Beautiful shorelines and dreamy marshes dot South Carolina’s idyllic Atlantic coast. But there’s much more to experience in the Palmetto State, named for the trees that became a symbol of liberty because of their ability to absorb the force of British cannonballs during the 1776 battle at Fort Moultrie.

Look beyond showstopping destinations such as Charleston and Myrtle Beach and you can enjoy dozens of hidden gems and nature escapes in the state.  From iconic gardens to jaw-dropping sunsets and action-packed thrill rides, here are the best activities to add to your itinerary the next time you visit South Carolina.

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Snap a photo in front of the giant peach

More than 30 types of peaches are grown across South Carolina, and the peach is the state's official fruit. Peaches became such a staple that in 1981, a massive 135ft water tower beside I-85 South in the town of Gaffney – just 45-minutes south of Charlotte, NC – was transformed to look like a giant peach.

It's become a tradition to snap a photo of the iconic Peachoid; you can get closest to the peach via exits 90 to 92, along the Cherokee Hills Scenic Highway. 

Baskets of peaches from South Carolina on sale at a local farmer's market
You'll see peaches for sale everywhere in South Carolina in the summertime © Meryl Russo / iStockphoto / Getty Images

Take the entire family fruit picking

People from near and far travel to York County, South Carolina – just across the border from the southern end of Charlotte – to spend an entire day picking fresh fruit on some of the county’s long-established family-owned farms.

Bush-N-Vine has been growing a fine assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables since 1979, and members of the public are invited to pick their own produce.

The most popular picking crops are strawberries (from fall until early July) and blueberries (starting in mid-May). While you're there, pop into the farm's country store for a freshly made strawberry soft serve ice cream or a raspberry blendie (a mix of ice cream and raspberry-flavored iced slushy).

Also look out for stalls and stores selling freshly picked peaches across the state from June to September.

See every species of swan at the state’s longest-running festival

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the state's Iris Festival in the town of Sumter, located 45 miles from Columbia, SC. This three-day event, typically held over the Memorial Day weekend, features over 120 species of Japanese iris growing along the banks of the Swan Lake Iris Gardens.

The park is also the only place in the United States where you can see all eight of the known species of swans. Local vendors and artisans set up throughout the garden, but since the park is considered a bird sanctuary, pets are not allowed on the grounds.

Colorful mass of hot air balloons in the air in South Carolina
Colorful hot air balloons fill the skies every year for the Aiken Hot Air Balloon Fest © EPG_EuroPhotoGraphics / Shutterstock

Enjoy unique views of South Carolina from above at the Aiken Hot Air Balloon Fest

Just under 20 miles from the city of Augusta, Georgia, Aiken is the fourth-largest county in the state, and every year in late April, locals head out to the Western Carolina Fairgrounds to participate in the area’s two-day hot air balloon festival.

This family-friendly day of fun features live music, a kid’s zone with rides and games, local food vendors, and the opportunity to tick off a bucket-list-worthy experience – riding in a tethered hot air balloon. The showstopper is the night show, where dozens of larger-than-life balloons take to the skies for a spectacle unlike any other. 

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Enjoy a romantic couples' boat ride at Cypress Gardens

Head about an hour north of Charleston to check out backdrops from one of the most romantic movies of recent years – The Notebook, starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.

The cult movie, based on the novel by Nicholas Parks, was filmed at several locations in the state’s Low Country, including Cypress Gardens. Grab your significant other and row across the same lake where Noah took Allie during their emotional reunion.

Located in the town of Moncks Corner, the gardens are home to cypress and Tupelo trees that line a dark but beautiful swamp. There are guided and self-guided boat tours across the swamplands; keep an eye out for the birds, turtles and alligators that live in the waters.

A father and daughter riding a bike on the sand at Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Kiawah Island is an exclusive address, but the sands at Beachwalker Park are open to all © Ash Lindsey Photography / Getty Images

Live like a star for a day on Kiawah Island – South Carolina's best-kept secret

One of South Carolina’s wealthiest and most exclusive zip codes, Kiawah Island is a paradisaical escape, just 40-minutes southwest of Charleston's busy neighborhoods.

While outsiders can't freely drive around the island – there's a guard station at the main entrance checking renters' and residents' passes – the public are welcome to visit the sandy shore at Beachwalker Park. Bring your beach chairs or blanket, and pack a picnic-style lunch for a day-long island getaway. There’s a lifeguard on duty daily and pets are welcome.

Get your adrenaline pumping at South Carolina's largest theme park

While it technically straddles the border between North Carolina and South Carolina, Carowinds is a must for the entire family. Located off exit 90 on I-77, this 407-acre theme park provides hours of thrills for all ages, from coasters to water slides.

Come for over-the-top, funfair-inspired bites like funnel cakes loaded with whipped cream, strawberries and ice cream, and more than 55 adrenaline-pumping rides, including the Fury 325 coaster and an entire set of rides and experiences specifically geared toward younger children.

The park is also home to Carolina Harbor, the largest water park in North and South Carolina. When you've had enough of adrenaline-pumping thrills, sit down for a themed show or come back for Halloween when the park transforms into "Scarowinds" with a selection of harvest-themed and haunted attractions.

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Tour one of Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite stops

The historical Penn Center on St Helena Island is one of many places that inspired Dr Martin Luther King Jr to write his famous I Have a Dream speech. The civil rights leader is said to have visited the Penn Center at least five times.

Dotted with more than 25 buildings and structures, this 50-acre property offers an in-depth look at the triumphs and struggles faced by the area's Gullah people on the journey from enslavement to freedom. It's the site of Penn School – one of the first educational centers in the American South to provide formal schooling to formerly enslaved people.

Located an hour and a half southwest of Charleston in Beaufort, the center offers guided tours and an on-site museum and visitor center.

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