This summer, family travel can be what it was always meant to be: wide open spaces in the great outdoors, smaller-scale attractions with fewer crowds and fun family accommodations. In the four-county South Carolina region of Capital City/Lake Murray Country you’ll find the perfect place to stay in an area full of world-class fishing, boating, golf, sipping and dining, farm bounty and family fun. Located in the central part of the Palmetto State, anchored by Columbia and the counties of Richland, Lexington, Newberry and Saluda, there’s convenient access from Interstates I-77, I-20 and I-26… and it’s all just a short drive from I-95.
Richland County includes Blythewood and Columbia, ranked among “10 best spots for a weekend getaway in the South” and “One of America’s Best New Food Destinations” by Food and Wine. Spend a day on three rivers and explore and play at Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens. Stay at The Graduate Columbia, located on the scenic campus of the University of South Carolina. The stylish hotel blends historic grandeur with local charm and pops of prep like Gamecock-inspired headboards. (1619 Pendleton Street, Columbia, South Carolina 29201; 803-779-7779)
Less than 30 minutes southeast of the Capital City, the 26,276-acre Congaree National Park (100 National Park Road, Hopkins, South Carolina 29061; 803-776-4396) is a water and wilderness ecosystem that preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the U.S. Row or paddle through the stunning wooded waters on marked paths to view some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. Fish the park’s waters or hike to see river otters, bobcats, deer, owls and wild boar along 25 miles of hiking trails, many of which are dog-friendly. Palmetto Outdoors offers guided tours from spring through fall. Please note COVID-19 updates and other key information here: https://www.nps.gov/cong/planyourvisit/conditions.htm. For an overnight experience, pitch a tent under the stars at one of the park’s many campsites. Make a reservation by calling 1-877-444-6777 or visit https://www.nps.gov/cong/planyourvisit/camping.htm.
Sprawling across the four counties is Lake Murray, with 650 miles of shoreline and plenty of vacation rentals. Here it’s possible to combine a lake vacation with visits to small town attractions and farmers markets, or a stay in or near Columbia. Stop by the Lake Murray Country Visitors Center in the historic Lorick Plantation House (2184 North Lake Drive, Columbia, South Carolina 29212; 803-781-5940) to discover hidden gems, trip ideas and additional accommodations, including COVID-19-prepared flagship hotels, extended stays, inns and lakeside cabins. Or, contact [email protected] for personalized service. One great choice for families is Columbia Lake House Getaway, designed for luxury lake life with plenty of spaces for privacy and togetherness including a private covered dock, gazebo, stone fire pit and custom outdoor kitchen. The two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath home has plenty of room for up to six people, just minutes from the Visitor Center. (Check website for phone number and other details.) Dine at Bistro on the Boulevard in nearby Irmo. Chef Kevin Schwab is one of six chefs judged the best in the Taste of Lake Murray who will compete as Team Lake Murray Country in November at The World Food Championships’ “Ultimate Food Fight” in Dallas.
Just 30 miles from Columbia is Dreher Island State Park, a magical 348-acre spot on Lake Murray with three islands of discovery and adventure. Tent, primitive and RV camping, camper cabins and lakeside villas provide great spots to enjoy all the park offers along with endless vistas, sunrises and sunsets. Well-behaved pets are allowed in certain areas and accommodations. (3677 State Park Road Prosperity, South Carolina 29127; 803-364-4152) Another great stay on the lake is Riverwinds Landing, with six waterfront cabins. The onsite marina store, boat storage, fishing areas and launches make it perfect for the BYOB (bring your own boat) crowd. (221 SC Highway 391, Prosperity, South Carolina 29127; 803-364-0036)
Named one of the “Most Charming Small Towns in America” by the Travel Channel, Newberry (in the county of the same name) is an exquisite hidden gem filled with shopping and dining amid amazing architecture listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Home to the Newberry Opera House and Newberry College, the area also features a winery and golfing. Stay at the historic Hampton Inn-Newberry Opera House, convenient to downtown attractions as well as the fishing and boating on Lake Murray, Lake Greenwood and Lake Monticello. (1201 Nance Street, Newberry, South Carolina 29108; 803-276-6666)
Lexington County includes the hip and happening West Columbia, Cayce and towns like Chapin on Lake Murray. In Lexington, the county seat, stroll through the 1820s downtown on a historic walking tour with a phone app, shop along Main Street and visit the Saturday farmer’s market. Stay on Lake Murray at Lakeside Pink Rental, an elegantly decorated three-bedroom, three-bath custom home. Relax under the shade of a large covered, luxuriously appointed gazebo at the private dock. Two paddleboards and a fishing kayak are included; a pontoon boat is available for rental during your stay. (634 Wildwood Cove Road, Leesville, South Carolina 29070; check website for phone number and other details.)
Saluda County is a picture-perfect rural agricultural area known for egg, dairy and peach production. Dine at Juniper in Ridge Spring, where Chef Brandon Velie incorporates the bounty of the area in memorable meals that have attracted national culinary raves. In downtown Saluda, explore the Saluda County Historical Museum, the restored Art Deco-style Saluda Theatre and the pre-Revolutionary Bonham House, the birthplace of an Alamo hero, and the 1802 Marsh-Johnson House, all listed on the National Register. In southeastern Saluda County near the Aiken County line is Monetta, home of the beloved Monetta Drive-In. “The Big Mo” has been attracting families for 70 years and is now experiencing a revival with COVID-19 precautions and double features on three screens. Cash only; ATM nearby; pet-friendly. (5822 Columbia Highway North, Monetta, South Carolina 29105; 803-685-7949) Rent or bring your boat to this elegant, lakefront home near Saluda. The long dock has water and power and an attached floating swimming or fishing dock. It’s a four-bedroom, two bath that’s perfect for couples or families. In addition to a chef’s kitchen and large living area, there’s dining on the screened patio and on the fully-furnished, covered deck with flat screen TV.
Timing is everything
Any season is perfect for a lake vacation in Capital City/Lake Murray Country, but timing is everything for dazzling nature displays. Plan ahead to experience these unique events from now through fall.
Mid-May to June
Witness the magical, mesmerizing sight of synchronous fireflies only found in a handful of U.S. habitats, including Congaree National Park, southeast of the Capital City of Columbia. Unlike familiar sporadic backyard blinking, thousands of lightning bugs flash and go dark in concert, in a quietly spectacular display. Check the timing at www.nps.gov/cong/fireflies.htm
Mid-June to early August
An estimated one million Purple Martins arrive on Lake Murray, swooping through the sky at sunset to the delight of lake-goers. Rent a boat and drive to the middle of the lake near the largest sanctuary in North America. For cruises showcasing the Purple Martins, try Lake Murray Yacht Tours and Pontoon Rentals and Tours.
While tours and exploration are open all year, October brings guided kayak swamp tours of the Congaree National Park. The three-hour tour by Palmetto Outdoors provides wilderness and shoreline views of river otters, bobcats, deer, owls and wild boar in this preserve of some of the oldest, tallest hard-growth trees in eastern North America.
For more details on places to stay, where to eat and all there is to do in Capital City/Lake Murray Country, go to LakeMurrayCountry.com
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