Best Road Trips in the USA: South Carolina
The best way to experience the Palmetto State is by car—so fill the tank and experience all the beautiful scenery and historic sites that South Carolina has to offer.
While South Carolina may be known for its 187 miles of gorgeous Atlantic coastline, there are plenty of sites to see when visiting the interior of the state, too. Whether you want to see the Hampton-Preston Mansion in the capital city of Columbia, Fort Sumter in Charleston or Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville, the state of South Carolina is worth the drive.
Getting around in Greenville, SC
We’re starting our road trip in the most interior city on our list: Greenville. Situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Greenville was named after a general from the Revolutionary War, Gen. Nathanael Greene, in 1831. This charming town with lush green landscapes has a modest population of about 72,000 residents, but that doesn’t stop it from being a world-class city.
Want to get a sneak peek of Greenville before your trip? Watch Where Water Flows, an orchestral work and film by Greenville native Bob Farnsworth, showcasing the city’s landmarks, historical sites and recent rejuvenation.
The crown jewel of the city is the stunning Falls Park on the Reedy in the center of downtown Greenville. With its 28-foot-tall Reedy River Falls, the Liberty Bridge and the Medusa Tree (a 70-year-old American beech tree with spectacular exposed roots), this gorgeous park—which includes 20 acres of gardens, hiking trails, a plaza and a restaurant—is at the top of the list of places to visit in Greenville.
A little more than a mile from the park you’ll find The Children’s Museum of the Upstate. This interactive museum is one of the largest children’s museums in the world and has the remarkable honor of being the first children’s museum to be recognized as a Smithsonian Affiliate. With three floors of play, over 80,000 square feet of space and 30 exhibits, this museum has something for everyone, including a toddler area and the Sensory Square for those who enjoy quieter play.
Enjoy the show.
Finish out your day in Greenville at the Peace Center Concert Hall. Located at the edge of Falls Park on the Reedy, this glass building gives a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape and serves as a multivenue music hall. This building is home to the Greenville Symphony Orchestra and showcases Broadway plays, renowned musical acts and comedy shows.
Looking to catch a game while you’re in town? Check out the Greenville Drive, a minor league baseball team that plays at Fluor Field, a three-minute walk from Falls Park on the Reedy. This stadium is a replica of Boston’s Fenway Park (the Drive is an affiliate team of the Boston Red Sox) and is known for being family friendly.
Visiting Columbia, SC
Less than a two-hour drive from Greenville is the capital city of Columbia. Home to the University of South Carolina, Columbia is the second-largest city in the state. The city was a political hub of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, so Columbia is filled with historic sites and artifacts. One of the go-to sites is the South Carolina State House. There, visitors can view impressive architecture, historic memorials and even marked areas of the building where Civil War cannonballs struck the walls.
Wanting to explore your wild side? Riverbanks Zoo & Garden is a 170-acre outdoor complex containing more than 6,000 plants and animals in a zoo, an aquarium and a botanical garden situated on the banks of the Saluda River.
Brush up on your Palmetto State history at the South Carolina State Museum, located in the heart of downtown. The museum building is the former location of the Columbia Duck Mill, the world’s first electric-powered textile mill. Due to the decline in duck products used in textiles, the mill closed in 1980 and in 1981 was donated to the state. In 1988, the South Carolina State Museum opened in the original four-story structure with exhibits on art, history, natural history and science in South Carolina. The museum today includes a planetarium, an observatory and a 4D theater.
Located in the Columbia historic district is the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens, a 200-year-old house and grounds brimming with history. The estate was once owned by the Hampton family, who were wealthy planters and slaveowners, and then it became the headquarters of Union Army Maj. Gen. John Logan during the Civil War. As such, the vast history of this property earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.
Catch a light show.
On your way out of town, be sure to stop by Congaree National Park, which is just 18 miles outside of Columbia. This almost 27,000-acre park is home to the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the U.S.
Unique to the park is a wide variety of flora and fauna, due to the range of habitats, from pine forest to floodplain. A highlight of this national park are the synchronized firefly viewings in May. The park is home to firefly species Photuris frontalis, which flash in unison, giving off an incredible light show.
Heading to Hilton Head Island, SC
We’re headed to our first stop on the coast, Hilton Head Island. Located about 2.5 hours from Columbia, this Lowcountry island is about as far south as you can go without venturing into Georgia. Hilton Head Island is known for its gorgeous golf courses and powdery soft Atlantic beaches. While cars are allowed on the island, bikes are the preferred method of transportation, with over 60 miles of dedicated pathways.
Hilton Head Island has 12 miles of beaches that are the perfect nesting ground for loggerhead sea turtles. From May to October every year, these endangered turtles build hundreds of nests and lay eggs. There are several organizations on the island that monitor the beaches each nesting season, looking for loggerhead tracks and marking nests to protect them from disturbances and help ensure successful hatching.
To learn more about the habits of these endangered animals and how we can help preserve their habitat, you can visit a Turtle Trackers Learning Station.
Hit the high seas and the putting green.
After a few days on the road, your crew might be getting restless. Set sail on the Black Dagger with a Pirates of Hilton Head cruise, where you search for treasure, battle rival pirate Stinky Pete and come home with a unique pirate moniker. Cruises leave twice a day from Harbour Town and last about an hour and a half—be sure to pack sunscreen and water.
As the home of 26 championship golf courses, you can’t come to Hilton Head Island without hitting the links. Private and public courses abound, so check out a few of the beautiful Lowcountry courses, from Hilton Head National Golf Club to the George Fazio Course at Palmetto Dunes, named one of “America’s 100 Best” courses by Golf Digest.
Time-traveling in Charleston, SC
The trip from Hilton Head Island to Charleston is about 100 miles, heading northeast up the coast. Charleston is a port city with a long history, cobblestone streets and colorful houses. One of the best ways to explore the past of this Lowcountry city is through a carriage tour.
Gadsden’s Wharf, located on the east side of Charleston, on the Cooper River, is considered hallowed ground, as it’s believed that 45% of enslaved Africans entered the U.S. from this site. The wharf is long gone, but you’ll find in its place the International African American Museum, which opened in the summer of 2023. The museum grounds also house the African Ancestors Memorial Garden, which is always open and free to the public so that guests have a place for quiet reflection.
The museum contains 12 permanent exhibitions featuring historical objects, more than 30 works of art and interactive experiences, including a Center for Family History, which is a one-of-a-kind resource available for guests to research their family lineage and advance African American genealogy. This museum is popular, and tickets are often sold out, so getting them in advance is a must.
Find famous photo ops.
The most iconic pictures of Charleston include Rainbow Row, the famous row of 13 houses painted in bright pastel hues in the historic district. The townhouses were originally built in the late 1700s, but by the early 1900s, they had fallen into disrepair. Locals intervened to save the homes and restored them to their original condition, earning the property the title of a historic landmark by the National Park Service. Most of the original townhouses have been converted to charming shops and restaurants, so few of the original homes remain.
The final stop in Charleston is historic Fort Sumter—now part of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historic Park—the site where the Civil War began. To visit Fort Sumter, you have to take a 30-minute boat ride to the park on the Spirit of the Lowcountry.
Once you arrive, you’ll be greeted by National Park Service rangers. They’ll share more details about the historical significance of Fort Sumter in the Civil War and direct you to the museum. Visitors often pose by the beautiful homes of Rainbow Row as well as the cannons at Fort Sumter, capturing must-have photos of their journey.
Entertaining the family at Myrtle Beach, SC
From Charleston, hop on U.S. Route 17 and head north. After about two hours, you’ll arrive at Myrtle Beach (don’t go too far or you’ll reach North Carolina). Myrtle Beach is part of the Grand Strand, an area of Atlantic beach stretching over 60 miles, from Little River to Winyah Bay. Another locale known for its award-winning golf courses, Myrtle Beach’s family-friendly atmosphere is what makes it unique.
The hub of the Myrtle Beach shopping and entertainment scene is Broadway at the Beach,where you’ll find Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach, which gives you a closer look at sea life, and Pavillion Park Fun Park, which features several rides from the original Pavilion Amusement Park of the early 1900s.
Not far from Broadway at the Beach is the downtown area Myrtle Beach Boardwalk. There, you can ride a scenic ferris wheel, one of the city’s most prominent ocean-side attractions. Skywheel Myrtle Beach lifts passengers 200 feet in the air for views of the beautiful hotel strip, beach and ocean. Rides are available during a wide range of times, including sunrise hours.
Visit a castle on the coast.
Drive 30 minutes outside of Myrtle Beach, and you’ll find Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet. This park features all the family-friendly amenities of a state park (camping, fishing, playground, etc.), with the unexpected addition of Atalaya Castle. This gorgeous 30-room structure was originally the summer home of industrialist Archer Huntington and his wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, until 1947. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, solidifying its spot in South Carolina’s history forever.
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A road trip to South Carolina is time well spent. Whether it’s historic sites you’re seeking or pirate ship adventures or national parks that rev your engines, the Palmetto State has a little something for everyone.