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Cape Romain’s Boneyard Beach: Thorny’s reluctant sunrise outing becomes an amazing day

When Wandering Rose Travels contributor Jim suggested a couples trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I was giddy. My head filled with visions of strolling among historic homes and feasting on culinary delights. The visions came to a quick halt when Jim stated the trip theme: viewing sunrise on Boneyard Beach, part of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge 20 miles north of Charleston.

Sunset excites me. Sunrise, not so much. This sunrise in particular involves getting out of a soft, warm bed at 3 a.m., driving to a dock, catching a ferry to a remote island and riding in a wagon to remote Boneyard Beach (all in cold and pitch black darkness). While thinking up a clever excuse to decline, B blurted out, “We’d love to.”

You probably know the end of this story … the tale of how a reluctant sunrise watcher becomes a convert and now wants the world to know: Sunrise on Boneyard Beach is an absolute bucket list experience.

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Pre-sunrise at Cape Romain's Boneyard Beach.
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The first look at sunrise.
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Sunrise reveals dead trees shaped by erosion, giving Boneyard Beach its name.

Best place to see sunrise in Charleson, SC

Boneyard Beach sits on an undeveloped barrier island accessible only by private boat or a ferry operated by Coastal Expeditions. With 16 miles of trail and 7 miles of shoreline, visitors get up close and personal with the island’s many bird species (including bald eagles), alligators, otters and dolphins. Beyond its wildlife, beachcombing here is the best we’ve ever seen.

Ferry service runs to the island daily. Once a month, timed with low tide, Coastal Expeditions runs a special trip for sunrise. These often sell out, so book in advance if you wish to go. The cost is a very reasonable $40. Boat captains provide running commentary about the island and its critical impact on nature and wildlife.

Arriving at the beach in total darkness, I soon witnessed pre-sunrise for the first time. During this period prior to the sun’s arrival, the first hints of light appear in the sky and everything takes on a magical glow. As the sun appeared I began to understand where the term Boneyard Beach comes from … surrounding us were giant downed trees, victims of beach erosion. Continual ocean wave sculpting creates beautiful driftwood and what seem to be whimsical wood carvings.

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Thorny's conversion to a sunrise lover happens as nature continues its amazing show.
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Salt water has killed these trees but somehow they stay upright despite daily wave pounding.
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Sunrise reveals how Boneyard Beach got its name.

Sunrise also revealed the greatest collection of shells we have ever seen. Visitors are allowed to take home one small bag of shells. B and I excitedly began collecting the most intact conch shells we’ve ever seen when Jenifer asked, “Why are you collecting those. They have small holes and imperfections.” “Because,” we exclaimed, “though imperfect, these are the best conch shells that we have ever seen.” “Be patient,” Jenifer advised, “there will be plenty of perfect shells.” She was so right.

Shore birds entertained us while we shelled. Or maybe we entertained them. We hoped to spot an alligator on our return to the ferry dock, but not this day. Jim visits the island often (read his article here) and frequently spots alligators. This is a great adventure for any age. Many of those on the ferry ride with us were repeat visitors. We’ll still revere Charleston for its history and dining delights, but Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is worth extending your trip to include.

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Conch shells cover the beach. This was NOT staged. Nature prepared this beautiful display for us.
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Shorebirds entertained while we shelled.
Driftwood, shaped by sea waves, seems carved by an artist into a whimsical sea creature.

Tips for visiting Cape Romain/Boneyard Beach

A shuttle drops Boneyard sunrise watchers off close to the beach, but it’s a 2-mile trek from beach to ferry landing so be prepared for walking. There are no concessions on the island so bring water, snacks and lunch if you plan to spend the day.

  • Watch the weather and dress for hiking. Long pants and long sleeves are recommended
  • Wear hiking boots or walking shoes (not flip-flops) and hat. Your feet will likely get wet. Our waterproof hiking boots kept our feet warm and dry.
  • Bring water or sports drink, lunch or snacks
  • Don’t forget insect repellent and sunscreen
  • Take binoculars and camera


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