Everything You Need to Know About the Holiday Lights on the River at Saluda Shoals Park in Columbia, SC

Take a self-driving tour through a beautiful Christmas light display at Saluda Shoals Park during Christmas in Columbia.

Written by

Jason Barnette


November 13, 2019

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

I’ve driven through a lot of Christmas light displays along roadways, but the Holiday Lights on the River were the best I had ever seen. The 2.5-mile route through a wooded county park featured amazing lights, animated displays, and beautiful natural seclusion, all from the comfort of my own vehicle.

Christmas in Columbia

This blog post is part a the series Christmas in Columbia, a travel guide I wrote after spending a week in December in Columbia. The travel guide will help you discover Christmas in Columbia during a weekend visit for the events, light displays, local shopping, dining, and lodging.

Click to enlarge.

Christmas Lights

The heart of the Holiday Lights on the River is over a million Christmas lights in various displays. The displays are set up on both sides of the two-lane unmarked road through Saluda Shoals Park.

Because the Holiday Lights on the River are hosted by the Irmo-Chapin Recreation Commission, most of the light displays are sports-themed. A fixed display of Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and an elf riding bicycles greeted me as I began the journey on the road. Animated displays like Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus playing tennis, snow falling over Santa in his sleigh, and signs along the road added to the wonderland.

With lights on both sides of the road, and sometimes hanging over the road, there was a lot to see. More than half the route was surrounded by dark woods and completely, utterly peaceful. It was one of the most impressive drive-thru light displays I’d ever come across.

The 2.5-mile route was well marked and easy to follow. It took me about 45 minutes to get through it (minus all the stops I made for the photos).

READ MORE: Five Places to Find Beautiful Christmas Lights in Columbia, SC

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Light displays on both sides of the road AND over the road!

Family Activities at the Environmental Center

About two miles into the driving route you’ll come to the Environmental Center near the main entrance to the park. There is plenty of parking to take a break from riding your brakes through the park and enjoy some family activities.

Outside there were a couple of fire pits where people were getting warm and roasting marshmallows. Nearby vendors were selling marshmallows, hot chocolate, and hot apple cider. Kids could ride the Saluda Shoals Park train or slide down the Winter Wonder Tube Slide.

Inside, where it was nice and warm, an area had been set up for making holiday crafts. Santa’s Claus’et Gift Shop had a few gift ideas. The best part was the warm restrooms with no line (at least for the men’s room).

Note: The only restrooms at Holiday Lights on the River are located at the Environmental Center. It is not possible to quickly drive there from anywhere else in the park so be prepared.

READ MORE: 15 Fantastic Christmas Events You Don’t Want to Miss in Columbia, SC

Photos with Santa

From December 14-23 Santa makes an appearance at the Environmental Center each night. For an additional fee families can capture photos with Santa while enjoying the other activities. You also need to pay admission to the Holiday Lights on the River and drive through the park along with the rest of the traffic.

READ MORE: An Awesome Evening at the Riverbanks Zoo’s Lights Before Christmas in Columbia, SC

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Schedule and Admission

The Holidays Lights on the River begins on Friday, November 29 and continues every night until Tuesday, December 31. Entry begins at 6 p.m. with the last vehicles admitted at 10 p.m.

Admission to the Holiday Lights on the River is $20 per vehicle, $40 per passenger van, and $60 per bus.

Seasons Greetings! This warm sign welcomes visitors to the Holiday Lights on the River.

Getting to the Holiday Lights on the River

I cannot stress how important it is to know how to get to the entrance for the Holiday Lights on the River. Hint: it is not the main entrance you’ll find on your GPS or Google Maps!

NOTE: View the map at the top of this post. Click to enlarge. Take it with you.

The entrance to the Holiday Lights on the River is just off St. Andrews Road near the intersection with Bush River Road (that leads to the normal main entrance). If you want to search for this entrance on your phone for navigation, search for “Saluda Shoals Soccer Park” at 6071 St. Andrews Road.

Once you turn onto this road you will find an enormous parking lot turned into a twisty, curvy path for vehicles to park. People wait here in line for entry to begin.

The exit to the Holiday Lights on the River is the normal main entrance on Bush River Road. If you’re keen to drive through again (I drove through twice myself) turn right onto Bush River Road and continue just 1.6 miles to St. Andrews Road. Even if you don’t want to drive through again that is unfortunately the only way to get back to the interstate; traffic will get congested so be prepared.

READ MORE: 16 Favorite Travel Photos of Christmas in Columbia, SC

There are thousands of lights and hundreds of displays on either side of the road through Saluda Shoals Park.

Tips for making the most of the Holiday Lights on the River

It is entirely possible to just show up, drive through the park, and leave while having the time of your life. But here are a few extra tips that might help make the Holiday Lights on the River even better:

  • Arrive at least an hour early, especially on the weekends. Once entry begins it can take up to thirty minutes just to get the cars in the waiting area into the park.
  • Bring food and make a picnic out of it! If you’re gonna arrive early might as well make a family night out of the entire event.
  • Have cash for faster entrance into the park.
  • Try to keep off the brake lights as much as possible. It’s really the only downside to drive through Christmas light displays.
  • The road through the park is an unmarked two-lane road. If you want to stop for a moment, tend to the family, or capture some photos, pull off to the side so the other cars can get around.
  • Once entry begins expect to wait anywhere from 20-40 minutes to get through the waiting area in the parking lot and even longer if the line extends to St. Andrews Road.
  • It takes about 45 minutes to drive through the entire park.
  • It will take around 10-30 minutes to return to St. Andrews Road from the exit to the park.
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