Family Beach Guide:

All the local info you'll need for the summer

  • Four-year-old Tucker Little may not have been aware that Kiawah's Beachwalker Park was named one of the nation's top ten beaches -- but he does seem to know how to take advantage of a sand castle and moat someone else left behind.

W e all cherish the memories of our own trips to the beach as children. As parents, we all hope to create the same memories with our own children: The family wagon packed to the gills with chairs and coolers and tote bags and towels and rafts and toys and sunscreen. Kids squirming with excitement as you idle through beach-going traffic. Lugging a mountain of stuff up over the dunes and down the beach. Playing in the waves, digging holes in the sand and building castles. The sandy shorts and tired babies on the way home.

Whether you live here in the Lowcountry or are just visiting, a trip to the beach is a summertime necessity.

But where to go? What to bring? What are the rules? Here in the Lowcountry, you've got plenty of options. Just like a bunch of siblings, our beaches and barrier islands have their own unique personalities, their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. You can choose one to visit based not only on which is closest, but also which might be best for your particular family.

Branch out this summer and take the kids across town to look for shells on a less popular beach, or pack a picnic and head to your usual sandy haunt.

Either way, we've got you covered with all the info you'll need on the beaches this summer. Here are our top picks for your family trip to the beach.

Kiawah Island

Though much of Kiawah Island is a private, gated community, Kiawah Beachwalker Park is open to the public. That's a good thing: Year after year, this county park gets national attention for being repeatedly selected as a Top 10 beach in the country. Beachwalker might be the area's most popular spot for families, and for locals seeking a quieter, more convenient beach experience.

Pros: Large designated swimming area, dressing rooms, outdoor showers, restrooms, picnic area with grills, snack bar and beach chair and umbrella rentals.

Cons: The public beach is a hike from Charleston, though the drive is a scenic one.

Ways to play: Head to nearby Freshfields Village for numerous dining options, including Vincent's Soda Fountain, plenty of resort-style shopping and free events like the starlight cinema and summer concert series.

Parking: Beach parking lot costs $8 to park; free for county park Gold Pass holders.

Dog policy: Must be leashed at all times.

Sullivan's Island

Arguably the most historically significant of the area islands (African slaves were once quarantined here, it also boasts Fort Moultrie and association with Edgar Allan Poe.), Sullivan's Island has become notorious for its kiteboarding, stand-up paddleboarding, mid-morning dog walking and varied bar and restaurant scene.

Families appreciate its large sandbars that keep the waves small and more manageable for little ones and frequent tidal pools that act as nature's kiddie pools. The island's historical importance gives parents the chance to incorporate a little learning in a fun day in the sun.

Pros: Ample beach space thanks to the jetties constructed by the federal government in the late 19th Century that cause sand to build up on Sullivan's and erode on Folly.

Cons: Traffic can stack up when the Ben Sawyer Bridge swing span opens for boats to pass on the Intracoastal Waterway; no lifeguards, centralized parking area or facilities such as changing rooms, restrooms or showers.

Ways to play: When it's windy (which is most summer afternoons), the sky is filled with kites from boarders departing from Station 29. Kids will love traditional kites on the beach, too. When your stomach starts rumbling, check out charming Middle Street for the town's collection of popular restaurants and beach bars. For a history break, check out nearby Fort Moultrie, built during the Revolutionary War, and visit the grave of Seminole Chief Osceola.

Parking: No municipal parking lot here. Plan to search for a spot on the street and remember to keep all four tires off the pavement to avoid a ticket.

Dog policy: Dog owners must get a Sullivan's Island dog tag, which costs $35 per dog and requires proof of rabies vaccine and insurance. From May 1 to September 30, dogs are allowed off-leash 5-10 a.m., not allowed on beach 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., and allowed on leash 6 p.m.-5 a.m.

Isle of Palms

This 7-mile long island, which used to be called “Long Island,” draws a mix of tourists and locals for an array of activities, from music, beach volleyball and surfing (particularly longboards) to golf and tennis. The area in front of Isle of Palm's four-block commercial strip is known as “Front Beach” and offers an array of shops and restaurants. The nearby Isle of Palms County Park makes this beach ideal for families with facilities such as restrooms, dressing rooms, picnic areas and playgrounds. Wild Dunes Resort, which is gated, takes up the back half of the Isle of Palms, but the beach in front of the community is not off limits—so have at it!

Pros: Lifeguards on the beach near the park and beachgoers can rent chairs and umbrellas. Opportunities for both people watching and being virtually alone.

Cons: That centralized parking and commercial activity can lead to a crowded beach—especially on Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends—from 10th Avenue to 21st Avenue.

Ways to play: The Front Beach commercial district has everything from hotdogs to ice cream along with shops and three beach volleyball courts. Surfing spots include beach areas at 7th, 25th and 30th avenues. Some kiteboarders launch from Third Avenue.

Parking: Ample paid parking at Isle of Palms County Park and city lots off of Ocean Boulevard and Pavilion Drive.

Dog policy: Dogs are allowed off leash 5-8 a.m. April 1-Sept. 14 and 4-10 p.m. Sept. 15- March 31, though dog owners must have leash in hand, have their dog under voice command and must clean up excrement. At all other times, dogs must be on leash and under complete control, even in the water.

Edisto Beach

Sometimes called the Mayberry by the Sea, Edisto is known for quiet vistas, uncrowded shoreline, great shelling and surf fishing.

Pros: A great escape not far from town, virtually no traffic other than golf carts, free parking.

Cons: Only a handful of choices for dining— pack some of your snacks. No lifeguards.

Ways to play: Check out Edisto Beach State Park for its famed, secluded shelling spots. When you're done laying in the sun, take the kids to the Edisto Island Museum and Edisto Island Serpentarium for more fun.

Parking: Some off-street parking at beach access points.

Dog policy: Must be leashed between May 1 and Oct. 31.

Folly Beach

Known as “The Edge of America,” Folly Beach draws tourists, college kids, surfers, residents of James Island, West Ashley and North Charleston for its surfing, beach bars and pier fishing. Unfortunately, Hurricane Irene damaged Folly Beach County Park so severely in August 2011 that the park was closed until further notice. Thanks to recent revitalization efforts, the beach park was expectd to reopen July 3. Keep up with the progress at ccprc.com/BringBackTheBeach. Families can still find plenty of room on the beach along the rest of the island, however.

As one of the region's most well-known and popular beach spots, Folly has drawn big crowds over the years, including plenty of families. But sometimes the scene at Folly can trend decidedly adult, and the town has struggled with unruly beachgoers, alcohol use and litter. A recent ban on alcohol on the beach has tempered the atmosphere, but Folly's reputation as a party beach remains intact.

Even so, Folly has plenty to offer beach-going families. When picking a spot on the beach, look for clusters of other families, then spread out, lay back and enjoy the spectacle.

Pros: Fun, laid-back and funky. Lifeguards at the pier.

Cons: Traffic, crowds, party scene, parking can be scarce.

Ways to play: The Edwin S. Taylor Folly Beach Fishing Pier is always a hit for a day of reeling in some big ones with the family. Wander to the east end of the beach to check out the surfing at “The Washout,” arguably the premier surfing spot within at least a hundred miles in both directions. At the far east end of the beach, a short stroll off the road will provide the best view of the iconic Morris Island Lighthouse (and a great shelling spot.) When you're not on the sand, take a walk down Center Street for restaurants and crowd favorites such as Rita's, Taco Boy and Lost Dog Café.

Parking: Arrive early to nab an $8 spot at the Folly Beach Fishing Pier (free for county park Gold Pass holders) for easy access to restrooms and showers. If you have cash and lots of gear, try the lots at any beach access point for $1 an hour. Park for free in the grass along any of Folly's streets, but make sure all four tires are off the pavement and you're not blocking a driveway to avoid a ticket.

Dog policy: Dogs are not allowed on the beach 10 a.m.-6 p.m. from May 1 to Sept. 30, but dogs on leashes are allowed at other times.

Beaches by boat

If you've got access to a boat, you can join the locals at some of the area's popular boat-only beaches and barrier islands. Dewees, Capers, Morris and Bull's islands are accessible only by boat. Dewees is a private residential island, but the beach is public. Capers and Bull's are part of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

Pros: Great places for nature lovers and surf fishing.

Cons: Aside from figuring out a way to get there, be prepared for bugs. If you surf on Bull's, don't be surprised to see a few sharks.

Ways to play: Sandy Point at the northern tip of Kiawah Island ranks as one of the area's top boating destinations for families. You can reach that section of beach by foot, but it's a long, impractical hike. The tip of the island features a great creek on the inland side of the island with a sheltered beach.

Morris Island is a popular party spot for boaters near Fort Sumter, and on any given weekend, you might spot some families out there. But like some parts of Folly Beach, the scene can get a bit racy.

Dog policy: Varies, with heavy fines for letting dogs run free on islands deemed bird sanctuaries.

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