Long stretches of nothingness connected by moments of excitement. That is what I thought after driving Interstate 77 south from Charlotte. It’s an easy drive – mostly because few people drive it – but the monotony was almost sleep inducing. However, if you happen to be road tripping this particular interstate, there are a few worthy detours that will perk you up.
Interstate 77 only travels 91 miles through South Carolina. Connecting Charlotte and Columbia, the interstate highway is a great way to enjoy a day trip either direction.
Interstate 77 unceremoniously comes to an end at Interstate 26 south of Columbia. The choice is simple: head east or west on the connecting interstate highway.
Interstate 26 North leads around the western edge of Columbia toward Spartanburg and eventually Asheville. It’s one of my favorite interstate highways to drive because of the passage through the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina.
Interstate 26 South ends in Charleston which is enough reason to get me excited every time I reach this intersection. Along the way, the interstate passes a couple of neat detours, but if any route could be even more devoid of excitement than I-77 through South Carolina, it is this section.
Congaree National Park
Exiting onto SC Highway 48 – locally called Bluff Road – you wouldn’t know South Carolina’s only national park was just half an hour away. It’s a pleasant drive along a two-lane road leading away from Columbia. Soon enough, you’ll see the entrance sign to the unique park.
Congaree National Park is the only national park in the country built entirely around a swamp. It’s not a bad place to explore – especially if you’re just looking for a minor detour from driving – and there are several trails to help you with that.
The 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail is the most popular hiking trail in the national park. Starting at the visitor center, the trail continues along an elevated boardwalk, then a lower boardwalk, eventually giving way to a gravel path. It’s a peaceful escape that takes about an hour to leisurely walk.
Columbia, South Carolina
The state capital of South Carolina is a fantastic place to spend a weekend – one of my favorite getaways in the state. At the heart of the downtown area, the South Carolina State House is a gorgeous place to take a guided tour or walk the hiking trails around the building.
You’ll find plenty of great restaurants along Gervais and Main Streets. Motor Supply Company features a fantastic brunch menu along with a dinner menu that changes depending on the local market. Grill Marks cooks up one of the best burgers in the city – but you have to try one of their signature Freakshakes for dessert. Next door, Twisted Spur Brewing Company offers a great menu of craft beer to go along with some food.
On Main Street, Bourbon is a restaurant in an old building filled with solid wood panels and comfortable booths – but you’ll have to fight a crowd to get a seat at this popular restaurant. Cantina 76 offers more seating just down the street if you enjoy delicious tacos. On Saturday mornings, Main Street is closed to vehicles are vendors set up tables and tents for the Soda City Market – a great place to find local arts and crafts, clothing, and baked goods.
While in Columbia, be sure to visit the South Carolina State Museum. Three floors of exhibits detail the history of the state from the Charles Town colony through modern times – including a recreation of the Best Friend of Charleston locomotive and a giant shark. EdVenture Children’s Museum next door is a great hands-on museum for children that would make for an entertaining afternoon stop. Along the banks of the Saluda River, Riverbanks Zoo & Garden is a fantastic escape into the wild with a zoo, aquarium, and botanical garden in a comfortable setting.
Where to Stay in Columbia
With the State Capitol, Fort Jackson, and University of South Carolina crammed into the expanses of the city, it goes without saying there are a lot of hotels. But I said it anyway. Here are some favorites during a trip through the area.
Holiday Inn & Suites The Holiday Inn chain has always been top notch and this is no different. All the rooms have been renovated with modern furniture and décor to provide a comfortable visit to the city. Connecting rooms allow families a little more privacy (and separation from the ones who snore).
Hampton Inn This hotel is in a great location beside the interstate to quickly access all the Christmas events in the city. They feature several rooms with a sleeper sofa so you can bring the entire family. The breakfast spread in the morning is pretty impressive and will get your day started off right.
Hyatt Place This is where I stayed during my week of discovering Christmas in Columbia. It was a super comfortable and convenient location for exploring downtown, The Vista, and Five Points during all the Christmas events. A full-service bar and restaurant in the lobby offered a chance to get a meal without having to dress up and go out.
Hopping on Interstate 20 at this intersection can lead to some great adventures across South Carolina and the southern in general.
Take an eastward turn to visit Camden – the oldest inland city in the state – and discover the history of the Revolutionary War. Continue eastbound to Interstate 20’s terminus in Florence and begin the adventure along U.S. Highway 501 into Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand.
Heading west, Interstate 20 passes through Augusta, Georgia, just across the state line – and the Savannah River. The interstate continues across much of the south, eventually coming to an end near Odessa, Texas.
Sesquicentennial State Park
Sesquicentennial State Park was built in celebration of South Carolina’s 150th birthday in 1940. The gorgeous state park is an oasis of outdoor recreation just half an hour from downtown Columbia.
Centered around a large man-made lake, the park features picnic shelters, bicycling and hiking trails, a splash pad, and plenty of chances to just sit by the lake and watch kayakers and ducks jockey for position on the water. The enormous campground has all the amenities you could want and the camp store is fairly well stocked with last-minute items and souvenirs.
Ridgeway, South Carolina
It would be entirely too easy to zip along the interstate highway and miss an opportunity to explore this charming small town. Ridgeway – with a population of just 319 – is a pleasant detour for food and shopping, and not much else.
The Palmer Street Market is the place to find new items like home décor and clothing. The Cotton Yard Market is the place for antiquing with a constantly shifting selection of eclectic items. Over the Top Boutique, the only clothing store in town, has a selection of fine clothing and jewelry.
Olde Town Hall Restaurant & Pub is a good place to get something to eat. The casual restaurant serves gourmet pizzas, burgers, and signature steaks in the historic building that once served as the town hall. My recommendation for lunch in Ridgeway is the charming and peaceful Laura’s Tea Room. The main attraction is Afternoon Tea or High Tea, but I visited for lunch where I enjoyed a bowl of creamy potato soup and grilled pimento cheese sandwich.
Carolina Adventure World
Tucked away in a wooded area just five minutes from the interstate, Carolina Adventure World is one of the most exciting outdoor recreation experiences in South Carolina. The park is a 2,600-acre haven for ATV, UTV, and dirt bike riding. One hundred miles of custom trails offer everything from an evening in the woods to heart pounding excitement.
The park features a campground with full hookups and rental log cabins for the perfect overnight adventure. With rental equipment and a retail store, they have everything you need for an amazing experience.
1515 Arrowhead Road, Winnsboro, SC | 803-482-3534 | www.carolinaadventureworld.net
Olde English District
The Olde English District spans seven counties in the northern portion of South Carolina. The district includes Camden – the oldest inland city in the state – which lends the name “olde” to the tourism region.
Despite the age of Camden and many of the local communities, the district is vibrant with day trip activities. Interstate 77 dissects the district, offering many opportunities to hop off and back on again with short adventures.
The Olde English District Visitor Center is located just off the interstate in Richburg. The visitor center has lots of information about attractions, dining, and lodging in the area and usually has staff to answer questions.
Olde English District Visitor Center 3200 Commerce Drive Suite A, Richburg, SC | 1-803-385-6800 | www.oldeenglishdistrict.com
Landsford Canal State Park
The rocky shoals spider lilies are one of the most stunning natural displays in the country, and one of the few places they can be found is Landsford Canal State Park. Each year around mid-May through mid-June thousands of spider lilies bloom in the shoals of the Catawba River. A 2.5-mile roundtrip hike leads to the Lily Viewing Area. The rest of the year visitors can enjoy easy hiking trails and kayaking on the Catawba River.
Andrew Jackson State Park
Nobody really knows exactly where President Andrew Jackson was born, but the closest anyone has gotten is the land where Andrew Jackson State Park now covers. The very nice museum takes visitors on a journey through Jackson’s childhood growing up in the Waxhaws area of the Carolinas and throughout his presidency.
The most interesting part of the museum is the explanation of a scar on his face I had never really noticed from any of his official portraits. Without spoiling anything for your road trip adventure all I will say is it involved a pivotal encounter with a British officer during the Revolutionary War and would have a lifelong impact on Jackson.
Rock Hill, South Carolina
On the surface, Rock Hill has become a booming town for athletic competitions and in 2019 became the new home for the Carolina Panthers pro football team. But after visiting a few times and digging just below the surface I found a peaceful, charming small town at the heart of the biggest city in the Olde English District.
The Old Town Rock Hill district covers much of downtown and there is plenty to see and do. Newsstand Record & Books is one of the few vinyl record shops I have come across in my travels. Just down the street is Friends Books on Main, a used bookstore selling books from the local library. The Main Street Bottle Company was a wonderful place to get a drink and then shop for local craft beer in six packs.
When you get hungry, I have the perfect plan for you. It starts with dinner. Choose between wood fired pizza at Millstone Pizza and Taproom or gourmet burgers from Flipside Restaurant; they are next door to each other if that makes the decision easier. Then walk down the street to get a sweet treat at Amelie’s French Bakery & Cafe. It’s the perfect way to end any day in Rock Hill.
If you visit Rock Hill on a third Friday from May through October, you’ll likely find the streets surrounding Fountain Park closed off, filled with food trucks and tasting tents, and packed with locals having a good time. Food Truck Friday is one of my favorite events held in the city and almost makes it worth a weekend visit just for the local food and craft beer.
Visit York County 130 East Main Street, Rock Hill, SC | 803-329-5200 | https://www.visityorkcounty.com/
Where to Stay in Rock Hill
Rock Hill is a growing city – and that includes the options for hotels. There is no hotel downtown, yet, so you’ll have to find one along the interstate highway.
La Quinta is another hotel I always recommend in this area. Their comfortable rooms include a suite with either two queen beds or a king bed along with a sleeper sofa for traveling families. A pretty good breakfast is included, and they have an outdoor swimming pool.
My top recommendation for hotel in Rock Hill is Hampton Inn. Comfortable rooms, great service, and they have one of the best free hot breakfast spreads of any hotel I’ve ever visited.
Another great hotel is Holiday Inn. Along with comfortable rooms this hotel has an indoor swimming pool, but you’ll have to fork over $20 for breakfast in the morning.
Fort Mill, South Carolina
Don’t feel overwhelmed when you exit the interstate – it’s a corporate menagerie here! Once you get through the traffic congestion – everyone trying to get to one of the chain restaurants – you’ll find the quaint downtown of Fort Mill.
Just 15 miles south of Charlotte, the quaint town of Fort Mill is a welcome break from the concrete jungle of the big city with a return to rolling hills, vibrant trees, and a slow southern pace.
Start with a visit to the Fort Mill History Museum to learn about the Catawba Indians who once called the area home, the founding of the town in the late 1800s, and the booming textile industry that is still a major employer. Take a walk down Main Street for window shopping or hop inside to do some actual shopping. Pay a visit to Amor Artis Brewing to sample their craft beer, then head next door to The Improper Pig for a wonderful meal.
The PuckerButt Pepper Company is the hottest place in town to visit (almost literally). In 2013, owner Ed Currie was awarded the Guinness World Records title for World’s Hottest Chili. The Carolina Reaper, a perfect name if ever one existed, is grown is the Fort Mill area of the Carolinas and measured a whopping 1.64 million Scoville Heat Units. Hop inside this small store on Main Street to sample that chili and many others and decide which to take home.
Where to Stay in Fort Mill
About halfway between Charlotte and Rock Hill, Fort Mill has been growing as an unofficial suburb of the Queen City. There aren’t many options for hotels, but they’re still fantastic for spending a night or two.
Courtyard by Marriott is an excellent choice for traveling families because most of their rooms include a sleeper sofa. In fact, they even have a suite with two queen beds and a sleeper sofa that can sleep six. Along with an outdoor swimming pool, free parking, and on-site bar, this would be a great overnight stay.
Tru by Hilton is a better place for traveling couples or solo travelers to spend the night. The rooms vary between one or two king or queen beds. There is no swimming pool, restaurant, or bar on site. But it’s a tad bit more affordable and still easily accessible from the interstate highway.
Carowinds is the only amusement theme park in the Carolinas – and the locals are very fond of it. The park has been offering thrill rides, waterpark adventures, and fantastic day trip getaways for decades. Heart pounding rollercoasters are certainly the main attraction, but you’ll also find bumper cars, gentle rides, and opportunities just to sit back and relax.
Arrive early to make the most of the day. The summer months are the most popular and cause horrific traffic congestion along the interstate highway at the exit. Check the Carowinds Daily Ticket website for daily prices and discounts. Buy a day pass in advance to take advantage of deals and get you through the entrance a little faster when you arrive.
Where to Stay at Carowinds
The Best Western is a more budget-friendly option. The hotel includes rooms with a single king bed or two queen beds. The hotel has a swimming pool and offers free continental breakfast.
The Comfort Inn has the best outdoor swimming pool for any nearby hotels and includes a pretty good breakfast with the rooms. Rooms features either a single king bed or two queen beds.
SpringHill Suites is a brand-new hotel for 2020. The luxury hotel has rooms with two queen beds or a suite with one king bed and a sleeper sofa for traveling families. The hotel includes a swimming pool, free parking, and breakfast.
Carowinds Camp Wilderness is an awesome opportunity to spend the night camping in your RV or sleeping in a cozy two-bedroom cabin. The park features 15 cabins, two of them accessible, and almost two hundred campsites with full hookups.