South Carolina is famous for sun, sweet tea, and Spanish moss as well as some of the most picturesque landscapes in the country. The storied beauty of the Palmetto State has inspired myriad paintings, bestselling novels, and Academy Award-winning films. From the ancient Blue Ridge mountains of the upstate to the bright green marshlands of the Lowcountry and the endless white-sand beaches of the coastal region, South Carolina welcomes visitors with her quintessential brand of Southern hospitality.
1. Caw Caw Trail, Caw Caw Interpretive Center
Just a 30-minute drive from Charleston, Caw Caw Trail at the Caw Caw Nature Preserve is a perfect day hike for the whole family. One might think the easy, three-mile, flat walk would be a quick loop, but with such remarkable sights and wildlife in every direction, few emerge in less than a few hours. Lingering is a way of life in the South, and Caw Caw offers endless pause-worthy vantage points. The trail begins with a boardwalk through an otherworldly swamp that looks straight out of the movie Avatar that proceeds to a grand, tree-canopied opening over a lush green carpet of grass. Suddenly, the world opens to blue skies and wide fields of reeds and Carolina rice swaying in the breeze while egrets, great blue herons, and eagles soar overhead. Little nature vignettes appear seemingly out of nowhere with trodden pathways, curved wooden bridges, and 400-year-old live oaks draped in Spanish moss peering over mirrored lakes and ponds. The waters are often teeming with turtles, fish, frogs, and, sometimes, baby alligators as well as the much larger versions (some as large as 14 to 15 feet long), so enjoying from a distance is key, and no selfies, please. Hikers will appreciate the benches and rocking chairs thoughtfully placed throughout the walk, not necessarily to rest but to reflect on the sights, scents, and sounds of this spectacular Southern sanctuary.
Pro Tips: Some of the alligators are very large here, and there are no fences, so marvel from a distance. Also, watch out for fire ant hills -- their name should be warning enough. Stop by the Caw Caw Interpretive Center for a map and some background on the area. There is an entrance fee, and no dogs are allowed.
2. Raven Cliff Falls And Dismal Trail Loop, Caesars Head State Park
Don’t be fooled by the name, there is nothing dismal about this hike. Named for the 150+ species of ravens who breed in the high cliffs above, this nine-mile loop features the big daddy of waterfalls in this area. Raven Cliff Falls measures an astounding 420 feet and is one of the most photographed sights in South Carolina. Brief but sudden afternoon rain showers are common, so a pair of sturdy waterproof boots like KEEN’s Targhee II is literally a lifesaver when managing the ladders and steep rock faces on this trail. Still, scenic river crossings, a suspension bridge, spectacular rock formations, and multiple smaller waterfalls courtesy of a 2,000-foot drop from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Piedmont below ensure an action-packed adventure for hardy and experienced hikers.
Pro Tips: Tackle this trek clockwise -- you’ll thank me later. Follow trail #11 to #13 to #14, over the bridge, and down to Matthews Creek at the bottom. Rest on the Cathedral formation, cross Matthews Creek on cables, and return on trail #12 to #11, which ends at the parking lot. Dogs are allowed, but some parts are nearly impossible for them to manage safely.
3. Oconee Station And Station Falls Trail, Oconee State Park
There’s a special surprise in store for everyone on this easy, three-mile hike in South Carolina’s lush Upcountry. Begin at the historic Oconee Station, a stone blockhouse that was used as an outpost from 1792 to 1799 by the South Carolina Militia. Meander through Sumter National Forest past bridges and a fishing pond, and, in spring, marvel at myriad colorful blooms including purple roundleaf violet, rue anemone, sweet Betsy trillium, yellow Halberd-leaf violet, and vibrant hepatica. Just around the bend, Station Cove Falls not only signals the end of the journey in spectacular fashion, but the sandy-bottomed water pools at its base are perfect for wading and splashing, particularly on a warm day.
Pro Tips: Non-venomous water snakes have been spotted near the falls’ face, so enjoy with caution. Dogs are welcome!
4. Table Rock Trail, Table Rock State Park
This is my pick for the best hike in South Carolina. Check out TravelAwaits’ picks for the best hikes in all 50 states here. You’ll boast quads of steel after this eight-mile workout in Table Rock State Park, but most agree it’s one of the best hikes in South Carolina. Strenuous but spectacular, if a six-year-old sporting his favorite KEEN Targhees can manage it, then it’s on the table for most everyone. Stately boulders, abundant wildflowers, and rushing waterfalls along the way provide ample opportunities to stop at lookouts for a breath and take in the sights on the steep incline. The well-marked path is 75 percent uphill, so summiting may feel like an Everest-level achievement. Still, a packed lunch enjoyed after such an effort over sweeping views of the lake and foothills is extra satisfying.
Pro Tips: Table Rock Trail is categorized as difficult, and hiking poles are recommended for those with stability concerns. The return trip can be punishing on knees and ankles. Getting an early start is advisable to beat the heat and the crowds. There is an entrance fee and dogs are welcome on leash only.
5. Botany Bay Beach Walk, Edisto Beach State Park
What begins as a lovely flat trail across expansive quintessential South Carolina wetlands reveals, in less than a mile, one of the most extraordinary sights in the state. Saltmarsh turns to sand, and then the trees appear. These are no ordinary trees -- they seem to be alien creatures defying nature, growing directly out of the brilliant white sand in the most abstract formations imaginable. There is no rhyme nor reason for their positions or fossilized shapes, which wear glimmering seashells like the latest fashion. The warm waters of the Atlantic invite visitors to frolic in the waves, but the abundance of shells is a reminder that taking any is forbidden. Everyone enjoys climbing on the trees and marveling at this remarkable natural phenomenon, and before departing, it is tradition to decorate them with creative shell decor. When the mist eventually rolls in and the fog descends, it’s clear: There be magic here.
Pro Tips: There is a heavy fine for taking shells, and volunteers are monitoring the beach at all times. Dogs are not allowed at Botany Bay. Do check the tide schedule and try to time your visit during low tide for maximum shell enjoyment.
6. Boardwalk Loop Trail, Congaree National Park
Just outside of the state capital, Columbia, one enters the prehistoric world of the famous Congaree -- the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Southeastern United States. The six-foot raised boardwalk provides protection from the swamplands below and easy access to this astonishing ecosystem. The many local inhabitants seem as fascinated by visitors as visitors are by them. Walking the pathway feels almost like a ride in Jurassic Park, surrounded by diverse scenery and wildlife in every direction. Every sense is engaged on this trail thanks to tapping woodpeckers, majestic towering cypress groves, and the scent of sediments from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers. Alligators, deer, turtles, and fish are frequently seen at Weston Lake, and a Triceratops would fit right in.
Pro Tips: Congaree National Park offers a Junior Ranger program for kids; if completed during their visit, they are rewarded with a certificate, badge, and official swearing-in ceremony. The park’s website currently indicates that the main boardwalk is under construction through 2020, but alternative paths are available. This three-mile trail is stroller and wheelchair accessible and dog friendly on leash only.
7. Blue Ridge Railroad Historical Trail
For the multi-tasker who enjoys education, exercise, and nature -- this one is for you. Step back in time on this historic five-mile trek into a 19th-century abandoned railway featuring unique plant and animal life, views of gorgeous Issaqueena Falls, and tunnels. Originally intended to speed travel between Charleston and the Ohio Valley, work on the railroad ended during the Civil War, never to resume again. Informational markers along the forested path share the history of the area and identify the unique varieties of flora found here. Fauna sightings are common as well, including white-tailed deer, who are often spotted near Saddleback Tunnel.
Pro Tips: Start at Stumphouse Tunnel, continuing to the middle tunnel just above Issaqueena Falls. Saddleback Tunnel signals the end of the trail and turnaround spot. Ticks are common in this area, particularly in summer, so long pants and bug spray are highly recommended. Dogs are welcome on leash only.
8. Awendaw Passage, Francis Marion National Forest
The easy eight-mile (one way) Awendaw Passage is the grand finale segment of the famous Palmetto Trail. Extending from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Upstate to the Intercoastal Waterway in the Lowcountry, this famous 500-mile trek is also known as the Mountains-to-Sea trail. Beginning at Buck Hall Recreation Trailhead, hikers trek through the dense Francis Marion Forest named for the famous Revolutionary War hero. He was fondly known as the Swamp Fox as he outmaneuvered the British troops many times in these swampy backwoods. Gorgeous views abound, with egrets and herons soaring over the salt marshlands and along the waterway while the sun streams through the massive, sentry-like trees, and the breeze stirs the branches and wildlife. With each step, one imagines the stories these legendary maritime woods could tell.
Pro Tips: Hikers can begin the Awendaw Passage either from the Buck Hall (eastern) Trailhead as described above or the Steed Creek (western) Trailhead. You’ll pay an entrance fee at the Buck Hall Trailhead, which features restrooms, picnic tables, and a boat launch. It is 16 miles total to return to the start. The pathways can be quite muddy following rains, so waterproof boots are essential. Mosquitoes and ticks are in full force here in the summer, and bug spray is imperative. Keep on the trails as much as possible as snakes inhabit the woods. Dogs are welcome on leash only.
Pro Tips For Hiking In South Carolina
As with any trek in nature, be sure to research the area and weather in advance and bring the appropriate equipment -- particularly water. South Carolina is very hot in the summer through the fall months and spectacularly humid, which makes a moderately challenging hike feel like an endless slog through a swampy sauna if you’re not hydrated. Mosquitoes are particularly fond of this type of weather, so unless you want to be the afternoon buffet, bring your bug spray. Hats and abundant sunscreen are also staple items. Stay on marked pathways to avoid poison ivy (three leaves with red stem), ticks, and snakes. Afternoon thunderstorms and showers are frequent in the summer, which eases the heat factor a bit but makes the ground slick and muddy, so waterproof hiking boots help ensure you stay comfortable on your feet. Do not try to become BFFs with the alligators -- no Instagram photo is worth a swim with them. Do revel in the lush Southern beauty, and y’all come on back now, ya hear?
This article is presented by KEEN Footwear. For my hikes, I wore KEEN’s Waterproof Targhee II Mid, and my 6-year-old son depends on his KEEN Waterproof Targhee Low. Hiking in South Carolina requires a sturdy shoe that performs well on multiple surfaces, from steep rock faces to salty marshlands. The Palmetto State is known for hot, humid weather with frequent thunderstorms, so a waterproof and lightweight shoe with plenty of breathability is key. We both found our shoes were incredibly comfortable, performed at the highest level, and looked super cool! Shop KEEN’s Targhees and other hiking shoes here.