Though more commonly known as the home of the legendary Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island (283 Blvd. de France, 843/228-3650, www.mcrdpi.usmc.mil , free), the island is also of historic significance as the site of some of the earliest European presence in America. The U.S. Marine Corps began its association with Parris Island in 1891, though the island’s naval roots actually go back to its use as a coaling station during the long Union occupation.
By the outbreak of World War I, a full-blown military town had sprung up, now with its own presence on the National Register of Historic Places. In November 1915, Parris Island officially went in business as a recruit depot, and today it’s where all female Marine recruits and all male recruits east of the Mississippi River go through the grueling 13-week boot camp.
Currently about 19,000 recruits are processed each year—2,000 of them women—with almost every Friday during the year marking the graduation of a company of newly minted Marines. That’s why you might notice an influx of visitors to the area each Thursday, a.k.a. “Family Day,” with the requisite amount of celebration on Fridays after that morning’s ceremony. This begins a 10-day leave period, after which the recruits go to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Unlike many military facilities in the post-9/11 era, Parris Island still hosts plenty of visitors, about 120,000 a year. While the vast majority come by invitation only to witness one of the weekly graduations, there are a few important facilities of interest to the history buff. But word to the wise: Thursdays and Fridays can get crowded.
The Parris Island Museum (Bldg. 111, 111 Panama St., 843/228-2951, daily 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.) near the entrance not only lovingly details the entire U.S. military experience in the area, but also features many surprisingly good exhibits on the area’s earliest colonial history. The Spanish built Santa Elena directly on top of the original French settlement, Charlesfort. They then built two other settlements, San Felipe and San Marcos. All are now on the circa-1950s depot golf course and available to the public for self-guided tours.
Archaeological exploration has continued since 1979, with intensive research on the long-lost Santa Elena/Charlesfort site (http://santaelena.us ), now a National Historic Landmark, beginning in the late 1990s. Many artifacts are viewable at the nearby clubhouse/interpretive center (daily 7 a.m.–5 p.m.).
The Douglas Visitor Center (Bldg. 283, Blvd. de France, 843/228-3650, Mon. 7:30 a.m.–noon, Tues. and Wed. 7:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Thurs. 6:30 a.m.–7 p.m., Fri. 7:30 a.m.–3 p.m.) is a great place to find maps and touring information. All visitors to the Parris Island Recruit Depot must get a pass at the gate. You must have a valid driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. Rental car drivers must show a copy of the rental agreement.
Do not use your cell phone while driving. While Parris Island kindly welcomes visitors, be aware that all traffic rules within the camp are strictly enforced, and your vehicle is subject to inspection at any time.