Beckoning with golden sands, swaying palms, and lapping surf, South Carolina’s beaches may be the playground for hordes of summer enthusiasts – but there’s more to the state than a sandy coastline.

Miles of rivers and plenty of lakes, waterfalls and swamps – as well as some of the nation’s best water parks – provide irresistible ways to float and splash around even at the intense height of summer.

Here are seven ways to experience the waters of South Carolina beyond the beach.

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Take a sunset sail in Charleston (and beyond)

When it comes to sunset sails, Charleston wins hands down in the romance department. Sip chilled white wine with the breeze blowing across your face and take in the steepled city skyline as vivid reds and purples paint the sunset sky.

There are all kinds of sailing outfitters, but you can’t go wrong with Schooner Pride, a three-mast tall ship, powered only by the wind, that offers two-hour evening sails. Full moon and daytime dolphin sails are available as well.

Hilton Head is another sailing hub and its assortment of breeze-swept possibilities include standard sunset sails, of course, but also: a shrimp trawling expedition aboard the Tammy Jane; a sail across Calibogue Sound aboard an authentic America’s Cup 39ft racing yacht; and a deep-sea fishing excursion with Capt. Miles Altman of Bay Runner Charters.

Lake Murray is a hub of fishing, boating, and swimming, but that’s not what makes this lake 15 miles north of Columbia so entrancing. At dusk in July or August, hop aboard a boat and you’re in for a treat.

At first, it’s no big deal – you spot one or two birds flitting in the twilight sky. But soon, thousands of purple martins return from their daily hunting expeditions to the lake’s Doolittle Island, their summer home: America’s largest purple martin sanctuary.

Screeching and calling, the birds cavort in the sky, dipping and swooping and diving in one of the greatest wildlife spectacles around. You can rent boats at a number of outfitters, including Better Boating Rental; or join a pontoon tour with Capt. Zach Steinhauser, a naturalist and USCG captain with Purple Martin Tours.

Tall trees with light filtering through in Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Feel all the urban stress melt away beneath the tall trees of Congaree National Park © SUNGJIN AHN PHOTOGRAPHY / Getty Images

Paddle among very tall trees at Congaree National Park

Upland pines, bald cypresses, and water tupelos tower above the still, dark, nutrient-rich waters of Congaree National Park, comprising the US’s largest tract of old-growth bottomland forest. The trees here are magnificent: upland pines, bald cypresses, and water tupelos, some specimens of which are larger than any other in the US – including one loblolly pine looming 17 floors.

You can walk some 20 miles of trails that criss-cross the park, including an elevated boardwalk, but hands down the best way to explore this primeval realm is by kayak or canoe along the easy, 6-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail snaking through the park.

If you’re lucky, you’ll spy along the way a feral hog, black bear, and/or many of the park’s 130 kinds of birds. You’ll need to bring your own kayak or canoe, rent one in Columbia, or join a guided paddling tour with the NPS ranger-led tour.

The more intrepid might consider the Congaree River Blue Trail, a 50-mile designated route that connects the state capital of Columbia with the national park. The urban vibe gives way downstream to high bluffs and floodplain, introducing you slowly to the park’s prehistoric wildlands.

South Carolina’s best hikes

Splash under a waterfall

A sylvan woods laced with a spectacular waterfall may not be the first image that jumps to mind when you’re picturing sultry, palmetto-bedecked South Carolina. But, especially in the Upstate – where the landscapes infringe on the dramatic Blue Ridge – you’ll discover a plethora of woodlands speckled with glittering creeks and, yes, dramatic falls.

To pack a lot of punch, head to Greenville, a hub of easily accessible waterfalls. The centerpiece is Reedy River Falls, in the heart of town, with the best views from Liberty Bridge in Falls Park. Seek out Long Creek Falls, a 50ft double drop in Sumter National Forest that awards an hour’s hike.

Rainbow Falls in Jones Gap State Park is a bit harder to reach, involving a 2.2-mile trek and a 1200ft climb, but the payoff is a 100ft falls tumbling down a granite grotto.

Perhaps the most spectacular, Lower Whitewater Falls drops 200ft into Jocassee Gorges – a splendid 2-mile hike that brings you up close to the natural splendor.

Father and son fishing at sunset; inland bay near Charleston; South Carolina; USA
Fans of fishing will not be disappointed by South Carolina's numerous beautiful lakes © Alamy Stock Photo

Fish in world-class waters

Die-hard anglers know South Carolina is a force to be reckoned with, and that in this fishing paradise, Lake Marion in Santee State Park – the state’s “inland sea” – is the place to go for largemouth bass, stripers, crappie, perch and blue gill.

Night angling is also popular, as that’s when the catfish get nippy. Accommodations here include both campsites and waterside cabins (where you can cast a rod straight from your doorstep).

Accompanying family members or friends who prefer to look at rather than fish can rent a kayak, canoe, pontoon boat or even a jet ski and cruise over to the flooded cypress forest in the middle of the lake. But just a head’s up – people will be fishing there, too.

Other favorite fishing holes include Lake Murray, a reservoir created in the ‘30s to provide hydroelectric power. This expanse of water (famous for the purple martins mentioned above) hosts world-class fishing tournaments – though first-time anglers have good luck too.

Lake Moultrie, the state’s third largest lake, is another popular spot for fishing and other water sports. You’ll need a South Carolina fishing license to fish these lakes.

Best places to visit in South Carolina

Dive for treasures at Devils Fork State Park

In the Upstate, the highlight of Devils Fork State Park is Lake Jocassee, a spring-fed beauty artificially created in the early ‘70s, right when Deliverance was being filmed (this site makes a cameo).

The waters here are clear and calm as quartz, and therefore ideal for dropping down to the depths and having a look at the exotic, sunken treasures. There’s a submerged cemetery and a half-flooded, abandoned water-treatment facility, to which Lake Jocassee Dive Shop offers descents. The odd curious bream might approach, begging for a freshwater clam.

Those who’d rather be above the water can attempt the stand-up paddleboard, and anglers will also appreciate the trout. For the divers seeking even more of a challenge, head over to the Cooper River near Charleston to muck around for prehistoric shark teeth. You’ll need a permit for this as well.

South Carolina’s best road trips

A group of people whitewater rafting on the Chattooga River
The Chattooga River has every kind of rapid for all skill sets © Frans Lemmens / Getty Images / Corbis Unreleased

Raft down the Chattooga River

South Carolina’s only white-water river is one of the best in the whole country, so it’s little wonder that Congress declared it a National Wild and Scenic River. The Chattooga River has been protected from development of dams since 1974, and it flows freely out of North Carolina’s Appalachians for some 50 miles to Tugaloo Lake, on the border of South Carolina and Georgia.

Within South Carolina, a 26-mile stretch of river is ride-worthy, with everything from gentle class I–III rapids for families and novices to knuckle-bleaching class IV–V rapids, including the famous Five Falls that will appeal to (and possibly toss) the experts.

Diehards can camp by the river, or stay in yurts, cottages or log cabins run by the adventure outfitter Wildwater Chattooga, which also organizes and guides the rafting trips.

Cool off the kids at Myrtle Waves Water Park

Splashing down a slippery slide, surfing a veritable wave, or lolling in a lazy river are kid-approved ways of beating the summer heat. And South Carolina has an inordinate number of water parks to do just that.

Water park central is Myrtle Beach, with 10 or so parks lining Ocean Boulevard. Here, the state’s largest park is Myrtle Waves Water Park, where you can spiral down a twisty slide at 50ft per second, shoot down a 20ft-long chute ending with a pool plunge, and practice your surfing moves on a wave.

Other fun options include Coral Beach Resort, especially popular among families; Wild Water and Wheels, a profusion of slides and pools; and Grande Cayman Resort, a more budget-friendly option.

But Myrtle Beach doesn’t have a corner on all the fun. You’ll find other parks sprinkled throughout the state, including Whirlin’ Waters Adventure Waterpark in North Charleston, featuring a multi-slide complex and a treehouse with jets and waterwheels; and Neptune Island Waterpark in Hartsville, with a pirate-themed splash pad and lazy river.

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