We’d been to Kiawah, a barrier island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, dozens of times. With its 10 mile-long pristine, unspoiled beach, Kiawah is our favorite coastal destination in the South. On all our visits, however, we’d never seen the Angel Oak Tree. Although it’s billed as a revered Charleston landmark, we not only hadn’t seen it, we’d somehow never even heard of it.
That lack of information changed when I attended a presentation at the Mint Museum Randolph by Jennifer Appleby, president and chief creative officer of Wray Ward, a marketing and advertising agency in Charlotte. She showed work samples for a client who makes home fashions, and the print ad that caught my eye was of a woman posed serenely in a bed set against an impossibly thick tree trunk. She said the tree was the Angel Oak Tree, and it was ancient, legendary, and a sight to behold. Finding it sounded easy enough, as it’s situated on the adjacent Johns Island just off the main road to Kiawah and Seabrook islands.
By happy coincidence, we’d already scheduled a weekend road trip to Kiawah with our friend, Ter, so we added a visit to the tree to our itinerary. Shortly after we turned onto Bohicket Road from Highway 17, we focused our gazes on the right side of the road and soon spotted the small, unassuming sign for the Angel Oak Tree. We’d obviously driven past the sign many times and quite possibly had noticed it, but we hadn’t given it a second thought. This time, we obeyed its instructions and turned right onto a nondescript dirt road named, appropriately enough, Angel Oak Road.
We drove about a quarter of a mile along a secluded wooded area. On our right we began seeing what looked like lengthy, thick, twisty branches of a tree. Where, we wondered, did they emanate from? How could they be so incredibly long?
And then we saw it. More broad and wide than tall, and with an extensive canopy, the Angel Oak Tree is, in a word, otherworldly. With gnarled limbs, many of them weighted down by age and undulating under ground, on the ground, and into the air, the tree is something akin to a petrified octopus.
Massive, stalwart, and, yes, even a little eerie, this imposing Southern live oak is believed to be at least 500 years old. Some speculate the tree is as old as 1,500 years. In any case, it’s old, one of the oldest living things in the country apparently, and certainly east of the Mississippi River. The name is said to trace back to one of the land’s early owners, Martha and Justis Angel. Or does it? I’ve since read that local lore claims angels tend to gather around the tree.
Photos simply can’t do it justice. Awesome has become a vastly overused word nowadays, but it aptly describes this grand behemoth. Consider the stats:
- Stands 66.5 feet tall
- Measures 28 feet in circumference
- Produces shade covering 17,200 square feet
- From tip to tip, its longest branch distance is 187 feet
The Angel Oak Tree is such an imposing work of nature. Frankly, what surprised us most was that it actually was still in existence despite withstanding centuries of hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and the threat of humans wielding axes or driving bulldozers.
From now on when we visit Kiawah, the sand and surf will have to wait. A pilgrimage to pay our respects to the Angel Oak Tree comes first.