Secret spot off the beaten path: Hamilton Branch State Park
Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw
The Midlands are a bit further afield than I normally venture in this series, the spirit of which is backyard adventures that make for an easy day- or half-day trip from home. But in keeping with this month’s road-trip theme, “Secrets Spots” is going weekend warrior for a visit to Hamilton Branch State Park.
Where red dirt, blue water, green trees and open sky meet — that is your point of focus. Whether paddling to a tiny island humped in the sparkling lake or just enjoying the view lounged out in a hammock back at camp, your eyes will be so satiated with these vistas that you’ll still be seeing them in your sleep. Of the 200+ spacious campsites at Hamilton Branch, only about five aren’t waterfront. That’s because the park sits on 70,000-acre Lake Thurmond (just north of Augusta on the Georgia/South Carolina line), a man-made reservoir in the Savannah River Basin with so many groping little fingers that it has 1,200 miles of shoreline. The forest around it consists of tall pines rising out of the red clay, ringed with sweet gum, wax myrtle, willow oak and wild blueberries at water’s edge. This is lakeside life at finest, with the tent pitched on a pretty bluff or an RV just a few steps from water lapping at your private cove. People ride their golf carts around and have pontoon boats anchored right off their campsites.
I discovered the area quite by accident when making a pit stop on my way to the mountains. Pulling over at a recreation area in Modoc, South Carolina, I was blown away by the unexpected beauty: broad vistas of open water and undeveloped shoreline, which contrasted with startlingly red clay beaches that tinged the shallows a pretty golden orange. When I got back on the road, I passed signs for Hamilton Branch State Park and Sumter National Forest, which seemed a promising lineup, so I was determined to return. That day came in spring with gorgeous bug-free weather and a mission to make a mini-campout yield max nature adventure. I found a secluded campsite towards the end of a little peninsula, with a perfectly flat red clay plateau on a high bluff overlooking spectacular views of the lake. It had a Western exposure so that I could catch evening rays after a swim and watch the sunset behind my campfire, in what I called the infinity fire ring because it was built right at the edge of the bluff with negative space dropping away behind it. At night I slept in the back of my truck and had a sublime view of the stars, lulled by the gentle lapping of lake water and the grumpy squawks of passing herons.
Apart from swimming and paddling, my explorations fanned out into the Sumter National Forest for a 14-mile hike on the Wine and Turkey Creek Trails. I saw not a single soul apart from some men doing construction at a road crossing. The terrain was something between the mountains and the Lowcountry, with lazy brown streams that coursed at times between sandbanks and cypress knees, and at other times between powdery blue and white rock formations. Wild Easter lilies and swamp azaleas were in bloom, and swallowtail butterflies drifted around the streams. There was no grandeur, nothing truly impressive; just a quiet woods-walk in an unassuming part of the state that I never thought could be so pleasant.
I wouldn’t want to be at Hamilton Branch on Fourth of July weekend with jet skis swamping my kayak and shrieking revelers costing me sleep at night. But, hey, some people like that. Whether you’re a full-throttle weekend party person or a mid-week offseason loner type like me, I invite you to consider Hamilton Branch for your next getaway — it’s hard to go wrong with lakefront property.
Location: Hilton Head Island to Hamilton Branch State Park (Plum Branch, South Carolina)
Distance: 3 hours, 10 minutes (158.8 miles) via SC-125 N
Mode of transport: Boat, bike, paddleboard, golf cart, pool float, anything you like.
If you go: Check out nearby Sumter National Forest (Long Cane District) for hiking and mountain biking trails.