Travelers eager to reach the Grand Strand and enjoy a weekend of vacation in Myrtle Beach will frequently opt for the interstate route from Columbia. But twenty years ago I-20 didn’t exist and vacationers were left to take either Highway 501 from Florence or Highway 378 from Columbia. Although mostly forgotten today the route from Columbia to Myrtle Beach includes the state’s only national park, an exciting town, and lots of hidden destinations along the way.
Begin Road Trip
The road trip begins at Exit 5 off I-77 onto Bluff Road. This isn’t Highway 378, but for the moment it’s something better. At this point Columbia will only exist in the rear view mirror so if you’re keen on turning back and exploring the city check out this guide on 36 Hours in Columbia, South Carolina.
Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is the only national park in South Carolina. Less than 14 miles from the interstate it’s also easily accessible. The national park is a great detour off Highway 378 and certainly a place you should visit if you have never been.
The national park is built along a low-lying swamp off the Congaree River. It’s a haven for wildlife, excellent place for kayaking and canoeing, and features several nice hiking trails. The Harry Hampton Visitor Center has a nice museum explaining the importance of the park and the unique forest (with massive trees), restroom facilities, and there is usually a ranger around to answer questions.
The 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail begins behind the visitor center. The trail loops around a good portion of the forest with the Lower Boardwalk just inches above the swampy forest bed. The furthest point away from the visitor center on the loop trail is an observation deck overlooking Weston Lake. Along the way visitors will frequently spot owls, deer, squirrels, and snakes. This is an excellent and easy trail to hike if you are only making a short stop during a road trip to the beach (and was in fact the first trail I hiked in this park when I made a short stop on my way to the beach years ago).
100 National Park Road, Hopkins, SC
Congaree National Park to Sumter
36 miles - 45 minutes
After leaving Congaree National Park behind it’s an easy drive into Sumter, although initially there are a few turns to get away from the national park. The drive into Sumter takes less than an hour.
Swan Lake Iris Gardens
About 40 miles from the national park, the Swan Lake Iris Gardens is another great opportunity to get outside and enjoy a hike. The Sumter Visitor Center is located in a small brick building beside the large parking lot so be sure to pop inside to find more things to do in the area.
The Swan Lake has a concrete path looping around for about a 1.5-mile walk. From all points on the path you can see the gorgeous lake and the dozens of species of swans that live there year-round. You’ll also see a good number of turtles, ducks, and geese that call this lake home.
At the end of the lake nearest the highway there is a pedestrian bridge crossing over to another, more secluded area of the park. There is an elevator on either end of the bridge if you need it. Once on the other side a trail with wooden foot bridges crosses over several sections of a more swampy area of the park. You’ll see the same kind of wildlife you saw around the lake, but here the vegetation is thicker and trees closer, wrapping you up in nature and helping you forget you’re in the middle of town.
Sumter is one of the most amazing hidden destinations you’ll ever find in South Carolina. Once upon a time it was on the main route for just about anyone in the mountains wanting to visit Myrtle Beach, but today most of those people (generations later) bypass this town entirely.
The downtown area is small but charming, and with a new hotel under construction it is soon to be a destination. The Sumter Opera House has been at the heart of downtown since 1895. The 550-seat theater features concerts and movies throughout the year (they have $1 movies on Thursdays and Fridays). Along the three blocks of Main Street are a few local shops and restaurants; Sidebar is one of the best with great southern food and mixed drinks with a comfortable outdoor seating area.
Woods Bay State Park
This small midlands state park features a unique and fascinating natural formation called a Carolina Bay. The bay is an elliptical depression in the ground filled with water to form a lake, but the reason for the formation remains a mystery. This park is one of the last remaining Carolina Bays in the state.
The Mill Pond Nature Trail loops around the bay and offers beautiful maritime forest scenery and opportunities to spot lots of wildlife like egrets and herons. The short Canoe Trail offers a chance to get on the water, and the Boardwalk Trail runs parallel for a short distance.
11020 Woods Bay Road, Olanta, SC
After leaving Sumter behind the four-lane divided Highway 378 continues on toward the beach. About 35 miles down the road you’ll see signs and an exit for Lake City. This small town is kinda in the middle of nowhere at this point, but that doesn’t mean you should skip it entirely.
Moore Farms Botanical Garden is a beautiful place to visit along a road trip. They don’t keep regular visiting hours so you’ll need to visit this page and book a tour in advance, but it’s well worth the effort. The guided tours take visitors through the 50 acres of art and gardens in the coastal forest.
If you enjoy kayaking you’ll love getting out on the Lynches River. RiverRat’s is a locally owned rental company with more than a hundred kayaks and years of experience paddling around the Bald Cypress trees of the river. They offer a 5-mile tour that takes a couple of hours and a 10 mile tour that takes 5-7 hours.
The Gateway to the Grand Strand is probably one of the most tragically forgotten destinations during a Myrtle Beach vacation. Highway 328 arrives in Conway at the intersection with Highway 501; from here it would be an easy 15 mile drive to the beach. I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to see the sand and surf, but let me tell you a few things you’ll be missing in this friendly town.
The downtown area is filled with great local shops, eateries, and scenery. The Riverwalk is a 1.5-mile trail alongside the Waccamaw River. The combination of concrete paths and wooden boardwalks guides visitors along the beautiful scenery of the river, passed several historic and rustic warehouses, ending in a park near the city marina. It’s possible to see an alligator or two in the river but you are more likely to see kayakers, egrets, and herons.
The town loves its oak trees. They love them so much you can even pick up a self-guided walking tour at the visitor center. The tour whisks you around the downtown area, along quaint street, and to some of the largest and oldest oak trees in the region.
Conway Glass is more than just a glassblowing shop owned by a local couple, it’s also a place to take art classes, enjoy special events, and view some local artwork.
Of course it is far easier to take I-20 from Columbia to Florence and then Highway 501 into Myrtle Beach. That route is about 150 miles and takes just under three hours.
Then again taking Highway 328 from Columbia is about 150 miles and takes just under three hours. So really when it comes right down to it the distance and time is about the same, but with this route you at least have something to do and prettier scenery along the way.
But the greatest reason of all to take this detour road trip? Because you can. Life in the fast lane is just that: the fast lane. But life in the scenic lane? Now that has some possibilities for a few amazing experiences to share.