Kick your summer up a notch with this epic road trip through some of the Southeast’s greatest outdoor attractions.
Story by Barry Kaufman
While this past spring’s pipeline crisis saw some misguided souls filling up grocery bags with 87 octane, we’re happy to report that the panic buying has subsided and the refined crude is flowing once again. And that can only mean one thing: it’s time for the mother of all road trips.
But why go through all the hassle of loading up the car, filling up the tank and picking out the perfect playlist (oh, right. Don’t forget to load up the family, too) just to drive to some resort when the best resorts known to man are right here? Instead, point your hood toward a change of scenery in the great outdoors. Wherever your adventure takes you – up craggy mountain peaks, past tranquil lakes or down surging rapids – the beauty of our region lies in the fact that it’s all within a tank of gas.
So strap in for the adventure of a lifetime amid the outdoor playground that is the Southeast.
Get elevated at Poinsett State Park
High in the sandhills lies the perfect spot for some stand-up serenity. Located high in the Santee where the Sandhills peter down toward the low-lying midlands, Poinsett State Park is an outdoor wonderland of trails and rivers creeping through rocky hills. But for those seeking a bit more of a contemplative experience, the tranquil lake at its heart is 10 acres, perfect for stand-up paddle boarding. Ply your way across its mirror-like surface, surrounded by bucolic splendor, and take a deep breath. You’ve found your happy place.
Get there: Hilton Head Island to Poinsett State Park (Wedgefield, South Carolina): 2 hours, 19 minutes (135 miles)
Ride the road to the Sunshine State for one of the coolest paddle-driven treks known to man. Snaking through 100 miles of lush Florida wilderness and fed by tranquil blue springs that would have Ponce De Leon itching for a second childhood, the Chipola River represents one of the most breathtaking kayak trips you will ever experience. Glide along its tranquil waters, sampling the famed tupelo honey harvested along its banks as you go, and you’ll understand why the Choctaw bestowed a name on it meaning “sweet water.”
Get there: Hilton Head Island to Christoff Boat Launch (Marianna, Florida): 5 hours, 49 minutes (403 miles)
Paddle faster – I hear banjos!
Shoot the rapids on a river made famous – or infamous – by Burt Reynolds. If you’re looking for the ultimate whitewater rush, you’re in the right place. Curling its way through the western border of our state is the mighty Chattooga River, home to some of the most challenging rapids known to man. And yes, the fact that the film “Deliverance” was filmed here may give you some apprehension, but once that adrenaline hits your gut, you’ll forget all about it. Beginners can take on the approachable challenge of the Bull Sluice Rapid, but hardcore thrill junkies will want to tackle the infamous Five Falls.
Get there: Hilton Head to Chattooga Whitewater Outfitters (Long Creek, South Carolina): 5 hours, 12 minutes (319 miles)
Hang Ten without leaving the 843
Get on your board, and paddle out into the Palmetto State’s finest surf. Ask a surfer and they’ll tell you that some of the best surfing in South Carolina can be found at Folly Beach’s “Washout.” Also called “Hollywood” by some of the locals, this challenging surf spot at the north end of the beach was created when Hurricane Hugo took out an entire block of homes, creating a pipeline of wind across the beach that whips the waves into a frenzy. If you’re used to the relatively tepid waves of Hilton Head Island, be prepared to shoot the curl and experience the adventure of a lifetime.
Get there: Hilton Head Island to Folly Beach (South Carolina): 2 hours, 11 minutes (105 miles)
Cruise the Georgia waves
Take a ride on the freshwater side on Georgia’s beautiful Lake Lanier. Sure, we have boating here. But there’s something refreshingly different about getting out and pointing your bow across the shimmering surface of a freshwater lake. For some, it’s the spray of cooling water that doesn’t leave a sticky, salty residue. For others, it’s the calmer waters that allow for a smoother ride. Or maybe it’s the lack of jellyfish and sharks. Whatever your reason, if you’re looking to get out on a lake, Georgia’s Lake Lanier is just a short distance away. Tow your boat, rent one or simply hop on one of the many cruisers that crisscross the waters, and soak in the freshwater fun.
Get there: Hilton Head Island to Old Federal Boat Ramp (Flowery Branch, Georgia): 5 hours, 24 minutes (280 miles)
Shred carefully at the Skate Yard
Catch some air, and grind some pavement while learning the basics of skating. You’re never too old to start skateboarding. That said, going through the entire unsteady process of learning how, in front of a skate park full of judgmental teens, is no one’s idea of a good time. Grab your board and head to the Skate Yard in Atlantic Beach, Florida, where they’ll teach you the finer points of tailflips, ollies and railgrinds. At the very least, they’ll show you how to stay upright long enough to show up those teens at the skate park.
Get there: Hilton Head Island to the Skate Yard, (Atlantic Beach, Florida): 2 hours, 51 minutes (182 miles)
Get your motor runnin’
Head out on the highway, and burn some rubber on the infamous Hellbender 28. Sometimes, you get on your motorcycle and ride so you can take in the majestic scenery of the Southeast with nothing between you and the views but a helmet. Sometimes, you strap in for the white-knuckle thrill of shooting down a narrow lane, ping-ponging between curves, with nothing but a guard rail between you and a harrowing plunge. On the Smoky Mountains’ Hellbender 28, you can do both. Thrilling mountain curves combined with breathtaking views of Fontana Lake make for one of the most dynamic experiences on two wheels.
Get there: Hilton Head Island to 28’s southern terminus (Bryson City, North Carolina): 5 hours, 45 minutes (367 miles)
Ride hard. Get dirty.
The most fun on four wheels can be found just one state up. There’s nothing like straddling an ATV, pointing it toward your next adventure, and opening the throttle wide. Whether ramping off of sand dunes or churning through mud, sending up rooster tails of triumph behind you, it’s simply something that needs to be experienced to be understood. Busco Beach in Goldsboro, North Carolina, offers everything from down and dirty mud-bogging to stunt tracks and trails that ring a peaceful lake. Grab your helmet, and get to kicking up some dust.
Get there: Hilton Head Island to Busco Beach (Goldsboro, North Carolina): 4 hours, 50 minutes (311 miles)
May the gorge be with you
A little-known loophole makes for some of the best bouldering in the state. Among the more than 50,000 acres of preserved old-growth forest and towering waterfalls in Jocassee Gorges, climbers will find a slew of boulder fields just begging to be conquered. While rope climbing is forbidden in the park, SCDNR has classified bouldering as, and this is true, “hiking on rocks,” so you’re free to explore such famed boulder fields as Bearfields and the awesomely named Jedi Boulder (light saber optional).
Get there: Hilton Head Island to Jocassee Gorges Wilderness Area (Sunset, South Carolina): 4 hours, 45 minutes (285 miles)
Take a hike
Scale the Mount Mitchell Trail and soak in the scenery on top of the world. Famed naturalist John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” If you want a taste of what Johnny was talking about, point your hiking boots toward the soaring heights of the Mount Mitchell Trail. This six-mile path meanders through breathtaking scenery as it brings you step by step to the peak of Mount Mitchell and the stunning views that surround it on every side.
Get there: Hilton Head Island to the trailhead at Black Mountain Campground (Burnsville, North Carolina): 5 hours, 35 minutes (331 miles)
Saddle up for adventure
Grab the reins and explore the wilderness around Asheville. Emerging as a preeminent outdoor destination in its own right, Asheville adds to its outsized hiking and craft-beer appeal with one of the most beautiful trails on earth for horseback riding, the Fern Forest Trail. Despite its elevation of 4,000 feet amid the rocky splendor of Nantahala National Forest, the trail itself is relatively gentle in its slope, making for a 45-minute or so trek through the wilderness atop your noble steed.
Get there: Hilton Head Island to Fern Forest Trail (Notla, North Carolina): 6 hours, 26 minutes