accidentally blow themselves up!
The self-guided tour includes the underground storage rooms, WWII-era watch tower and radio room, WWII-era and Civil War-era gun emplacements, and a nice concrete path around the oceanside of the fort’s walls.
Getting to Fort Moultrie
Once you arrive on Sullivan’s Island turn onto Middle Street through the heart of the small beach town. Drive a few miles, passing through an old gated entrance with canons on top of the posts. You will see the fort on the left; the parking is on the right. Parking here is free.
How I Suggest You Explore Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park
As with most things in life there is no right or wrong way to explore this national park site. However, I do have a suggestion for how to do it to maximize your time, avoid traffic congestion, and find a few other cools things to do.
Begin at Patriots Point Start early in the morning with the first boat ride available on the schedule from Patriots Point.
Explore Fort Sumter You’ll have forty minutes. However, when the boat you arrived on departs stay behind in the fort. You’ll have about 15 minutes of peace and quite before the next tour boat arrives.
Boat to Liberty Square When the second tour boat departs get on board. You will pass very closely to Castle Pinckney for a great view. You will dock at Liberty Square.
Charleston Water Taxi You can purchase a ticket online or at 10 Wharfside Street just one block south from Liberty Square. It’s a five minute walk along the boardwalk to the building at Charleston Maritime Center. Charleston Water Taxi is a fun and convenient way to cross the harbor.
Return to Patriots Point The water taxi takes about twenty minutes to cross Charleston Harbor and returns you to Patriots Point.
Drive to Fort Moultrie Drive down Coleman Boulevard through Mount Pleasant to Sullivan’s Island, then down the island to Fort Moultrie.
Explore Fort Moultrie You should have about an hour left to explore the fort which is plenty of time.