I’ve probably camped in South Carolina more than any other southern state in the last six years, and there’s a good reason why. Actually there are about 33 reasons why: the South Carolina state parks that offer overnight camping!
I’ve visited 15 of those 33 parks over time (the ones outlined in red). This Spring, I spent two months camping in South Carolina, 58 nights total, with all but four of those nights in SC State Parks. Let’s see how it went…
My adventure started way back on March 11, where I met up with friends from Virginia for a week at one of the oldest SC parks, Hamilton Branch. It is one of many campgrounds that line the shores of Lake Thurmond (formerly Clarks Hill Lake), but it is one of the few that is open year-round. I like Modoc campground (a US Army Corps of Engineers site) just down the road but it’s not open for the season till April. Ham Branch offers a ton of lakeside sites, although many of them are shared driveways (“T sites, where the camping spots are at opposite ends of the the top of the T). This can be a bit challenging if the driveway is short or if your neighbor got there first and has a big rig, leaving you little room to manuevar into your spot. Lucky for me, no one was in the other side of the T, so I could just drive headfirst into that spot and then back straight into mine.
I could launch my kayak right from the site, which is always a HUGE win for me. I paddled on my own and with friends, spotting two ospreys courting and nesting as well as some blue herons and some Canada Geese that looked like they were in nesting mode too.
The sunsets from our sites were also spectacular!
And it was fun to camp with friends, sharing meals, campfires, and stories throughout the week. (Thanks John, Mary, Lee, and Jack!)
Little Pee Dee
Next stop was about 200 miles east, at Little Pee Dee State Park, which happened to be on another lake. It was four more nights with the same crew, so more laughter, more food, and more fun ensued. And some lovely sunrise light out my back window!
Well, it was fun until I realized the reason I kept finding water on my floor after I moved to a new site: the faucet in my kitchen had sprung an unfixable leak. Ugh. The one thing I really didn’t want to do on a Sunday was unpack my kitchen cupboard to get to the faucet, and then drive into town and hope Walmart had a replacement that would work in my trailer. They did, thankfully, because both hardware stores in town (Dillon) were closed on Sunday. An hour later, the new faucet was in and working. And not leaking. And, bonus, this one has a pull-down sprayer so I really am enjoying that!
All too soon, though, it was time for my friends and I to go our separate ways, then farther east and me a bit north.
Nine days in a lakefront site just outside the town of Cherwaw (pronounced sha-RAW) was just the ticket for this introvert in real life. The town had two grocery stores, gas stations, and a really fine laundromat. What it did not have was a propane hose. Why did I need one? It turns out the squirrels at this park somehow have gotten hooked on propane and so they love to chew the hose to get at the propane. Sigh. And they did it at broad daylight while I was at the laundromat, the little vandals.
Three stops in town left me empty-handed, but the propane supplier suggested the RV place about 45 minutes away, which turned out to be a good tip. It was almost worth the drive for the ice cream and fresh strawberries I picked up at the farm store down the road from the RV place. Always nice when a chore of a drive has a silver lining!
Cheraw had a lake, but it was crazy windy most of the time, so I didn’t get out for any paddling until the last few days of my stay. Worth the wait, as it was a big lake, with lots of shoreline to explore. The park also has a trail and boardwalk that goes from the campground to the visitor center/store, and that was a fun way to get in a walk.
And, yes, more beautiful sunsets! The whole campground migrated to the lakeside almost every night to enjoy the colors and try to capture them with phones or cameras. Here’s my best effort.
Camping is nothing if not an exercise in both patience and improvisation. I needed both at Santee. This place came recommended by fellow Alto owners, so I was really excited to get here. That is, until I drove the mile from check-in to the campground on probably the most rutted dirt road I’ve been on since that wrong turn in New Mexico in 2017. By the time I got to my site in the Lakeside campground, everything was pretty shaken up in the Alto. But the site was nice, under a canopy of tall green trees, with a peekaboo view of the lake through the site to my left.
It *was* a nice site until day 2 (of a planned nine-day stay) when the new neighbors pulled in. I should explain here that every campground has rules about how many vehicles, RVs and/or tents, and people can stay at a site. It varies from place to place. Here, the rule was one RV or two tents and a maximum of six people. The neighbors were apparentlhy illiterate, as they showed up with an RV, four tents, six adults, and somewhere between 8-10 kids, as well as three cars. It was kind of like camping next to a summer camp, which is to say it wasn’t at all relaxing for me. I made it through the one day and night (that’s the patience part) before the improvisation part kicked in. I stopped by to the ranger station and explained the problem, asking if I could move to another site. The wonderful person working the desk found me two three-night spots in the other campground so I could hitch up the next day and move on down the road. The Cypress View campground was newer, and not down a rutted dirt road, and I liked it way better, enjoying my six nights of quiet camping.
Santee has two grocery stores, several gas stations, and almost every fast food place you can imagine, since it’s an interstate highway stop. Not much else in Santee, but Congaree National Park is 45 minutes in the other direction, and I made a nice day trip there.
James Island County Park
One of the cardinal rules of full-timing is that you lock in holiday weekends before anything else. In this case, Easter was the weekend and I got one of the last remaining sites here, a full 10 months before my arrival. Seriously, that’s how hard it is to book a holiday weekend! So I wasn’t expecting a great site, but at least I had a place to hole up for the weekend. It was OK, close to the bathroom and to the store (which had a nice selection of everything from snacks to camping equipment to jewelry).
The park itself is really nice: paved walking trails, kayak and canoe rentals, a kiddie playground, and even a dog park/beach for the pet owners. The campground was chock full of campers, including lots of kids on bicycles and scooters. It was fun to watch the families cycle by my spot or the dog owners wrangling their charges on the way to the dog park. I have to say my favorite park was the walking trails, it’s nice to have them paved for faster walking pace than on the usual root-filled dirt trails.
For two glorious, relaxing weeks, I made my home at Huntington Beach State Park, one of my favorite campgrounds because it’s so close to a long stretch of beach, up to Murrells Inlet and down to Pawley’s Island. It took me about 10 seconds to realize (a) how much I had missed the beach over the last few years and (b) I needed to figure out a way to stay near one next winter. There’s something about the endless motion, the light, and the sound of breaking waves that makes me feel at home like no other place on the planet. And if the pelicans fly by overhead, even better!
I met up with my friends Karen and Steve, and we spent time hanging out at the campfire and at the beach, catching up on stories and family news and life in general.
We started experimenting with our shiny new pie irons, making a meal and a dessert and then realizing we have a *lot* to learn, but we’ll have fun doing it. We might prevail on our expert cast iron cooking friend for help…
Two solid weeks at the beach did a lot to clarify some things, giving me the time and space to think and write and plan, rather than have to hitch up and go every few days. Despite being a state park, it isn’t cheap to stay here, and next year’s prices are more than I am willing to pay ($50/night this year, $80/night next year), so this was also probably a swan song to Huntington Beach State Park. With that, I’ll share one more “why I love this beach so much” photo…
Six more beach nights, this round at Edisto Beach. The two Altos caravanned through some interesting road construction in Charleston, then headed south down the highway to another great beach campground. The last few miles of this familiar journey take us under a canopy of live oaks, where I slowed way down and snapped a quick photo of my Alto comrades framed by those gorgeous trees.
The first few days were great, mostly sunny but with a gentle wind. And then things changed, and not exactly for the better. Oh, that WIND! But camping with besties made it fun anyways as we found ways to keep ourselves from going crazy in the wind (hint: ice cream…). Fresh, grilled shrimp for dinner, beach walks, and watching the waves from beach chairs, it was all good, really. It’s hard to be really miserable at the beach, at least for me. But, I will say this, we were all relieved to head inland and escape the incessant wind! The last night, the wind died down just enough I could get a good photo of the sunset across the marsh.
Hamilton Branch (Again)
Wandering north towards Augusta and beyond on back roads, we discovered that road construction season had begun in earnest, waiting out one long delay and skirting another. But soon enough, we had pulled into Hamilton Branch and got busy setting up our respective sites while waiting for the third Alto and fourth and fifth members of our crazy crew to make their appearance for our five-night gathering. And then the fun began, with Cincinnati Chili, a crazy combo of spaghetti, chili, kidney beans, onions, and shredded cheese (called “five way” by the locals). Trust me, it’s delicious and we ate every bite; no leftovers for this dish!
My site had a soft little beach perfect for launching kayaks, and I did several paddles during my stay. We managed to get Steve to take a photo of us rafted together and you can tell we all enjoyed the moment.
We visited the nearby Dam (which used to be called Clarks Hill Dam before being renamed for the segregationist Senator from South Carolina who was the States Rights Democratic Party Presidential candidate in 1948. I refuse to say his name, or call the lake and dam by it either. We managed to rename Army bases, so I hold out hope that someday we can rename this area, too.)
It is a pretty lake, though…
Peace Out, South Carolina
And so, after a few months of staying within the borders of South Carolina, it’s time to get moving towards New York State, and an Alto gathering in late May. My pace is picking up as I head north, finally crossing over into the Empire State over Memorial Day weekend.
A breeze blew softly, slightly rippling the water as it carried the heady scents of late Carolina springtime through the air. Honeysuckle. Jasmine. Ripe, pungent river mud. Ah, the world felt right.
7 thoughts on “Full Circle in South Carolina”
Thanks for the tour. I love getting the flavor of South Carolina through your travels. (And also the flavor of full-time vagabonding with the crapshoot of good/bad/no neighbors, appliance meltdowns, and unexpected beauty.
Okay, now you’re making me want to get a trailer again, LOL. South Carolina has a wonderful array of parks, and your descriptions are terrific! Sounds like you had a great time with your friends.
Hi Annie! I loved your descriptions of SC campgrounds, where I, too have spent many nights! I’m hoping you’ll share details of your journey to NY. Routes, campgrounds, tips! I would like to travel to the Hudson Valley area this summer and it feels a bit intimidating! Happy Trails! Ann
What a fun read, thanks for sharing, Annie! And gorgeous photos as always
if you were to choose between a few nights at Huntington Beach State Park or Hunting Island State Park which would you choose? We concur about James Island County Park – beautiful campground, not so great camp sites.
Love reading about your adventures. See you in NYS.
They are both walkable beaches, and I loved camping at Hunting Island. But the beach got scoured by successive hurricanes, so the old boneyard of trees is gone and it’s not as interesting a wave action as Huntington. But it does have a great lighthouse you can climb and see amazing views. I really can’t choose!
I loved reading about your adventures in South Carolina’s state parks, Annie, and your photos are stunning! Safe travels to New York.