How to Take the Ultimate South Carolina Road Trip
With scenic mountains to the north, secluded beaches to the east, and charming towns scattered in between, South Carolina has a variety of landscapes that suit every mood. Embark on a road trip through the Palmetto state, starting in the cultural capital of Greenville, and traveling south to discover magnificent waterfalls, cozy bed-and-breakfasts, southern history, equestrian traditions, and fresh seafood.
Located just outside of Greenville is Travelers Rest (or TR, as it's locally known), a place that once was just that — where travelers stopped along the way to rest. The town largely exploded when the Swamp Rabbit bike trail opened in 2009 and cyclists were looking for a place to grab a bite to eat before turning back to Greenville. Now, TR is a culinary destination of its own, home to many award-winning chefs including the 2020 James Beard-nominated best chef in the southeast, Adam Cooke of the trendy restaurant Topsoil Kitchen and Market. Other notable culinary stops include The Whistle Stop Café, where the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes" was filmed, Pink Mama's Ice Cream for Instagram-worthy homemade pink waffle cones, and a weekly farmers market featuring over 70 local vendors.
Settle for the night at Hotel Domestique, a European-style boutique hotel tucked at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, owned by legendary cyclist George Hincapie. You can get bike rentals, ride-along guides, and on-the-go lunches from the hotel and create your own bike tour through the mountains and trails of South Carolina.
Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway
Using TR as a base, explore hundreds of bridges, waterfalls, and state parks nearby, or move to one of the rustic mountain towns. A scenic 115-mile drive through Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway (aka Scenic Highway 11) is especially beautiful in the fall.
There are a number of overlooks and historic points along the way worth stopping for as well. Check out Campbell's Covered Bridge, Stumphouse Mountain Park, Issaqueena Falls, Chattooga Belle Farm, Jones Gap State Park, and Jumping Off Rock, to name a few. Depending on the season, you may even get to pick your own apples or peaches while driving through the charming two-lane road.
A South Carolina road trip isn't complete without a stop in the capital city of Columbia. Columbia's small downtown is filled with culture and history. Visit the exhibits at the Columbia Museum of Art that often feature Black voices in the arts, and Immersion SC, a new interactive art space with rooms transformed by the brilliant imaginations of local artists. The downtown area is pedestrian friendly and the South Carolina State House and the African-American History Monument are worth a visit. Another good way to learn about the history of the South is by taking a guided walking tour around historic mansions and gardens with educational nonprofit Historic Columbia.
Stay at the art-deco Hotel Trundle, a vibrant boutique hotel built in a former historic Western Auto building to showcase the community's arts, crafts, and libations. To get a flavor of the local atmosphere, spend Saturday morning at Soda City Market located nextdoor. Here you will witness the rich diversity of Columbia exhibited by over 150 vendors selling artisan products, international foods, and handmade crafts.
Kick back with an ice tea and pimento cheese dip, pimento cheese sandwich, pimento cheese pizza, pimento cheese wrap, or a pimento cheese biscuit — they've got it all. Also known as "Carolina caviar" or "Southern pate," pimento cheese has its origins back in Columbia and you can find all the restaurants that serve the best recipes on the pimento cheese passport.
Congaree National Park
About half an hour outside Columbia in the lush backcountry is Congaree National Park, where you can see the largest intact old growth bottomland hardwood forests in the southeastern United States. Spend a day hiking, canoeing, or kayaking along 25 miles of swamps and forests. If you are at Congaree in late May to early June, you can also watch a magical firefly synchronization mating phenomenon that occurs at only a few spots around the world.
Many locals from central South Carolina head to Lake Murray to their weekend homes for fishing, swimming, and boating on the 50,000-acre reservoir lake. Rent a lakeside villa, camp a tent, and spend some time at Dreher Island State Park.
Here you can also observe one of the biggest purple martins roosting sites in North America. Take a boat tour to Bomb Island on Lake Murray between June and August to see 500,000 to 750,000 purple martins dotting the skies.
Marked by its magnolia- and oak tree-lined streets, Aiken is a picturesque small town in the heart of Thoroughbred Country. Horse farms and historic homes date back to the post-Civil War "Winter Colony Era" and now attract race horse owners from all over the world, including Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of the Emirate of Dubai. Aiken offers year-round equestrian events, first class polo, fox hunting, and horseback riding lessons for all levels. Ride, hike, or jog through 70 miles of trails that run through Hitchcock Woods, one of America's largest urban forests. Spend an afternoon strolling through the elegant Oak Alley at Hopelands Gardens, take a tour on the Aiken Trolley, and explore the laid-back culinary scene downtown.
Lodging options at Aiken include the romantic Willcox Hotel and the comfortably elegant Carriage House Inn, both located in the heart of historic downtown.
Hilton Head Island
End your road trip across South Carolina at its southernmost family-friendly beach town. The best way to explore the island is on a bike, traversing along 200 miles of pathways, trails, and hard-packed sand beaches. Hilton Head Island is the perfect place for an active outdoor vacation where you can swim, kayak, play tennis, and golf at award-winning championship courses. The relaxed, small town atmosphere welcomes beachgoers at casual waterfront bars and serves sustainable, fresh-caught Lowcountry seafood. Hilton Head's white sand beaches, wildlife-filled marshlands, idyllic marinas, and distinctive sunsets make it one of the prettiest vacation destinations.