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How to See the Morris Island Lighthouse in Folly Beach, SC

Learn about the history of the lighthouse and how you can see it on land and water.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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Lighthouses were once a vital navigational tool for mariners piloting ships into harbors. This was especially true in Charleston, Colonial America’s largest and most important port south of Philadelphia. The Morris Island Lighthouse was built in 1876, the last of three lighthouses on the disappearing island.

The Morris Island Lighthouse is South Carolina’s tallest at 161 feet tall. If it were open to the public, you would have 203 steps to the top of the circular brick lighthouse. Decommissioned in 1962, it’s one of ten lighthouses still standing in the state.

Learn how to see the spectacular Morris Island Lighthouse from land or boat and discover my favorite place to capture sunrise photos of the lighthouse.

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Map of the Morris Island Lighthouse

How to use this map: Zoom out to see where the boat tours start. Click the icon in the top-left corner to open the Map Legend, then click on any of the legend items to display more information. If you have a Google account, click the (very faint) star at the end of the map’s name to save this map to your account, then access the map from your smartphone during your trip.

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Morris Island Lighthouse surrounded by deep blue water.
Morris Island Lighthouse surrounded by deep blue water.

History of the Morris Island Lighthouse

Charleston was founded in 1670 and, ten years later, moved to the peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. The South Carolina colonial capital was the most vital port south of Philadelphia.

In 1767, the first lighthouse was built on Morris Island to guide mariners into the deep-water harbor. It stood only 42 feet tall and was made entirely of wood. In 1838, a second lighthouse was built on the island. Standing 102 feet tall, it was built of brick and wood. In 1862, Confederate soldiers destroyed the lighthouse to prevent Union troops from using it as a lookout during the Civil War.

Congress realized the need for a new lighthouse guiding ships into the Charleston Harbor. In 1872, construction began on a brick lighthouse on Morris Island. It took four years to complete the lighthouse, which was officially lit on October 1, 1876. Standing 161 feet tall, the Morris Island Lighthouse included a lightkeeper’s house and several support structures.

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By 1938, the lighthouse was in trouble.

The lighthouse was built 1,200 feet from the water’s edge. But after a jetty was built to protect the harbor’s entrance, erosion swept the shoreline away from Morris Island, leaving the lighthouse in the turbulent Atlantic Ocean.

The Morris Island Lighthouse was finally decommissioned in 1962 when the nearby Charleston Light was lit on Sullivan’s Island.

In 1999, the non-profit Save The Light, Inc. bought the lighthouse from a private seller for $75,000. After working with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the deed was transferred to the state, and the non-profit was given a 99-year lease to preserve the lighthouse.

The Morris Island Lighthouse is entirely surrounded by the ocean at high tide. But recent preservation efforts may save the lighthouse from destruction – for a while.

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Sunrise behind the Morris Island Ligthhouse.
Sunrise behind the Morris Island Ligthhouse.

How to See the Morris Island Lighthouse from Folly Beach

The easiest way to see the Morris Island Lighthouse is from the north end of Folly Beach. It’s a fascinating short walk to a secluded beach and one of the best scenic views in Charleston.

Drive 3.5 miles north along East Ashley Street from Center Street in Folly Beach. The street ends in a cul-de-sac. Park along the street on the sandy shoulder created by years of previous visitors. All four tires must be off the road beyond the white line, and you cannot block private driveways.

The best place to park is the public beach access near the end of the street.

It’s a 0.4-mile walk on a defunct paved street through the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve. Cracking and graffitied, the road is lined on either side by concrete foundations, remnants of homes lost long ago. The pavement gives way to a sandy path at the end – and the reward for the short journey.

The Morris Island Lighthouse appears ahead after stepping onto the beach. It’s easy to see without binoculars or telephoto lenses, though those will help for a closer view.

The beach stretches to the right around a rocky jetty. But if you turn left, you can find a hidden beach at low tide. Walk behind the line of deadwood trees to a long beach with a stellar view of the Morris Island Lighthouse. It’s my favorite place to visit for capturing photos – especially at sunrise.

The Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve is maintained by Charleston County Parks. A $1 mandatory fee is paid at the self-serve kiosk at the trailhead. Swimming and dogs are prohibited, and there are no restrooms.

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My Favorite Photo Spot

I love exploring the world via Google Maps. I switch it to the satellite view and slide the map in all directions, looking for anything that seems interesting from a bird’s eye view.

That’s how I realized I could capture a photo of the Sun rising directly behind the Morris Island Lighthouse.

I arrived at the north end of Folly Beach at 5 a.m., a little more than an hour before sunrise. Twilight had just started, but the ground was still dark enough to need a flashlight. I walked to the beach, turned left, and continued walking another 30 minutes.

From May through July each year, the Sun rises almost to the northeast. If you walk just far enough along the beach, there is a place where the sunrise lines up with the Morris Island Lighthouse from a point of view on the beach.

When the Sun peaked over the horizon a little after 6 a.m., I was ready and waiting. It took about fifteen minutes for the Sun to rise high enough to align with the top of the lighthouse. That’s how I captured the photo above.

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Morris Island Lighthouse Boat Tours

The only way to get close to the Morris Island Lighthouse is by boat – although you’re forbidden from docking or stepping inside. Three companies offer guided boat tours to the lighthouse.

Coastal Expeditions offers a gargantuan 4-hour cruise from their dock on Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant. The naturalist-led tour includes narration of the history and ecology of the area and about an hour of hunting for seashells and shark teeth on the barrier island.

Charleston Outdoor Adventures offers a 2.5-hour guided tour from Bowen Island behind Folly Beach. The 6-mile ride to the lighthouse includes narration, spectacular wildlife views, and a pleasant experience. The flat-bottom skiff pulls onto the island at low tide, giving visitors about 45 minutes to hunt for seashells.

Island Hopper Charters offers a 2-hour guided trip from the Mariners Cay Marina. It’s the shortest boat ride to the lighthouse, but still an exhilarating experience. Visitors are treated to narration and one hour on Morris Island.

Island Hopper Charters also offers a private charter from $225 for 1-4 people. It’s an opportunity to have the entire boat to yourselves with friends and family on the exciting tour.

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Morris Island Lighthouse surrounded by deep blue water.
Morris Island Lighthouse surrounded by deep blue water.

Save the Light

Shortly after the Morris Island Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1962, it was sold to a private owner. But decades of private ownership left the lighthouse’s fate in limbo until a grassroots effort was started by Barbara Schoch.

The James Island native wanted to preserve the lighthouse for future generations. When the lighthouse was listed for sale in the late 90s, she approached Johnny Ohlandt with an idea. The Morris Island Lighthouse Committee was formed in 1996 to raise funds and buy the lighthouse.

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In 1998, the committee founded the non-profit Save The Light, Inc. The organization bought the lighthouse with a $75,000 bank loan. But the non-profit couldn’t keep the lighthouse. It was vital for South Carolina to own the historic lighthouse because the Army Corps of Engineers could only work on government projects.

So, in 2000, the deed was transferred to the Department of Natural Resources. Save The Light, Inc. was given a 99-year lease to oversee the preservation. Throughout the early 2000s, two phases were completed to stabilize the foundation and protect the base from the encroaching sea.

Visit the Save The Light, Inc. website to learn more about their preservation efforts, the challenges ahead, and to join me in donating to save the historic lighthouse.

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Getting to Folly Beach

Center Street is the “main street” of Folly Beach. From this street, it takes about 5-10 minutes traveling along Ashley Avenue to find parking at the north end of the island.

Getting to Center Street in Folly Beach is easy – but it will take some time. Especially in the summer.

From downtown Charleston, it’s a 20-40 minute drive. Drive time is longer on summer mornings when everyone heads to the beach. The best time to visit from Charleston is early afternoon or on weekdays.

Stormy skies surrounding the Morris Island Lighthouse.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where is the Morris Island Lighthouse?

The Morris Island Lighthouse is about half of a mile from the north end of Folly Beach.

When was the Morris Island Lighthouse built?

The Morris Island Lighthouse was built from 1872 to 1876.

Why is the Morris Island Lighthouse in the water?

When the Morris Island Lighthouse was built in 1872, it was 1,200 feet from the water’s edge. But after decades of erosion, the lighthouse was surrounded by the ocean by the late 1930s.

Does the Morris Island Lighthouse work?

The Morris Island Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1962 after it was replaced by the nearby Charleston Light on Sullivan’s Island.

Can you visit the Morris Island Lighthouse?

You can see the Morris Island Lighthouse from the north end of Folly Beach or on a boat.

Can you walk to the Morris Island Lighthouse?

It’s not possible to walk to the Morris Island Lighthouse.

Can you climb the Morris Island Lighthouse?

The Morris Island Lighthouse is permanently closed to the public, and no one is allowed to climb inside.

How long is the walk to the Morris Island Lighthouse?

It’s a 0.4-mile walk through the Inlet Heritage Preserve on the north end of Folly Beach to see the Morris Island Lighthouse.

Where can you park to see the Morris Island Lighthouse?

A public beach access near the end of East Ashley Street is the best place to park to see the Morris Island Lighthouse.

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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