In some states, driving 150 miles doesn’t make much of a difference in the landscape or local culture. But in South Carolina, short drives separate destinations with widely diverse topography and visitor experiences.
The Palmetto State has two distinct environments — the mountains in the west and the Atlantic coastline in the east — that make a tour of the state an exciting affair. And even cities with similar climates have vastly different cultures, as is evidenced by the vibrant, entertaining Myrtle Beach and the historic and elegant Charleston, just 100 miles to the south.
The following itinerary is designed to highlight the best of the mountains and the coast in South Carolina. Plan to spend at least one day in each of these cities, though some of them merit longer visits. You can fit this entire trip into five days if you’re in a hurry; it makes a perfect pace for a weeklong getaway.
The itinerary starts in Greeneville and ends at Hilton Head. From there you can fly home or continue south into Georgia for more coastal exploration.
In the northwest corner of South Carolina, Greenville combines its mountainous surroundings with a hip urban environment and progressive outlook. The best Greenville experiences blend the natural and urban elements of the destination.
That area of the state is close to both North Carolina and Tennessee, and features similarly mountainous topography to that of those states. Visitors can get their fill of mountain beauty at the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the area where the Blue Ridge Mountains descend toward the Piedmont of eastern South Carolina. The escarpment is home to more than 300 species of wildlife and 50 waterfalls.
The best place to visit the escarpment near Greenville is Table Rock Mountain, part of the 11,000-acre Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. There travelers get a scenic overlook where they can see hardwood forests, mountain streams and lakes. Jones Gap and Caesars Head state parks are also located nearby.
While you’re there: The Reedy River runs through Greenville’s Historic West End, and in 2004, the city built the beautiful Falls Park around the stretch of the river in the urban area. The park serves as an oasis in the city and is used for public art displays and as a jumping-off point for river exploration.
About halfway between the mountains on the coast in central South Carolina, Columbia serves as the state’s capital in a variety of respects. In addition to being the seat of government, Columbia is home to the University of South Carolina and is a cultural hub for the state.
One of the best ways for groups to enjoy Columbia’s intellectual and political power is by visiting the South Carolina State Museum, the largest museum in the state. This 210,000-square-foot institution features four floors of exhibits, a digital dome planetarium, a “4-D” interactive theater and an observatory.
Exhibits at the museum cover four areas: art, history, natural science and technology. Highlights include a life-size reproduction of the Confederate submarine Hunley and the Clemson 372, the first airplane in the United States built by college students. Its Cotton Mill Exchange is the largest museum store in the Southeast.
While you’re there: Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens is a 170-acre site with more than 2,000 animals, as well as botanical gardens. The zoo features scenic river vistas, natural animal habitats and views of significant Columbia historical landmarks.