Interstate Exit Guide: Interstate 26 Across Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina

Travel guide for all the things you'll pass along Interstate 26 through Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

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Written by Jason Barnette
Published on January 15, 2021

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

At just 306 miles long and 17 years old, Interstate 26 is one of the shortest and youngest interstate highways in the United States. But traveling on the highway from the mountains to the sea, connecting the popular destinations of Asheville and Charleston, means it’s also one of the most exciting routes in the country. I’ve been driving the highway for ten years now and decided it was time to write an interstate exit guide.

One of the first times I ever drove Interstate 26, I took a wrong turn and ended up in the wrong state. I had been driving for several hours along Interstate 40 across North Carolina on my way to see the grandmother in Johnson City, Tennessee. I got off the interstate in Asheville for gas and snacks, but when I got back on the road, I used the wrong exit onto Interstate 26.

It wasn’t until an hour later, after descending down a long mountain in the dark, that I saw a sign welcoming me to South Carolina. That’s when I knew I had done something wrong. I quickly exited, turned around, and sped back up the mountain again.

I pulled up to the grandmother’s house three hours later than expected. As always, she was standing at the front door eagerly awaiting my arrival. “What took you so long?” she asked. I laughed. It was going to be a long story.

Although road tripping on interstate highways breaks my #1 Rule of Road Trips, I have to admit Interstate 26 is a wonderful route to drive. Here is everything you’ll find along the highway from Kingsport, Tennessee to Charleston, South Carolina.

Brief History of Interstate 26

Planning for an interstate highway connecting Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina, with Charleston began with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. From 1957-1960, the first section of the interstate highway was built into Charleston.

From 1960-1969, Interstate 26 was extended a couple of times. First, it was extended from Columbia to Spartanburg, and then to the North Carolina/South Carolina state line near Landrum.

In 1976, Interstate 26 was again extended from the state line to Asheville, North Carolina, connecting with Interstate 40. In the 1980s, discussions were initiated by trucker’s unions who wanted an interstate highway connecting Interstate 40 in Asheville with Interstate 81 in Kingsport, Tennessee. At the time, the only route for truckers took several hours to Knoxville.

In 2003, a final extension of Interstate 26 opened between Mars Hill, North Carolina and the Virginia/Tennessee state line near Kingsport. Initially, the planners did not want to extend Interstate 26 beyond Interstate 81 because it would create a “stub” and rather unceremonious end to the highway. However, local leaders managed to convince the planning board to continue the interstate highway designation to the state line, where U.S. Highway 23 continues as a four-lane divided highway.

Interstate 26 in Tennessee

Through most of Tennessee, Interstate 26 replaced the route of U.S. Highway 23. Beginning at the Virginia/Tennessee border, the interstate travels 57 miles through two cities and past Cherokee National Forest.

Downtown Kingsport is peaceful on most days.

Exit 1

Kingsport, TN

At the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Holston River, Kingsport developed in the 1800s as a frontier town supporting westward expansion. After the Civil War, the city reinvented itself as a hub for industry, leading to Eastman Chemical Company building their empire on Holston Island in the river.

Broad Street is the main street through downtown. From Church Circle, one of the earliest roundabouts in the country, the street crosses four city blocks and ends at Citizens Bank inside the old train depot. Park anywhere along the street and enjoy shopping for antiques, arts and crafts, and local goods.

Macado’s is a local chain of restaurants, mostly located in college towns across the Southeast, that feature American foods like wings and burgers. The Mustard Seed Café offers savory soups and sandwiches and Main Street Pizza Company offers, well, pretty good pizzas. Model City Tap House, named after the fact Kingsport was once considered a “modern model city” for America, is a great place for sandwiches and food while enjoying a drink or two.

Where to Stay in Kingsport

The MeadowView Marriott Conference Resort and Convention Center is the best hotel in Kingsport – and it’s not a budget breaker by any means. The luxurious rooms would make for a comfortable break on any road trip. Options include one queen bed or a room with one king bed and a sleeper sofa.

I am always a fan of Holiday Inn Express and the location in Kingsport is no exception. Rooms with a single king bed, two double beds, and a King Suite with king bed and sleeper sofa give plenty of options during road trip adventures.

The Comfort Suites are a more budget-friendly option, but still offers comfortable rooms. Choose from a single king bed or two queen beds in this modest hotel – but it also features a swimming pool.

The wolf den is one of the most popular attractions at Bays Mountain – be sure to visit on a feeding day for a real show!

Exit 3

Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium

The 44-acre lake atop Bays Mountain serves water to the nearby city of Kingsport, Tennessee. Bays Mountain Park features dozens of hiking trails around the lake, mountain biking trails, and an eco-tour on the lake.

Step inside the Nature Center to learn about the local wildlife and history of the mountain. Outside, wander through the Habitat where you’ll find deer, bobcats, and wolves. There’s also plenty of wildlife in the wild with blue herons and turtles on the lake.

853 Bays Mountain Park Road, Kingsport, TN | 423-229-9447 | www.baysmountain.com

Tennessee Welcome Center

The Tennessee Welcome Center is the newest on Interstate 26 – built after the local communities pleaded for a visitor information center to promote tourism in the Tri-Cities Region. The welcome center can be access while traveling eastbound or westbound and is a rather nice facility to visit.

Exit 6

Warriors Path State Park

Warriors Path State Park is located just outside Kingsport along the South Fork of the Holston River, a nearby dam turns the river into a small and winding lake with plenty of opportunities for boating and kayaking. Begin an adventure at the state park with a drive out to Duck Island and enjoy a leisure walk 20-minute walk around the island.

The Disc Golf Course is moderately difficult with a few hills and trees to overcome. It’s one of the more pleasant disc golf courses in Tennessee. The golf course is open to the general public and offers a challenging course with golf cart rentals, a clubhouse, and gear shop. A small pier offers a chance to spend a day fishing and a few playgrounds give children something exciting to do.

Spend the night at the campground with 134 campsites surrounded by the river. 94 of the campsites have water and electric hookups, and all the sites include a grill and picnic table. The large swimming pool is a popular place to hang out in the summer months and a better place to swim than the river.

490 Hemlock Road, Kingsport, TN | 423-239-8531 | tnstateparks.com/parks/warriors-path

Main Street through Johnson City is quiet most of the time.

Exit 23

Johnson City, TN

Johnson City is a college town, thought you almost wouldn’t know it wandering the streets downtown. Local arts and crafts store line East Main Street, along with Freiberg’s German Restaurant with authentic food from the Motherland. Yee-Haw Brewing Company opened in Johnson City a few years ago and offers an upbeat venue in an old railroad depot to hang out for a while; grab something to eat next door at White Duck Tacos.

The Carnegie Hotel is the most luxurious place to spend a night in Johnson City. The AAA Four Diamond hotel is located a few minutes from downtown near the East Tennessee State University campus. Enjoy a night of pampering with on-site spa, restaurant, and swimming pool.

READ MORE: Road Trip to the Southern Sixers

Where to Stay in Johnson City

The Carnegie Hotel is the premiere overnight accommodation in Johnson City. With an on-site restaurant and full day spa you could almost spend an entire day just lounging around the hotel.

The Hampton Inn is an excellent hotel for spending a few nights, but it’s located beside the hospital in a somewhat busy section of town. It’s not a bad location, but difficult for unfamiliar visitors. Choose from rooms with a single king bed, two double beds, or a suite with a king bed and sleeper sofa.

The Sleep Inn is a more budget-friendly option that is still comfortable and safe for a few nights. Choose from rooms with a single king bed or two double beds. The hotel is located near the interstate and plenty of great restaurants.

Exit 24

Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park

Times on the frontier were rough, especially when early settlers to the region violated the King’s orders and were essentially on their own. Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park features a full-sized recreation of Fort Watauga, a fortification built to protect local settlers from Native American raiding parties.

The annual Siege of Fort Watauga is a reenactment depicting a critical fight between settlers, British regulars, and Native Americans that took place on the site. Inside the visitor center, a magnificent museum expands on the history of the Transylvania Purchase, the largest private land transaction in North American history, and the Overmountain Men who crossed the river here during the Revolutionary War.

READ MORE: The Siege of Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals State Park

1651 W. Elk. Avenue, Elizabethton, TN | 423-543-5808 | tnstateparks.com/parks/sycamore-shoals

Exit 36

Rock Creek Recreation Area

Cherokee National Forest covers a vast region along the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Near Erwin, Tennessee, the Rock Creek Recreation Area is one of the best campgrounds in this national forest and offers a wonderful chance to explore the region.

Go for a hike on the 4.9-mile Rock Creek Trail to enjoy a peaceful excursion into the forest with a moderately strenuous ascent of 1,154’ to a waterfall. A short drive from the campground is the graveled Unaka Mountain Road leading to The Beauty Spot on the Appalachian Trail. It offers one of the most stunning vistas on the entire trail.

READ MORE: 10 Places for Epic Adventures in Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee

Exit 37

Erwin, TN

The charming town of Erwin is just minutes from the interstate, but it’s often overlooked in favor of continuing travel down the road. The town’s four blocks won’t keep you busy for more than two hours, but it’s worth the time to stop.

Start with a fresh local coffee at Steel Rails Coffee House at the edge of downtown. From there, go for a short walk along Main Street to find antique stores and local gift shops. Step inside the Choo Choo Café, named because of the town’s connection with the local railroad industry, for a small menu of sandwiches, soups, and desserts. End the walk with a drink or two at Union Street Taproom where you’ll find a selection of craft beers from across the country – including one of my favorites 1911 Hard Cider from Beak & Skiff Apple Orchard in New York.

Bring a chair and sit by the Nolichucky River. Eventually, you’ll see someone float down the river.

Exit 40

Chestoa Recreation Area

At the far end of Erwin, the Appalachian Trail enters town near the Nolichucky River. The Chestoa Recreation Area is part of Cherokee National Forest, a large area surrounding Erwin and Unaka Mountain in Tennessee.

The shallow water of the river passes a rocky beach near the parking lot at the recreation area, offering a great opportunity to take a break from driving and enjoy the peacefulness. You won’t be alone; a frequent activity is to float down the river past the recreation area. But if you’re up for more adventure, USA Raft Adventure Resort offers whitewater rafting excursions on the Nolichucky.

Exit 46

Tennessee Welcome Center

Eastbound and westbound traffic can use this interstate exit to reach the Tennessee Welcome Center. Surrounded by the trees of Cherokee National Forest and designed to look like a rustic cabin, the welcome center is practically a destination.

Step inside to find clean restrooms, tourism brochures sorted by region, and a staff to help you figure out where to go next an on adventure through the mountains.

Did You Know?

All interstate highways are defined as running east-west or north-south. But did you know the east-west routes have even numbers and the north-south routes odd numbers? Interstate 26 would appear to be a north-south route; however, it was designated east-west.

Eastbound travelers will be heading south from Kingsport to Charleston, while westbound travelers will be heading north from Charleston to Kingsport.

Flint Mountain Scenic Overlook (Westbound Only)

Westbound travelers on Interstate 26 can enjoy this scenic overlook. A short, paved trail climbs a small hill to an overlook with a commanding view of the mountain range to the east. A longer, and much steeper, climb leads to an upper overlook with a view of the mountains to the west.

The lower overlook is accessible with a gentle slope to the round paved area. The parking area has plenty of room for personal cars and RVs.

Sams Gap Scenic Overlook (Eastbound Only)

Eastbound travelers on Interstate 26 can enjoy a scenic overlook just below Sams Gap, a cut in the mountain made for the highway. Sams Gap marks the Tennessee/North Carolina border. A short bridge crosses Flag Pond Road, the original route of U.S. Highway 23, and the passage of the Appalachian Trail.

The scenic overlook has plenty of parking for personal cars and RVs. A paved path climbs a gentle hill to the overlook with a view of Interstate 26 to the north.

Did You Know?

Sam’s Gap is the highest point on Interstate 26 at 3,670′.

Interstate 26 in North Carolina

Interstate 26 travels just 71 miles across Western North Carolina, but it’s one of the most scenic and exciting routes in the state. The journey through the mountains includes awesome destinations, interesting attractions, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

North Carolina Welcome Center (Eastbound Only)

Easbound travelers have another scenic overlook to enjoy. From a covered shelter beside the parking area, visitors can see the Black Mountains and Mount Mitchell, the highest point on the east coast, to the southeast.

The visitor center – one of the best in the state – has an entire room full of brochures exploring all of North Carolina. Restrooms, a walking trail, covered picnic tables, and plenty of parking make it a great place to stretch your legs.

You can see Interstate 26 to the right and the Blue Ridge Mountains across the horizon.

Blue Ridge Mountains Scenic Overlook (Northbound Only)

A small, covered shelter awaits visitors who pull off at this small scenic overlook. Stand on the deck and look to the south to see a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains. To the far left, Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, just above the horizon. Near the middle of the ridge, Craggy Gardens’ three peaks are barely distinguishable.

READ MORE: 3 Ways to Explore Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Exit 11

Mars Hill, NC

A gas station and hotel is all you can see of Mars Hill from the interstate, but take a five minute drive from the interstate exit and you’ll find a quaint downtown at the edge of Mars Hill University.

Stop at the Madison County Visitor Center to pick up information on attractions in the region. Grab a delicious burger at Stackhouse or go for a made-to-order pizza at The Original Papa Nicks. Finish off the meal with a tasting at Hickory Nut Brewing, or get a pick-me-up at The Library Coffee House.

Exit 19

Weaverville, NC

Once you get passed the commercial stores and fast food chains at the interstate, you’ll find Weaverville is a charming small town. The town is located at the base of the Black Mountains and about an hour from Mount Mitchell, if you don’t mind a curvy two-lane road to get there.

Take a walk downtown for food at Blue Mountain Pizza, drinks at Eluvium Brewing Company, or do some shopping for gear and supplies at Curtis Wright Outfitters. Go for a short drive to the Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace where you can explore an 1800s frontier plantation and learn the controversial history of a North Carolina governor and senator.

Exit 4 (I-240)

Asheville, NC

Located in the middle of the Western North Carolina mountains, Asheville has always been a tourism destination with the Blue Ridge Parkway running around the city, Great Smoky Mountains National Park just an hour away, and countless scenic driving routes. But in the past decade, Asheville has also boomed as a craft brewery town, food destination, and cultural center.

Asheville is too big to explore in a single day or even a weekend. For short visits, I recommend focusing on neighborhoods within the city for a full experience. The River Arts District is known for craft breweries and wineries, local arts and crafts, and a smattering of great places to eat. Biltmore Forest, located at the entrance to George Vanderbilt’s “country home,” features a few great hotels to spend the night, local restaurants, and a few retail shops. The South Asheville neighborhood is more spread out, requiring a vehicle to visit these attractions including the North Carolina Arboretum, Biltmore Estate, and Western North Carolina Farmers Market.

Downtown Asheville is a big place to explore on its own. Begin at the Grove Arcade – a 1920s office building that was enclosed and converted into retail shops on the first floor. Walk for a few blocks – or find a different place to park – and meander along Broadway Street, the main street through Asheville. Mast General Store, Double D’s Coffee, the Asheville Art Museum, and the French Board Chocolate Lounge are a few great places to visit downtown.

Explore Asheville 36 Montford Avenue, Asheville, NC | 828-258-6101 | www.exploreasheville.com

Where to Stay in Asheville

Tunnel Road – U.S. Highway 70
GLō Best Western is an interesting and charming new type of hotel. With free on-site parking, an indoor swimming pool, and a delicious complimentary breakfast, this would be a great overnight stay. The hotel features King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds.

Fairfield Inn & Suites is another wonderful place to stay on Tunnel Road. The hotel has a small indoor swimming pool, free on-site parking, and free breakfast in the morning. The hotel features King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a King Suite with a sleeper sofa for traveling families.

Hampton Inn is always a favorite place to stay in Asheville. They have free on-site parking, an indoor swimming pool for enjoyment, and free breakfast. The hotel features King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds.

Biltmore Village – U.S. Highway 25
Hampton Inn in the Biltmore Village area is another excellent place to stay close to the Blue Ridge Parkway. This hotel includes free on-site parking, an indoor swimming pool, free breakfast, and an on-site bar. The hotel features King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a King Room with a sleeper sofa.

The Holiday Inn & Suites is a great alternative int he Biltmore Village area. You’ll find an indoor swimming pool, free on-site parking, and an on-site bar. The hotel features Standard Rooms with a full bed, King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and an Executive Suite with a queen bed and sleeper sofa.

The Grand Bohemian Hotel is the height of luxury during your Blue Ridge Parkway road trip. The hotel features King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds. You’ll also find free on-site parking, an on-site bar, and a spa.

Biltmore Estate
My top recommendation for lodging in Asheville during this road trip is the Village Hotel at Biltmore Estate. With free on-site parking, an outdoor swimming pool, an on-site bar serving local wines and spirits, and a spa, this would be the perfect place to take a day off from driving to enjoy some pampering.

A more secluded alternative would be The Inn at Biltmore Estate. The hotel has an outdoor swimming pool and free on-site parking, but the biggest draw is the Dining Room with regional cuisine for guests only and the Library Lounge with casual fine dining. The hotel features King Rooms with a mountain view and Double Rooms with two double beds.

Downtown Asheville
My top recommendation for lodging in downtown Asheville is the Cambria Hotel. Located across the street from the Grove Arcade, it’s within walking distance of just about everything downtown. The hotel features King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a luxurious Corner King Suite with sleeper sofa and private deck.

Exit 50 (I-40)

Biltmore

When George Vanderbilt visited Asheville and saw the majestic Mount Pisgah in the distance, he decided that was the perfect place to build his “country home.” The Biltmore is the largest house in America sitting on nearly 8,000 acres of land just south of Asheville. The peaceful setting, steeped in history, and on-site attractions have made it one of the most-visited destinations in the state.

Considering the price of admission to the estate – it can cost upwards of $60/person on an average day – I recommend investing an entire day to get the most value for your money. Begin with a tour of the grand house; visitors must select an available tour time so be sure to buy your tickets in advance if possible. If you don’t have the time or desire to tour inside the house, there is plenty to see outside with stunning architecture, formal gardens, and breathtaking views behind the house.

Insider Tip

Book the guided tour of the house an hour before sunset for a truly spectacular view.

Antler Hill Village is a one-stop destination on the massive Biltmore Estate for food and entertainment. Get something to eat at Cedric’s Tavern, walk next door the The Creamery for a wonderful dessert, and do a little shopping for Biltmore gifts. At Antler Hill Farm, visitors can see typical farm animals that were a part of early life on the estate.

Overnight visitors to the Biltmore have the distinct pleasure of twilight and dawn strolls across the property before the gates open to the general public. The Residences at Biltmore offer high quality hotel rooms for solo travelers and families alike. The Inn on Biltmore Estate is peak overnight accommodations with luxury furnishings and fine amenities.

One Lodge Street, Asheville, NC | 800-411-3812 | www.biltmore.com

Exit 1 (I-240) or Exit 33 (I-26)

Western North Carolina Farmer’s Market

One of the easiest stops along Interstate 26 in Asheville with the greatest reward. Two indoor market areas house dozens of local farmers – along with a few artisans – offering a chance to take something wonderful on the road with you. Fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, and baked goods are available mostly throughout the year.

Exit 33

The North Carolina Arboretum

Technically admission is free at The North Carolina Arboretum, but you’ll have to pay to park your car. The fee is worth the opportunity to walk the gardens and trails at this attraction located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville.

Begin the adventure at the Education Center, where you’ll find restrooms, a small gift shop, and a rotating exhibit space. Head outside to the Bonzai Exhibition Garden, then start the long walk on the Grand Garden Promenade past several formal gardens to the Baker Exhibit Center. Eleven hiking trails wind across the 65-acre property, with about half of them open to foot traffic and mountain biking.

100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way, Asheville, NC | 828-665-2492 | www.ncarboretum.org

The view from Craggy Pinnacle – about a twenty minute moderate hike.

Exit 33

Blue Ridge Parkway

The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Along the way, the Parkway passes the highest point on the East Coast, hundreds of scenic overlooks, and miles of hiking trails.

Take Exit 37 and turn away from the flashy shopping center. Follow Long Shoals Road to a traffic light and then turn right onto Brevard Road. Just after passing under a bridge, you will come to a turn to the left where you can access the Blue Ridge Parkway and The North Carolina Arboretum.

READ MORE: Road Trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway

This interchange on the Parkway is located at Milepost 393.6. The Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center is 10 miles to the north. Craggy Gardens, one of the most scenic places to visit on the Parkway, is about thirty miles north and takes 45 minutes to get there.

To the south, Mount Pisgah is located at Milepost 407.9. It takes about twenty minutes to get there through a series of tunnels. Visitors can take the 3.2-mile Mount Pisgah Trail to reach the summit of the mountain and enjoy the views from the wooden observation deck. The Pisgah Inn is one of the only lodges on the Parkway and offers rooms with a stunning view from the mountain ridge.

Exit 40

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

The brown signs on the interstate are typically reserved for outdoor attractions like state and national parks. That’s why I was surprised the first time I saw a brown sign for the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company near the airport in Asheville. It’s a few turns from Exit 40 – be sure to have a handy GPS device ready to go – but soon enough you’ll take a winding road through an alley of trees to the Sierra Nevada Taproom & Restaurant.

The gargantuan brewing facility is mostly hidden from view but trust me it’s there. Their entire east coast division is run from this site just twenty minutes south of Asheville. Guided tours are offered of the brewery – each lasting about half an hour – where visitors can learn about the history 

100 Sierra Nevada Way, Mills River, NC | 828-708-6176 | https://sierranevada.com/visit/north-carolina

Exit 49

Hendersonville, NC

The thriving downtown of Hendersonville should never be overlooked for Asheville when visiting North Carolina. Home of the annual North Carolina Apple Festival, Hendersonville’s downtown is a one-stop destination for shopping, dining, and attractions.

Mast General Store is one of just over a dozen locations across the country of the popular outdoor retailer that began in North Carolina a very long time ago. From there, take a walk down the wide sidewalks of Main Street and get a brick oven pizza at Mezzaluna or go for steak and scallops at Postero. Finish your meal with a scoop, or two, of ice cream at Kilwins or grab a coffee to go at Black Bear Coffee Company.

Visit Hendersonville 201 South Main Street, Hendersonville, NC | 828-693-9708 | www.visithendersonvillenc.org

Where to Stay in Hendersonville

The Charleston Inn is a charming bed and breakfast located near downtown. All rooms include a single bed only, so this might not be the place to stay if you travel with family. Free on-site parking and a fantastic breakfast make this an inviting place to stay.

The Best Western won’t win any awards for a beautiful building – it’s a colonial brick design – but it is a comfortable place to spend the night. Choose from rooms with a single king bed or two double beds. The hotel is located near the interstate and surrounded by all the restaurants you could need.

Red Roof Inn is the most budget-friendly option in Hendersonville – and should not be discounted for that reason. Rooms are accessed from inside the lobby of the hotel and include new renovations and furniture. Choose from rooms with a single king bed or two double beds.

Exit 53

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

In the early 1900s, Carl Sandburg was widely considered one of the most influential authors in America. Collections of his poetry won him two Pulitzer Prizes, and he won a third with his biography of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1945, Sandburg moved to the Connemara estate in Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he would spend the rest of his life writing almost one-third of his total works. Today, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site is open to the public for guided tours where visitors can learn Sandburg’s history, read his poetry, and appreciate the peacefulness of his retirement estate.

81 Carl Sandburg Lane, Flat Rock, NC | 828-693-4178 | www.nps.gov/carl/index.htm

Exit 54

Saluda, NC

It’s easy to miss the small town of Saluda and that would be a true shame. The most scenic route to visit the town for eastbound travelers on Interstate 26 is to take Exit 54 onto U.S. Highway 25 and then turn onto U.S. Highway 176. The winding road descends the mountains into the piedmont region, but not before passing through the town.

Begin at the Saluda Historic Depot where you can learn about the infamous Saluda Grade, the steepest standard gauge railroad in the country. Take a casual walk down the street, it would only take ten minutes to walk through the entire town, and get something to eat at Thompson’s Store. At the end of the two-block downtown, get a sweet treat at Somewhere In Time and call it a good day in Saluda.

North Carolina Welcome Center (Westbound Only)

Just after crossing the state line heading north – westbound on the interstate – you’ll come to the North Carolina Welcome Center. It’s one of the better welcome centers I’ve come across on various road trips and a place I always stop.

Truck and RV parking is below the visitor center with a staircase climbing the backside. Personal vehicles loop around the building with plenty of parking and a few larger spaces for trucks with small trailers.

The restrooms are in a separate building from the visitor center and always kept open to the public. The visitor center has loads of brochures covering the entire state and usually one or two people at the desk to answer questions.

Interstate 26 in South Carolina

From Charleston to the North Carolina border near Landrum, Interstate 26 travels 220 miles across South Carolina. It’s a pleasant drive across the Piedmont, but by the time you reach the border you can see the mountains ahead.

South Carolina Welcome Center (Eastbound Only)

Just after descending the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, visitors will come to the South Carolina Welcome Center. It’s a great place to get information about the state, use the restrooms, and stretch your legs.

Exit 5

Strawberry Hill U.S.A.

James Cooley was the third generation of his family to farm the land in the upstate of South Carolina along Highway 11. It had started as a cotton farm with his grandfather, transitioned to peaches with his father, and in 1978 James took over the farm.

In 1995 James plowed over 6 acres of peach trees in favor of strawberry plants. Within just a few years his farm earned the nickname “Strawberry Hill USA” from his loyal customers. Today the farm has nearly 1,000 acres of peach trees and over 100 acres of strawberry plants.

READ MORE: Road Trip on the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway in South Carolina

Stop at Strawberry Hill USA Café for a delicious made-to-order breakfast. There’s plenty of seating so you won’t have to wait long. Grab an ice cream on the way out. Walk across the road to browse through the fresh produce from the farm at the roadside market. You’re almost certain to take something home with you.

3097 SC Hwy 11, Chesnee, SC |864-461-5353www.strawberryhillusa.com

Exit 21

Spartanburg, SC

Spartanburg is a busy city in the South Carolina Upcountry at the intersection of Interstates 26 and 85. You’ll know you’re there when you pass Westgate Mall – a long staple of the city located on Main Street leading into downtown.

Downtown is a walkable outdoor space centered around Morgan Square with more local restaurants than you’ll be able to sample in a week. The Kennedy is a farm-to-table restaurant with a revolving menu that never disappoints. Pokenori and The Lemongrass Kitchen are two examples of the ethnic food in Spartanburg – a rarity in smaller cities. My favorite downtown restaurant is RJ Rockers Brewing Company where you can get a craft beer to go along with delicious burgers, tacos, and wings.

Visit Spartanburg 105 North Pine Street, Spartanburg, SC | 864-594-5000 | www.visitspartanburg.com

Where to Stay in Spartanburg

Located in the historic district, the Spartanburg Marriott is the premiere overnight lodging in the city. Choose from rooms with a single king bed or a suite with a king bed and sleeper sofa. A terrace with a downtown view, comfortable lounge, and outdoor swimming pool are added perks for this excellent hotel.

On the other side of downtown – and still walking distance to shops and restaurants – the AC Hotel is another great place to spend a few nights. Choose from rooms with a single king bed or get a suite with a single king bed and sleeper sofa. The outdoor swimming pool is a great amenity – if you have the time to enjoy it!

Hampton Inn & Suites is always a great place to spend the night with one of the best free breakfasts of any hotel chain. Located beside the interstate, it will be easier to reach if you’re just road tripping through the area. Choose from rooms with one or two beds or go with a suite with king bed and sleeper sofa.

Red Roof Inn is an excellent budget-friendly option for road tripping through Spartanburg. With interior access rooms, recent renovations including faux hardwood floors, and new furniture, the hotel will be a comfortable place to spend a night.

Exit 44 or 52

Battle of Musgrove Mill State Historic Site

On August 18, 1780, a small group of Patriots under the command of Colonel Isaac Shelby and Colonel Elijah Clarke were moving through the South Carolina countryside on their way to attack a nearby British fort. However, they only made it as far as Horseshoe Falls near the Enoree River before they were discovered by redcoat sentries.

Outnumbered and outgunned, Shelby and Clarke quickly improvised a plan to lure the British into battle on their terms. Captain Shadrack Inman led 25 men across the Enoree River to feign an attack, and then strategically retreat with the full British force closely behind. The resulting battle left nearly half the British soldiers dead, wounded, or captured. In comparison, only four Patriots were killed in action and seven wounded.

READ MORE: Road Trip to Discover the Revolutionary War Across South Carolina

The Battle of Musgrove Mill State Historic Site preserves the historic battleground along the Enoree River. Begin at the visitor center where you’ll learn the details of the battle and pick up a park map. Go for a hike along the British Trail that winds through the area where the British camped before the battle. Drive across the river to a small parking area and go for a hike to Horseshoe Falls, a small waterfall above the Enoree River. The Battlefield Trail loops through a large field where a portion of the battle took place.

398 State Park Road, Clinton, SC | 864-938-0100 | southcarolinaparks.com/musgrove-mill

The historic Newberry Opera House.

Exit 74

Newberry, SC

Newberry is a charming town you would never know existed if you didn’t get off the interstate highway to investigate – that’s exactly how I found it. Downtown stretches a total three blocks along Main Street lined with retail shops, restaurants, and the Newberry Opera House – an historic venue with a solid schedule of events.

Figaro Market is a small shop chocked full of local produce and baked goods – an excellent place to visit during a road trip through the area. Around the corner, Figaro the Dining Room is the poshest restaurant in town with a menu of duck breast, ribeye, and lobster tails. The Grille on Main is a bit more affordable but still with a great menu that includes Southern Fried Catfish – one of my favorite meals.  


Newberry Chamber of Commerce 1209 Caldwell St, Newberry, SC |
803-276-4274 | www.newberrycountychamber.com

Where to Stay in Newberry

Hampton Inn is the only hotel located downtown within easy walking distance of the historic Newberry Opera House and many restaurants. It’s a gorgeous hotel with options for one or two beds in rooms and a suite with a king bed and sleeper sofa.

Holiday Inn Express is located beside the interstate with easy access if you’re just passing through. Choose from rooms with a single king or queen bed or get a suite with a king bed and sleeper sofa for traveling families.

Days Inn is the most budget-friendly option in Newberry and still a very comfortable motel. There is no option for a suite at this location, but you can choose from rooms with one or two beds or get adjoining rooms.

Exit 91

Dreher Island State Park

Dreher Island State Park is not exactly a hop-off, hop-on destination while traveling along Interstate 26, but it is worth a day trip visit to this somewhat remote state park. After exiting the interstate, it’s about a 20-minute drive along two-lane country roads to the state park’s entrance.

The park is located along Lake Murray – a 50,000-acre reservoir with a whopping 650 miles of shoreline. The park is indeed located on an island – in fact, it’s a chain of three islands connected by bridge and easy to traverse.

READ MORE: Becoming a South Carolina Ultimate Outsider

The park features a wonderful campground hidden beneath the shade of long leaf pines with nearly half the campsites waterfront. Hiking trails wind through the park and along the shore of the lake. A full-service marina offers boat rentals, fuel, and supplies for day trips on the lake for recreation or fishing.

3677 State Park Rd, Prosperity, SC | 803-364-4152 | www.southcarolinaparks.com/dreherisland

Exit 107

Columbia, SC

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.

READ MORE: 5 Sensational Local Places for Brunch in Columbia, SC

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.

Experience Columbia 1010 Lincoln Street, Columbia, SC | 803-545-0000 | www.experiencecolumbiasc.com

Where to Stay in Columbia

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.

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.

The Boardwalk Loop Trail is an excellent choice for a quick, easy hike at Congaree National Park.

Exit 5 (I-77)

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is the only national park in South Carolina. The park preserves the old growth forest along the Congaree River about thirty minutes south of Columbia.

The national park is infamously known for the Mosquito Meter – a gauge of how many buzzing insects visitors will find during a visit to the swampy park. Summer months are usually the worst, with the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn the best for a hike or canoe trip.

READ MORE: Hiking Trails in Congaree National Park

There are ten hiking trails in the park ranging from less than a mile to almost ten miles in length, but they’re all easy to hike. The most popular trail in the park is the Boardwalk Loop Trail. The 2.4-mile trail begins at the visitor center on an elevated boardwalk that eventually descends to a level boardwalk with the floor of the forest.

100 National Park Rd, Hopkins, SC | 803-776-4396 | www.nps.gov/cong/index.htm

Exit 145

Orangeburg, SC

I’ll admit Orangeburg is typically a place I get off the interstate for dinner at a fast food joint near the highway, but the small country town does have a few things worthy of a detour. Exit 145 on Interstate 26 is a great place to find food and fuel with an abundance of both within five minutes of the exit.

Continue about 15 minutes along Magnolia Street to discover downtown – passing South Carolina State University along the way. Russell Street is the main street through downtown with about two blocks of local businesses beginning at Memorial Plaza.

Edisto Memorial Gardens is a good place to stretch your legs on beautiful days. The small botanical garden has a walking trail along the North Fork of the Edisto River and a small rose garden that blooms each year.

Exit 177

Audubon’s Francis Beidler Forest

Audubon’s Francis Beidler Forest is one of the best kept secrets in South Carolina and rivals Congaree National Park. Operated by Audubon South Carolina, the 18,000-acre wildlife sanctuary offers a stunning landscape for hiking and viewing wildlife.

The 1.75-mile Beidler Forest Boardwalk begins at the visitor center and winds through an old growth forest in the swamp. The boardwalk is easy and comfortable to walk and takes about an hour.  Along the way you’re certain to hear wildlife in the massive cypress and tupelo trees – and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot lots of the critters from the boardwalk.

It takes about fifteen minutes from the interstate exit to reach the visitor center. Admission is free.

336 Sanctuary Rd #3324, Harleyville, SC | 843-462-2150 | https://sc.audubon.org/visit/beidler

The pedestrian-only Central Avenue connects a few retail shops and restaurants in Summerville.

Exit 199

Summerville, SC

The booming town of Summerville is often overlooked by travelers eager to reach Charleston – but you should make a point to visit the charming downtown for shopping and dinner. Once you get past the corporate facade at the interstate exit, you’ll cross the railroad tracks and official enter downtown Summerville.

In 2016, Summerville achieved the notoriety of “Largest Sweet Tea” in the world by Guiness World Records. A 15’ tall replica of a Mason jar was built in downtown, filled with 2,524 gallons of sweet tea, and the rest is history. Visitors can still pay homage to the ginormous “Mason” wedged between town hall and a parking garage.

The city claims the dubious title of “Birthplace of Sweet Tea.” I’m not entirely convince this is true, however the Sweet Tea Trail is still an entertaining way to explore the town. While walking through town be sure to hop inside one of the many local retail shops. Antiques & Artisans in Town was my favorite store in town to visit. The enormous consignment shop was filled with antiques, arts and crafts, and new products scattered throughout a gorgeous old building. Main Street Reads is the only locally owned bookstore in Summerville and worth a visit to browse their selection of books on local history, culture, and tourism as well as nationally published fiction and non-fiction books.

Need some coffee to keep you going? Cuppa Manna is a friendly local coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch sandwiches along with fresh ground coffee for every cup. Just outside of downtown, Coastal Coffee Roasters is another great place for food and coffee with a bit more room in a larger setting.

Montreux Bar and Grill is my favorite place to eat in Summerville for all sorts of reasons. The restaurant is located inside an old building with creaky hardwood flooring, comfortable seating, and enormous picture windows at the front where I usually sit. My first visit to the restaurant was for brunch, where I found The Hangover to be the perfect meal even without a hangover. During my next visit, I discovered their crab cakes, which seriously raised the bar for any restaurant I visit in the future.

Summerville Visitor Center 402 North Main Street, Summerville, SC | 843-875-8535 | www.visitsummerville.com

Where to Stay in Summerville

The Flowertown Bed & Breakfast is a great option that interestingly has among the best rates in town. Choose a room with a queen bed and private bath, or get a room with two queen beds.

Caroline’s Bed and Breakfast is located inside a gorgeous home on Magnolia Street in the heart of all the historic homes in Summerville. All the rooms offer the same king bed and amenities, and I suggest you want to start the day on the swinging bench on the covered front porch.

If hotels are more your sort of thing, my top recommendation in Summerville is the Hampton Inn. The hotel features rooms with a single king bed or a suite with a king bed and a sleeper sofa. I have always found the free hot breakfast at Hampton Inn hotels to be among the best anywhere.

The Holiday inn Express is one of the newest hotels in town and kinda wedged onto a property beside the local grocery store. It’s not a bad location near the interstate and features an outdoor swimming pool with a little bit of peace and quiet.

Exit 213

North Charleston, SC

North Charleston is frequently merged into the Greater Charleston Area – along with Mount Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island, and Folly Beach. Much of North Charleston is commercial shopping centers like Tanger Outlets near the airport, but that’s not the best place to explore.

Park Circle is an old neighborhood of North Charleston that has become the de facto “downtown.” Two blocks along Montague Avenue are lined with local retail shops and restaurants with easy parking and comfortable walking.

Southern Roots Smokehouse is a great place for Southern BBQ, EVO Pizzeria offers delicious brick oven pizzas, and Stems & Skins offers Mediterranean cuisine in the most upscale setting you’ll find in town.

You’ll find a few places to shop in Park Circle, but my favorite is the Itinerant Literate Bookshop. The owners started with nothing more than a converted school bus as a bookmobile before finally settling down with a brick-and-mortar location. Browse local history books, a selection of favorite authors, children’s books, and find a few gift ideas.

Just a few minutes from Park Circle is the new location for Firefly Distillery – a local distillery that made a name for itself with sweet tea flavored vodka. The new digs offer outdoor seating with entertainment and food trucks on weekend nights, guided tours of the production facility, and a gorgeous tasting room to give everything a try. Across the road, Holy City Brewing offers a fantastic menu of cheese fries and burgers to go along with their ever-changing list of craft beers on tap.

Rainbow Row is one of the most iconic and visited destinations in Charleston.

Exit 221

Charleston, SC

Charleston is the most historic city in South Carolina — and almost impossible to fully explore in a single trip. But with a couple of nights and the will power to do quite a bit of walking, it is entirely possible to get a good feel for the city in forty-eight hours.

Get started with a walk through the Charleston City Market — two outdoor buildings are chocked full of locally made arts and crafts, while the indoor climate-controlled building has more shops and two to-go eateries. One of those eateries, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, serves one of the most amazing breakfast sandwiches in the state.

The Charleston Visitor Center is just a few blocks away on the other side of Marion Square. Park on the top level of the parking garage next door to admire the view of nearby Citadel Baptist Church — the tallest church steeple in Charleston — and the old train depots across the street. Across Meeting Street from the visitor center is The Charleston Museum, the oldest museum in the country, filled with exhibits and artifacts from throughout Charleston’s history.

READ MORE: The Coffee Lover’s Guide to My Favorite Coffee Shops in Charleston, SC

Liberty Square on the waterfront is home to the Fort Sumter Monument Museum, a free museum to learn the history of Fort Sumter and the Civil War, and the South Carolina Aquarium. From the concrete pier on the water you’ll catch a view of the USS Yorktown, a World War II-era aircraft carrier across Charleston Harbor at Patriots Point.

Charleston has become a foodie destination that has reached beyond she crab soup and local seafood. If you’re still keen on the seafood, though, try Fleet Landing Restaurant with fresh catch everyday. Poogan’s Porch has become one of the most popular restaurants downtown, serving southern food with a twist. Benny Ravello’s is the only place in the city where you can get a slice of pizza as long as your arm and The Griffon is known for their fish and chips.

Where to Stay in Charleston

Hotels in downtown Charleston are pricey. Sometimes it’s worth the expenditure because of the location and amenities. I have always recommended Belmond Charleston Place, HarbourView Inn, and Embassy Suites because it’s a pink castle (seriously). The Hotel Bennett is the latest addition to the Charleston skyline overlooking Marion Square.

A little further up the peninsula along upper King Street is the Hyatt Place that is a really great place to stay for the money. I also recommend the Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn nearby.

Just fifteen minutes from downtown, Mt. Pleasant hotels are within easy striking distance and will save considerable money. I recommend the Best Western, Hotel Indigo, and Holiday Inn Express. Each of these is located along Highway 17 near the end of the Ravenel Bridge.

In North Charleston you’ll find lots of great hotels around the Tanger Outlet shopping center. North Charleston still has a pretty good size military population with a naval training center and Air Force base at the airport so there are plenty of rooms. The Aloft, Quality Inn, and Hilton Garden are great places to stay.

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