It used to be that travelers considered South Carolina to be a destination popular only for palm-studded beaches, but there’s more to the state than just sandy coastline. Offering miles of rivers and plenty of lakes and swamps to splash around in, here are five ways to experience the inland waters of South Carolina.
South Carolina’s only white water river is one of the best in the whole country, so it’s little wonder that scenes from Deliverance were filmed here (key the banjo) and Congress declared it a 'National Wild and Scenic River'. The Chattooga River has been protected from development of damming since 1974, and it free-flows 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 the 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, to 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.
Travelers on a rafting trip in South Carolina. Image courtesy of South Carolina PRT.
For fishing largemouth bass, Lake Marion in Santee State Park is the spot. Naturally, the lake with big fish is also the state’s biggest lake, and accommodations here include both campsites and waterside cabins (these allow you to cast a rod straight from your doorstep). Night angling is especially popular, as that’s when the catfish get nippy. Accompanying family members or friends who prefer to look at rather than ensnare nature 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 heads up, people will be fishing there, too. Other fishing holes include Lake Moultrie, the state’s third largest lake, and Lake Murray, a reservoir created in the 20s to provide hydroelectric power. You’ll need a South Carolina fishing license to fish these lakes.
A paddle boarder admiring a waterfall in South Carolina. Image courtesy of South Carolina PRT.
In the Upcountry, the highlight of Devil’s Fork State Park is Lake Jocassee, a spring-fed beauty artificially created in the early 70s, right when Deliverance was being filmed (and this site, too, 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 Chinese junk, a submerged cemetery and half-flooded, abandoned water-treatment facility, to which Lake Jocassee Dive Shop offers descents. 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 challenge, head over to the Cooper River to muck around for megalodon teeth. You’ll need a permit for this as well.
Ever felt like gliding through a nutrient-rich, black-water floodplain amongst a mighty impressive collection of ‘champion’ trees? By champion, we mean the biggest, thickest, bushiest tree of a given species. Congaree National Park happens to be home to the most champions of any park in North America, and also the largest expanse of old growth, bottomland forest in the southeastern United States. The canoeing happens on Cedar Creek, a 27-mile waterway that snakes through all those upland pines, bald cypresses and water tupelos, either via the ranger-led Wilderness Canoe Tour or with River Runner Outdoor Center. That company that also takes guests on night paddles in May and June, when a rare species of firefly alights in unison and twinkles up the forest.
Travellers canoeing past a tree house on Edisto River. Image courtesy of South Carolina PRT.
Canoeing and tree housing
So after you’ve canoed down the gentle, sweet-tea colored Edisto River, perhaps you’d be interested in a Swiss Family Robinson experience on a 160-acre, island-like wildlife refuge? You bring the sleeping bag, towels, food and water on the smooth, 13-mile paddle. The remote tree house accommodations you stumble on will provide the grill, cooking utensils, ropey hammocks and screened-in sleeping loft. Constructed from local hardwoods, the three tree abodes (and some basic campsites) are spread out for privacy, so you’ll basically be passing the evening with your group, the stars, some playing cards and the croaking frogs. Then next day you’ll paddle another 10 miles alongside the herons and river otters on that wide, sandy-bottomed river.
Lonely Planet has produced this article and video for South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.