South Carolina Parks and Forests

Surely we are all looking forward to venturing out around the world again. However, over the past year I’ve grown to appreciate the beauty & adventure to be found here at home. When people think of South Carolina, they often only think about the beaches (which are great!) but we also have beautiful lakes, waterfalls, winding rivers, and mountains. South Carolina has 47 state parks, 5 state forests, 2 national forests, and 1 national park, in addition to many wildlife management areas and local parks. These parks offer a variety of activities for people of all ages, including scenic overlooks, camping, hiking & biking trails, picnic areas, boating, bird-watching, historic tours, fishing, and more. I’ll discuss those that I have visited.

STATE PARKS

Overview of South Carolina State Parks. Map by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism.
You may find the interactive version at www.southcarolinaparks.com

Coastal state parks offer a quieter, cleaner beach experience, and often include wildlife centers, historical sites, and easy beach access with bathroom amenities. They have primitive campsites as well as electric RV loops. I often visit Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet. It’s a great place to spot birds such as cormorants, anhinga, roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, red-winged blackbirds, and more. You will frequently see alligators swimming or sunbathing along the causeway! Enjoy scenic nature trails through the maritime forest, tour the historic Atalaya Castle, stop at the ranger store, or access the beach by a wooden walkway that makes wheelchair and wagon access easier. The East Coast Greenway bike trail passes by the park entrance. There is a nominal daily use fee or you can purchase an annual pass for all South Carolina state parks. Myrtle Beach State Park is similarly great for family visits.

Huntington Beach State Park in May 2020. It is often less crowded than central Myrtle Beach locations, and has an undeveloped shoreline of sand dunes and maritime forest.

South Carolina has beautiful lakes. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Calhoun Falls State Park and Devil’s Fork State Park. Funnily enough, Calhoun Falls State Park does not have any waterfalls, while Devil’s Fork State Park has several! Calhoun Falls State Park is very picturesque: bordering Lake Russell, which is sparsely developed. Enjoy camping in primitive tent sites or electric RV sites, along with a variety of activities: nature trail hike, picnicking, tennis, swimming, fishing, and boating. My friends and I took advantage of primitive “hike-in” campsites located right along the lake. We spent our time kayaking, paddleboarding, hammocking, cooking s’mores, and enjoying the scenery. We found a small island to explore and a natural sandy inlet to spend the day sunbathing in our hammocks.

Devil’s Fork State Park is located along Lake Jocassee, which also has a relatively undeveloped shoreline. Its deep waters are popular with scuba divers & snorkelers. Among anglers it is known as a great place for trout fishing. At the park, you can choose amenities ranging from primitive boat-in campsites to RV loops to cozy lakeside villas. Activities also include swimming, boating, picnicking, birding, and nature hikes. Several popular waterfalls can be accessed by boat (rentals are available near the park). I visited recently and camped at one of the boat-in sites, which had a panoramic view of the lake. I spent a couple hours paddling to visit Wright Creek Falls–totally worth it! Campsites & lodging book up months ahead so I recommend checking availability well in advance. Laura does a wonderful job of describing Devil’s Fork State Park’s boat-in “Double Springs” campground, with detailed descriptions of individual sites, here on her Musings of a Rover blog. Both of these parks are beautiful–maybe the pictures will speak best.

South Carolina has world-famous blackwater rivers, named for the tannin-stained dark waters that provide vivid reflections of the foliage and blue skies above. The Edisto River, at 250 miles, is the longest free-flowing blackwater river in America. The 56-mile Edisto River Canoe & Kayak Trail begins at Colleton State Park and passes through Givhans Ferry State Park. Some visitors enjoy paddling the 23 miles between the two. Both parks offer picnic areas, camping, nature trails, fishing, swimming, and birding opportunities.

Edisto River

I would like to visit all of South Carolina’s state parks. If you would too, you can pick up a free official guide from any of the park offices. It has useful information about each park, and you can get stamped to commemorate your visit. From the mountains to the piedmont to the sandhills to the coast, you will find a state park in South Carolina.

NATIONAL PARKS

South Carolina has one national park, and it is really special! Congaree National Park, located southeast of Columbia, is perhaps best known for its champion trees, synchronised fireflies, and kayak/canoe trail. It features the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the Southeast, and is an internationally recognized “biosphere reserve” due to its high biodiversity. Congaree contains the tallest known specimens of at least 15 different tree species; these ancient giants have a story to tell! The park also has many species of plants, 30 mammals, 170 birds, 30 amphibians, 49 fish…159 beetles and, for better or worse, 21 species of mosquito. (Trust me, you want to bring plenty of insect repellant.) Congaree National Park has a campground and will issue backcountry camping permits upon request. You can also enjoy the park by hiking the trails and boardwalk, kayaking or canoeing the Congaree River Blue Trail, fishing, or admiring the fireflies when they perform their seasonal lightshow. Congaree National Park is well worth a visit.

NATIONAL FORESTS

South Carolina has two national forests: Francis Marion National Forest and Sumter National Forest. They connect to each other, spanning from Charleston to west of Greenville, and are comprised of ranger districts, wilderness areas, and public access points. Opportunities for recreation include hiking, biking, enjoying the Palmetto Trail, ATV-riding, hunting, fishing, swimming, picnicking, boating, rifle ranges, camping, waterfalls, accessing the Intracoastal Waterway, and more. If all this sounds overwhelming, you might start by checking out the four ranger districts: Francis Marion Ranger District, Enoree Ranger District, Long Cane Ranger District, and Andrew Pickens Ranger District. The best resource to learn more is https://www.fs.usda.gov/scnfs. I’ve spent some time biking on the Awendaw Passage/Palmetto Trail and Swamp Fox Passage/Palmetto Trail in Francis Marion National Forest. It’s a fun place for a day trip, weekend getaway, or longer excursion.

STATE FORESTS

South Carolina also has five state forests: Sand Hills, Manchester, Harbison, Poe Creek, and Wee Tee. They offer a variety of recreational activities, including hiking, horseback riding, biking, hunting, fishing, camping, picnicking, kayaking & canoeing, and more. I have not visited any of these yet, so the best resource is https://www.state.sc.us/forest/recreat.htm.

South Carolina State Forests. Map by Kristen using Google Earth.

Whether you’re having a bout of cabin fever, want to explore more of our local destinations, or are from another state and want to get to know more about South Carolina, there are lots of opportunities for memorable trips and world-class excursions here in the Palmetto State.

Yours truly, enjoying a spring day in Francis Marion National Forest

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