Guide to Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site

Today I’m making an effort to practice what I preach and am exploring locally! Let’s kick off my South Carolina State Parks series by featuring Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site.

Tucked away off of a busy thoroughfare on the west side of Summerville, SC, this pre-Revolutionary war town and fort are only 35 minutes northwest of downtown Charleston and have none of the crowds to worry about.


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tabby fort with live oak trees and spanish moss with historical marker in foreground

Top 5 Know Before you Go Tips for Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site

  1. Small entry fee: $3 per adult, discounts for children and seniors, age 5 and under free (as of 2020)
  2. Large open field for kids (or pets) to run around. Pets are welcome so long as they’re polite!
  3. No boat access to the Ashley River from the park (but a public boat launch is only 5 minutes away).
  4. The historic oyster shell tabby fort and church bell tower ruins are the main attractions.
  5. Closes early for a park: 5PM (or 6PM during daylight savings)

How to get to Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site

This park is an easy 35min drive up I-26 from downtown Charleston, which places it a smidge inland of the center of South Carolina’s Atlantic coastline. The Colonial Dorchester Historic Site is on the Ashley River, one of the three main rivers that feed into Charleston Harbor.

If you’re coming from upstate, the drive is a straight shot down I-26. From Columbia it’s about a 1hr 45min drive; from Greenville or even Charlotte, it’s about 3 hours. If you’re coming from that far out, I recommend having other items on your to-do list.

The Charleston area has so much to offer, whether historical or outdoors or even just delicious food. If you’re also working your way through your South Carolina State Parks bucket list, the following are within an hour’s drive of Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site:

Ashley River with overhanging live oak and spanish moss

How much does it cost? Do I need a permit?

Colonial Dorchester Historic Site has a minimal $3 per adult entry fee. Seniors are half price at $1.50 and kids ages 6-15 are $1. Little ones age 5 and under are free! (Note: Prices current as of September 2020. Double check prices before you go.)

Pay online ahead of time, or there is a pay cash via envelope system at the park entrance gate. If you pre-purchase ahead of time, have the emailed receipt available to show as proof if requested by a park ranger.

We never saw a ranger (but it is 2020 and the world is upside down), so it seemed more on the honor system to pay the fee. It’s a reasonable and inexpensive fee that keeps this amazing park going. Be honest!

Fishing is allowed on the Ashley River in two specific locations within the park: behind the fort or beyond the restrooms. A freshwater fishing license is required. Prices vary for a fishing license based on residency. Learn more from the South Carolina DNR.

Brief History of the Park and Colonial Dorchester

The colonial town of Dorchester was a busy and prosperous trading village until it was occupied by the British and subsequently destroyed in the Revolutionary War. The town inexplicably never recovered after the war.

The land passed from owner to owner, with a few family plots in the cemetery from the 1800’s. Building materials were salvaged from the town ruins for homes in nearby Summerville. What was left of the town after that was mostly undisturbed and overgrown for many decades.

ruins of brick powder magazine from historic tabby walled-fort

While the town died, the name did not. The busy thoroughfare by the park entrance is Dorchester Road, and the park is located in Dorchester County.

The fort and church bell tower land was donated to the South Carolina State Parks Service in the 1960’s. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and the final land donation in 1982 brought the total park area to 325 acres. Ongoing archaeological work is uncovering history every day!

What to do at Colonial Dorchester

Take a self-guided stroll through colonial history. Pack a lunch and enjoy a picnic on the grass or at the picnic shelter. Tap into your inner archaeologist or photographer.

Pro Tip: If you are only interested in the walking history tour, you can be in and out of this park in 45min or less. Consider adding on a boating excursion at the nearby public boat launch or checking out another nearby state park or downtown Charleston.

Have a picnic

Pack a lunch and enjoy some time outside! Bring a picnic blanket and snag a spot under a tree by the fort or in the old market field. (Check for fire ant mounds first!) If you prefer a table, the picnic area is an option. Note there are no grills in the picnic area, and you are not allowed to bring one.

Self-guided Walking Tour

Begin at the entrance side of the parking lot, near the picnic area. There you will find the beginning of the historic walking tour and a pamphlet to guide you. The path circles clockwise around the park from this point.

You’ll start with the Ashley River. If you arrive at low tide, you can still see the original wooden wharf posts from the 1700’s. Turn right and follow the river to the oyster shell tabby fort.

Constructed by colonists before the town fell to the British in the Revolutionary War, this fort claims to be the best preserved oyster shell tabby fort in the country. Even President Teddy Roosevelt came to admire the fort when he was in town in 1902.

oyster shells in concrete wall
oyster shell tabby, a type of concrete used to construct the fort

Continuing on the tour, view exhibits for the Market Place (a large open field nowadays), a colonial house foundation, and an ongoing archaeological dig site at Lot 52. Rounding the corner, you’ll come upon the ruins of the St George’s Church bell tower. Built in 1751 and burned by the British in 1781, these ruins are over 250 years old and still standing!

The accompanying cemetery has 20 marked graves, varying in age from 1772 through 1920. The walking tour pamphlet also has the St George’s Church cemetery guide on the back. Don’t touch the gravestones! They are all fragile. The guide has each headstone’s inscription typed out so you don’t have to touch.

St George's Church bell tower ruins at Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site

Fishing

As mentioned, fishing is allowed on park grounds behind the Colonial Dorchester fort or behind the restrooms, past the picnic area. Be mindful though that the public boat launch is close by, just around the bend in the Ashley River.

Not being from the Lowcountry originally, I have a healthy amount of caution when it comes to the rivers. Alligators live here, and you’ll see signs in the park warning you about them. Use caution and pay attention if you do choose to fish here.

Historical Reenactments & Archaeology

Historical programs throughout the year provide an interactive look into the past, with guides dressed in colonial period clothing and reenacting scenes from colonial life. A schedule of events is always available on the Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site’s park website, but note that all events are currently canceled due to the pandemic.

If you’ve ever fancied the idea of trying out archaeology, then this park is neat treat for you! When there isn’t a global pandemic, the park offers programs for you to experience a day as an archaeologist. (No, not Indiana Jones but rather real archaeology.) Help out an archaeologist with digging, sifting dirt for buried treasure, and cleaning historical artifacts. School programs can be arranged by calling the rangers’ office.

Photography

Surrounded by both evergreen and deciduous trees, this park is the perfect backdrop for your photo shoot. The Colonial Dorchester bell tower ruins, cemetery, and tabby fort are all worthy of their own photo shoots if you prefer documenting history/buildings/places, and the aforementioned surrounding forest and river provide ample opportunity for landscapes.

Am I the only one that sees palm fronds in the underbrush and automatically thinks of Jurassic Park? Seriously, I half-expected to see a velociraptor pop out of the underbrush any minute… 😉

The lighting in the park changes significantly throughout the day due to the tree lines, but there is also a large open field so the park still gets bright, direct sunlight for part of the day.

Boating/Kayaking/Canoeing

While the Colonial Dorchester Historic Site does not have boat access to the river, the public boat launch is literally right around the corner from the park.

Once you’ve finished exploring Colonial Dorchester, turn right onto Dorchester Road and take another right at the 2nd traffic light onto Ladson Road (at the Hardee’s). The Herbert Jessen Public Boat Landing is at the end of this road.

Looking at the river, go left (downriver with the current towards Charleston) for a wider river. If you paddle long enough, you’ll pass the plantations: Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation, Drayton Hall. But beware, you’ll want a motor to get you back to the boat launch if you go that far downriver.

If you paddle right (upriver) from the boat launch, you will pass the Colonial Dorchester site on your right and then find the river narrows down, quite a bit narrower once you pass under the SC 165/Bacons Bridge Road bridge.


Wrap up your visit to Colonial Dorchester and head into Summerville, the self-proclaimed birthplace of sweet tea, for a cool beverage and dinner or to support one of the many local small businesses.

I hope this guide helped you plan your visit to this underrated state park! Check back next week for another installment in the South Carolina State Parks series!

Do you like historic parks? What about state parks in general? If not, what’s your ideal park experience?

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. kmf

    I’m all about history and have been exploring a lot of places on my Minnesota staycation. SC is on our list for when we can travel more freely again. Pinning for future reference.

    1. Rachel Means

      Thank you! South Carolina is full of history! You’ll love Charleston, and there’s more to come in my SC State Parks series!

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