Standing on the USS Yorktown’s flight deck, with a view of Charleston’s church steeples and historic buildings across the harbor, I could see why Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum was one of the most exciting military museums in the country. But getting to the flight deck to enjoy this view was not easy – it was actually a bit overwhelming the first time – so I decided it was time to write a complete travel guide to help first, second, and third time visitors make the most of their visit.
Patriots Point – as the locals simply call it – is located at the edge of Charleston Harbor in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. You’ll need to pay a few dollars to use their parking lot, but it’s absolutely worth it. You’re immediately greeted by the towering view of the USS Yorktown, the premiere attraction at the military museum. But it’s not the only thing to see and do.
40 Patriots Point Road, Mount Pleasant, SC | 843-884-2727 | www.patriotspoint.org
How Long Will You Spend at Patriots Point?
Patriots Point features three Navy vessels to explore – and the USS Yorktown has six guided tours alone – so it will take a while to explore the complex even if you only do a cursory walkthrough.
I recommend first-time visitors plan to spend the “day” – at least eight hours. There is a café on the USS Yorktown serving café-style food, and there are plenty of places to take a break from walking and standing.
If you only have a few hours, I recommend doing one or two of the self-guided walking tours on the USS Yorktown, the Medal of Honor Museum on the aircraft carrier, and a walkthrough of the Vietnam War Experience.
Admission Costs to Patriots Point
If you’re a solo traveler like me, admission to Patriots Point is not bad at all. However, if you have a small family of four or five, admission can start to cost a bit.
Single-day admission to Patriots Point starts at $24 for adults, $16 for children ages 6-11, and $19 for seniors over 62. There are other packages and options for admission, but this is the base price. I think the admission price is well worth it, considering the sheer amount of awesome things to see and do once you enter the gate.
Is Patriots Point Accessible?
Keeping in mind the main attraction at Patriots Point is three military vessels that were never built for accessibility, there are things to do at the museum complex for those with walking handicaps.
In the USS Yorktown, the hangar deck and flight deck are accessible by elevator. This includes the Medal of Honor Museum, several aircraft displays, and the snack shop. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the ship is not accessible.
The USS Laffey and USS Clamagore are not accessible at all.
The Vietnam War Experience is an outdoor exhibit that is moderately accessible. A wooden boardwalk winds through the recreation of a camp, and several of the buildings are accessible.
USS Yorktown WWII-Era Aircraft Carrier
The big attraction – and I do mean big – at Patriots Point is the WWII-era USS Yorktown aircraft carrier. There are only a few aircraft carriers in the country open as a ship museum – and this is the only one in South Carolina – so it was a real treat to spend a day exploring the ship.
The USS Yorktown CV-10 was commissioned on April 15, 1943, and named in honor of the USS Yorktown CV-5 that was sunk at the Battle of Midway. Nicknamed the “Fighting Lady,” the USS Yorktown saw combat during World War II in the Pacific theater from 1943-1945. After conversion into an anti-submarine aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown served in the Vietnam War.
In 1970, the USS Yorktown was decommissioned and five years later, sailed to Charleston to become the main attraction of the newly created Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum.
Hangar Bay #3
The main entrance to the USS Yorktown is in Hangar Bay #3. Visitors climb a long series of steps to one of the aircraft lifting decks to enter the hangar bay, and an elevator helps with accessibility.
The Medal of Honor Museum is located across from the main entrance. It’s one of my favorite places to visit at Patriots Point. The museum is dedicated to telling the stories of Medal of Honor recipients. Interactive displays explain the history of the medal given out since the Civil War, the first recipient, and stories of combat and courage that have led to the award going to hundreds of veterans.
At the rear of the USS Yorktown, near the fantail, is the small snack bar. You’ll find typical foods like chicken tenders, fries, and sandwiches, all made from frozen goods, that are about as good as you’ll find at a drive-in movie theater. It’s not bad food and keeps visitors fed while spending an entire day exploring the gargantuan aircraft carrier.
Hangar Bay #2
The hangar deck’s middle section will likely be the first aircraft you’ll encounter at Patriots Point. Several aircraft are on permanent display along with interpretive panels to explain their name and statistics.
The flight simulator is an enjoyable experience, although it’s not interactive. It’s not the kind of simulator where you can take the stick and pilot the simulator yourself – like the one where I turned upside down at the National Museum of the United States Air Force – but rather it’s like watching a movie in a chair that bobs up and down.
Hangar Bay #1
The hangar deck’s front has a few older aircraft on display and a large theater for historical movies. At least, I think that’s what it is for because I have never actually seen a movie on the large screen during all my visits.
Tucked into a corner is a recreation of the Apollo 8 capsule. On Christmas Day in 1968, the Apollo 8 returned after spending 20 hours orbiting the Moon. The USS Yorktown was assigned to retrieve the capsule and astronaut pilots upon their return. Take a seat inside the recreated capsule and listen to the actual radio transmissions during the mission!
Self-Guided Walking Tours
The USS Yorktown features six self-guided walking tours beginning on the Hangar Deck:
- Living and Working Areas
- Fire Room and Engine Room
- Flight Deck and Bridge
- Ship’s Memorials and Models
- Wardroom and Brig
- Charleston Naval Shipyard Museum
It will take around 4-6 hours to explore the exhibits, aircraft and walk the corridors and stairs of all six tours. If you have limited time to explore Patriots Point, I recommend taking Tour #1 and Tour #3. Each will take about an hour to explore and include the ship’s areas like the galley, enlisted quarters, machine shop, flight deck, and command bridge.
Tour #1 – Living and Working Areas
This is one of my favorite self-guided tours on the USS Yorktown. The tour descends into the lower decks and passes through the galley, cafeteria, crew quarters, and machine shops. It was my first introduction to narrow, steep staircases on a Navy vessel – and the low clearance bulkheads that someone of my height should avoid.
I love this tour because it shows the areas of the ship where the crew would have lived while not on duty; tables with board games, bunks stacked one atop of the other, and narrow passageways give you a great appreciation for anyone who served on a carrier.
Tour #2 – Fire Room and Engine Room
Fortunately for visitors to the USS Yorktown, the engines are quiet these days. But thanks to the downright gorgeous displays in the Engine Room Experience Exhibit, visitors can at least get an idea of what that roar sounded like.
The interactive exhibit is one of the best at Patriots Point. It brings to life what otherwise was nothing more than room after room of non-functional gauges and dials, making this another of my favorite tours on the USS Yorktown.
Tour #3 – Flight Deck and Bridge
This is the most popular self-guided tour on the USS Yorktown. The tour begins with passage through the pilot briefing room on the way to the flight deck.
You gain an appreciation for the sheer size of an aircraft carrier when you can freely walk across the 50,000 square-foot flight deck. The flight deck is so large that one time I visited, I found a homerun derby carried out on the deck – with baseballs plunging into Charleston Harbor.
Almost two dozen aircraft and helicopters are on display on the flight deck. They represent all the types of aircraft that were once deployed from the USS Yorktown, ranging from WWII props to Vietnam-era jet aircraft.
A final climb on the self-guided tours entered the bridge where the ship was steered. The captain’s chair has the best view on the ship with the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge stretching across the harbor!
Tour #4 – Ship’s Memorials and Models
Just because this tour includes model ships does not mean it should be overlooked. Display cases hold massive models of various Navy ships. It’s a great way to check out these ships’ design and function because many are not on display at any ship museum.
Tour #5 – Wardroom and Brig
Bright red bars locked across a black metal grid. That’s what I remember most about the self-guided tour through the brig. “Everyone misbehaves at some point,” an older man in a veteran’s hat once told me on tour.
This tour included the barbershop, something I think might have been a tailor’s shop, and a soda fountain. Yes, a soda fountain on an aircraft carrier.
From the 1940s until the 1980s, Charleston Naval Shipyard was the largest employer in the Lowcountry region and a vital Navy asset. This self-guided tour explores the shipyard’s history with interpretive displays explaining the types of ships built and converted at the shipyard.
Captain’s Tour of the USS Yorktown
I have always enjoyed the self-guided tours of the USS Yorktown, but I have to admit I was excited when I learned about the Captain’s Tour by Bulldog Tours. The local tour company offers a one-hour guided tour of the historic WWII-era aircraft carrier that includes exclusive access to areas of the ship and lots of great stories of the history of the USS Yorktown.
The tours cost $39 per adult and $29 per child, with discounts for seniors and military, and should be booked in advance to guarantee a spot for the day you want to visit. Since you still have to pay admission to enter Patriots Point, I think this guided tour is best for a second visit when you have more time to explore.
USS Laffey Destroyer
If ships could talk, the USS Laffey would have endless stories to tell. Commissioned in 1944, the Navy destroyer was immediately sent into the Atlantic theater to assist in D-Day landings in Normandy.
Later, the USS Laffey served in the Pacific theater until the end of the war, served as a support vessel during the atomic bomb tests, and served in the Korean War. The “Ship That Would Not Die” was named after Medal of Honor recipient Seaman Bartlett Laffey, a Civil War veteran.
The ship was retired in 1975 and six years later, sailed to Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum.
Touring the USS Laffey only takes about half an hour, but it’s still worth the effort to see inside this destroyer. The tour begins aft on the ship’s outer decks before heading inside to the Combat Information Center. A fascinating interactive display featuring a hologram takes visitors through the search for enemy submarines.
USS Clamagore Cold War Submarine
The USS Clamagore has a long – very long – history. Commissioned in 1945, the submarine served during the Cold War era when American and Soviet submarines patrolled the world’s oceans.
In 1975, the submarine was retired without ever serving in combat. Six years later, it sailed to Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum.
The self-guided tour on the USS Clamagore is the shortest and most difficult at Patriots Point. The passages are extremely narrow and hatches quite small. Standing at 6’1”, I actually found it difficult ducking through the hatches between each compartment throughout the submarine. Difficult, but not impossible.
The two largest compartments I found on the submarine were the mess hall – four tables with swivel chairs attached – and the torpedo room. Space was at a premium, and it was fascinating to see just how they utilized every cubic inch for storage, machinery, and living space.
Vietnam War Experience
Back on dry land, the 2.5-acre Vietnam War Experience is a recreation of a “Brown Water Navy” support base used during the war. It’s an interesting aspect of the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum and one I highly recommend all visitors explore, even if you are limited on time.
A wooden boardwalk winds through the camp past several buildings, vehicles, and helicopters. Step inside the Fire Control Bunker to see a video, explore the Mess Hall, or climb to the Observation Tower’s top to check out the entire camp. Climb aboard the UH-34 Sea Horse helicopter – you can even sit in the pilot’s seat – or take a walk through the CH-46 Sea Knight to see how medical patients were transported.
Tips for the Best Experience at Patriots Point
There is a lot to see and do at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, and it’s almost impossible to do it all with just one visit. Here are a few tips to make the most of your visit and give you the best experience.
- Arrive early and avoid holidays as they tend to be overwhelmingly busy.
- Wear closed-toed shoes. You’ll be walking up and down very steep metal staircases on the ships, and any other type of footwear could lead to injury.
- This is not a rainy day activity. Although portions of the tours are inside the ships, you’ll spend a great deal outside getting there, to begin with.
- Bring your own food and have a picnic! There are a couple of tables at the edge of the parking lot.
- Food is not allowed on the ships, but you can bring your own water, and I highly recommend it. Air conditioning is not available on the self-guided tours, and the ship’s bowels tend to get hot in the summer months.
- Visit the USS Yorktown first since that is where you’ll spend most of your time.