Road Trip #2

Road Trip: Kings Highway From Charleston to Wilmington

The King's Highway, today known as U.S. Highway 17, is a gorgeous, fun route to explore on a road trip from Charleston, SC to Wilmington, NC.

Written by

Jason Barnette


July 3, 2018

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The King’s Highway was an approximately 1,300 mile route built from 1650-1735 on the order of King Charles II who wanted to connect his colonies along the American coast from Charleston to Boston. Today U.S. Highway 17 closely follows the route of that original highway from Florida to Virginia. The 200-mile section from Charleston to Wilmington makes for an amazing trip with great local food, exciting outdoor recreation, museums and attractions, and gorgeous coastal beauty through the Carolinas.

While this particular road trip is just 200 miles it would be easy to travel it in various ways. It’s possible to make this a short weekend trip by spending Friday night in Charleston, Saturday night in Myrtle Beach, and Sunday night in Wilmington (or vice versa), but it’s also possible to stretch this road trip out to a full week. Either way you want to plan this trip Myrtle Beach makes a good center point. You could also add a night at a B&B in Georgetown and Southport, or enjoy camping at Huntington Beach State Park or Carolina Beach State Park.

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Begin Road Trip

This road trip can easily be driven in either direction. I’m not sure why I chose Charleston as the starting point, so don’t hold that against me. Enjoy!

1. Charleston, SC

Charleston is a difficult city to explore for only one reason: it’s impossible to do without a great deal of time. I always recommend that any road trip to the Holy City must include at least one night in the area to be able to at least glimpse the possibilities of great food, lively entertainment, and gorgeous views of the city. If at all possible this road trip would be best if Friday night were spent somewhere in the area.

With limited time the best place to visit to get a feel for the city is the Historic Charleston City Market. The market is open seven days a week bustling with crowds and filled with local artwork including everything from home decor to photography, jewelry to clothing, and interesting creations by local artists. Inside the enclosed section of the market you’ll find the best breakfast sandwich you’ll ever eat at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit.

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 and the old train depots across the street. Across Meeting Street is The Charleston Museum, the oldest museum in the country, filled with exhibits and artifacts from throughout Charleston’s history.

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.

From here it’s easy to get across the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, the longest span cable-stayed bridge in the country. The drive across is something the locals will never take for granted. Be sure to note the walking path on the south side (right as you drive across) of the bridge; this is Wonder’s Way and if you have the time and desire you can walk across this bridge.

2. Mt. Pleasant, SC

A hundred years ago Mount Pleasant was nothing but plantations and sandy roads, connected to Charleston only by a ferry. Today it is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state with some interesting places to explore.

The Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum has long been a staple of any visit to the Charleston area. The attraction features self-guided tours aboard the World War II-era USS Yorktown, the USS Laffey destroyer, and the USS Clamagore diesel-powered submarine, and the outdoor Vietnam Experience Exhibit.

Mount Pleasant has a small “downtown” but the real of the coastal town is Shem Creek. Here you will find massive fishing boats docked along the wide creek with a long row of restaurants on one side and the Shem Creek Boardwalk on the other. At almost any point during the day you are likely to see kayakers and paddleboarders gliding across the water, pelicans gliding just above, and dolphins popping up every once in awhile. There are a few restaurants to choose from but Shem Creek Bar & Grill is a bit quieter with a covered bar on the creek.

If you want a fantastic photo opportunity drive over to the Mount Pleasant Visitor Center and Fishier Pier. This complex sits on the site of where the former bridge came ashore. The pier extends out across the Cooper River directly beside the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge. You’ll get a lot of pretty pictures from that vantage point and if you’re lucky there will be a massive container ship passing underneath.

3. Sullivan's Island, SC

This little island in the greater Charleston area has some of the best food and an historical fort to explore. Fort Moultrie is part of the Fort Sumter National Monument. This fort became instrumental at the start of the Civil War and served as an important coastal fortification during World War I. Today visitors can explore the depths of the fort’s munition rooms, climb the staircase to the highest point in the fort, and enjoy a view of Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter in the distance.

One of the best places on the island to enjoy scenic coastal beauty is the Station 12 beach access. There are only a few parking spots, and a couple marked for handicap visitors, so you may not be able to park here. During high tide the small beach here is practically gone but at low tide you can walk across a wide beach. There are several large wooden blocks, remnants of the time when this end of Sullivan’s Island was used as battery defenses for the harbor.

The “main street” on the island is Middle Street. Along this two-lane street are many great places to find something to eat. The Obstinate Daughter and Dunleavy’s Pub offer a variety of great meals throughout the day with very different environments. One of the more surprising places is Poe’s Tavern; it’s surprising because most people do not know Edgar Allen Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie during his short military career

4. Georgetown, SC

Before arriving in Georgetown you might want to visit Hampton Plantation State Historic Park just off Highway 17 near the Santee River. When President George Washington took a grand tour of the country in 1791 he spent a night at this plantation before arriving in Charleston the next day. The state historic site has a gorgeous plantation house to explore that is one of the most original in the country.

There are only three things you need to know to get your way around Georgetown: Highway 17 cuts straight through town, Front Street is the “main street”, and on the other side of the buildings along that street is the Harborwalk. Free parking is available along the streets in downtown Georgetown. Try to start at one end of the Harborwalk, walk the scenic wooden boardwalk along Winyah Bay, and then return along the street for a complete tour of the old city.

There are always dozens of sailboats bobbing in the calm water of Winyah Bay. Most of these boats are anchored permanently and only used every once in awhile. Most of the docks are private but at the end beside the Rice Museum is the public boat dock; walk out to the end to get a good view of the entire bay. The boats always make for some pretty pictures.

The Kaminski House Museum, South Carolina Maritime Museum, and Rice Museum tell the interesting history of the small city that was the largest port in the state at one time. Hop inside Buzz’s Roost or the River Room for a great meal with equally great views of the sailboats bobbing in the calm water of the bay.

5. Murrells Inlet, SC

Before reaching Murrells Inlet you’ll pass between Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park. The state park was originally private land owned by Archer and Anna Huntington surrounding their beachfront Atalaya Castle. Upon their death the land was left to the state to create a public park and all the land across the King’s Highway was left for creating a botanical garden. Brookgreen Gardens features dozens of hiking trails, a small zoo, and places to do a little shopping and a little dining.

It’s easy to continue driving along Kings Highway and miss the quaint, exciting part of this little town. When you approach the edge of town you will see a sign welcoming you to Murrells Inlet and a road forking off to the right; take this road. Enjoy the drive along Highway 17 Business into the small seaside town.

Similar to Georgetown, Murrells Inlet’s Marshwalk is a wooden boardwalk along the waterway with gorgeous views on one side and restaurants on the other. The long fishing pier is a frequent place for fishermen and tourists alike. Book a sunset tour with Blue Wave Adventures for a chance to see dolphins swimming in the late evening hours. If you’re up for some unique shopping head over to Lazy Gator Gifts, a business that features a variety of gift items and some from local artisans.

When you get to the point you want dinner there is no wrong place to visit in Murrells Inlet. Dead Dog Saloon and The Claw House are under the same local owners, one featuring burgers and sandwiches while the other offers seafood and lobster. Drunken Jack’s Restaurant & Lounge has a nice outdoor seating area with views of Goat Island (you’ll have to ask your wait staff about that story).

6. Myrtle Beach, SC

The Grand Strand is a 90-mile stretch of pristine beaches from the North Carolina border to Pawley’s Island. The heart of this region, Myrtle Beach, has been a beach destination for generations of visitors. Similar to Charleston there is more to do here than a single night could ever achieve, but here are a few highlights to get you started.

Myrtle Beach has long been a family-favorite destination and even after changing much over the last decade it is still a place to bring the kids. Family Kingdom Amusement Park has plenty of rides from a gentle train ride to a thrilling wooden rollercoaster. Myrtle Beach is known as the Unofficial Miniature Golf Capital of the World; seriously there is a putt-putt course on every corner. One of the best is the multi-level Mount Atlanticus Mini Golf with a shooting flame, suspended bridges, and loads of excitement.

If you want to experience the best of Myrtle Beach head down to the Boardwalk at 9th Avenue North. Here you’ll find the iconic The Bowery, the bar where Alabama got their start in music decades ago. Places like Peaches Corner and Oceanfront Boardwalk & Grill have been there since forever, offering great views and fantastic food. Just around the corner the relatively new Dirty Don’s Oyster Bar offers some pretty good seafood at even better prices.

Shopping in Myrtle Beach must be done at the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove. This business has been here literally since the beginning of the town. The iconic tower rising above the local buildings draws your attention just as much as the items inside. The Bargain Basement is literally bottom-dollar items for cheap but there’s also a $1500 dolphin water statue in the lobby. You’ll find everything from home decor to clothing and jewelry in this multi-level shopping venue.

The SkyWheel Myrtle Beach is one of the newest icons of the beach town. Glass-enclosed gondolas on a massive observation wheel carry visitors about two hundred feet above the sandy beach for stunning views of the coastal landscape. If you need a drink once you get off the ride (or maybe before you get on) LandShark Bar & Grill has got you covered.

7. North Myrtle Beach, SC

North Myrtle Beach is the quiet end of the Grand Strand and the antithesis of Myrtle Beach. The wide streets are usually quite empty, music rarely blares from car speakers, and families are free to meander the sidewalks peacefully.

While Myrtle Beach has grown as a metropolis for towering resort hotels, North Myrtle Beach has kept much of its low-rise condo units and beachfront homes. Main Street is short, but packed with places to visit. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to shag you can visit Fat Harold’s Beach Club, or maybe you’ll just be a fly on the wall during a dance class as you enjoy some good food and cold drinks. Flynn’s Irish Tavern and Duffy Street Seafood Shack are a couple other places to get some good food.

8. Ocean Isle Beach, NC

The North Carolina Brunswick Islands includes several islands and beach towns just across the state border from South Carolina. Ocean Isle Beach is one of the bigger barrier islands with plenty of rental homes, local eateries, and scenic beauty. The Museum of Coastal Carolina is a neat place to explore if you want to escape the summer sun, or you can head across the street to the Ocean Isle Beach Pier. If you’re getting a bit hungry Pelicans Perch and Ocean Isle Fish Company are two great places to satisfy almost any craving.

If you’re up for a little walk there is a somewhat hidden boardwalk on the backside of the island. It’s not marked on maps and there are no street signs, but almost any local will know exactly where to send you. The boardwalk meanders through the marshes with stunning sunset views and, every once in awhile, a wildlife encounter with a great egret or tiny crabs.

9. Southport, NC

The small seaside town of Southport has been a frequent filming locations for Hollywood movies and a favorite destination of mine. Home of the largest Fourth of July celebration in the state, this small town is just busting with great local food, shopping, and coastal vistas.

Bull Frog Corner is a great place to do some shopping to find clothing, children’s games, and local artwork. Just down the street is Waterfront Park with a concrete fishing pier stretching out over the Cape Fear River. From here you can see the nearby Oak Island Lighthouse and the frequent cargo container ships that make a port of call in Wilmington.

The Moore Street Market is near the middle of town and offers fantastic sandwiches in a cozy little shop. But if you want more room to spread out and a fantastic view try dining at the Frying Pan or Fishy Fishy Cafe. While there find the wooden boardwalk beside the marina with a covered shelter and enjoy the view looking back at the restaurants.

When you’re ready to leave the quiet town of Southport behind you get to enjoy one of the more exciting moments of travel on this road trip: a 30-minute car ferry to Fort Fisher. The terminal is just a few minutes from downtown through several beautiful neighborhoods. On the way you’ll pass the massive terminal for Bald Head Island, a destination all its own that doesn’t allow personal vehicles on the island.

10. NC Ferry to Kure Beach, NC

From Southport you could easily drive straight to Wilmington, but then you’d be missing one of the most exciting moments of this road trip: a ride on the North Carolina ferry.

During the summer months the ferry boats run frequently between Southport and Kure Beach. Each boat carries a few dozen vehicles ranging from small passenger cars to massive RVs. The ride is about 30 minutes along which riders will see flocks of seagulls, pelicans, and the occasional dolphin sighting.

10. Kure Beach, NC

As you come off the ferry turn to the right (all signs will say left to leave the island) and drive a few hundred feet to a large parking lot. This area, officially known as Federal Point, is a conglomerate of outdoor recreation activities throughout the year. A rocky jetty extends nearly half a mile across the water. This jetty protects The Basin, the cove to the left, from the rapid currents of the Cape Fear River. Portions of the jetty are paved, making it an easy walk for casual visitors and fishermen, while other portions have decayed over the years. Be careful how far you walk out; high tide gets dangerously close to the top of the jetty in places and you could end slipping into the water and losing your sandals like that one time I didn’t pay attention.

The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is one of three state-owned aquariums. This aquarium has two levels to explore in addition to an outdoor area and a short hiking trail to an observation deck overlooking The Basin. The aquarium’s best feature is the two-story shark tank with a towering glass wall to really enjoy the spectacle of seeing these creatures swimming.

Fort Fisher State Historic Site tells the story of Wilmington’s role, and eventual capture, during the Civil War. A large portion of the earthen fort remains with a trail around it and a couple of cannons on top. Across the two-lane road is a small beach area and shaded forest to relax on comfortable days.

11. Wilmington, NC

I have never seen the downtown area of a small city as vibrant as Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s a small downtown area surrounding Market Street and Front Street, but within those few square blocks are plenty of places to shop, eat, drink, and enjoy your time in this “big city at the beach”.

Park at the towering parking garage at 115 Market Street and drive to the top floor. From here you get a vantage point to see all of downtown. To the left is iconic Cape Fear Memorial Bridge spanning the wide river. Straight across the river is the USS North Carolina, a World War II-era battleship that is open to the public. To the right you can catch a narrow glimpse of Front Street with the old, rustic brick buildings and beautiful decorated street.

If you only walk one street make it Front Street. From one end near Orange Street to the other at Walnut Street you’ll find just about everything. The Cotton Exchange is a series of buildings that have been opened and connected with hallways and staircases, allowing visitors to meander from one to the next while browsing the art, clothing, jewelry, and gift items from local artisans. Paddy’s Hollow and The German Cafe are two fantastic places to get something to eat and if you want dessert look no further than The Scoop.

Front Street Brewery has become its own destination over the years. Wilmington’s original brewery has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years in a beautiful setting inside an old building. Sample the craft beer but also enjoy a full meal. If you want some great food in a little bit of a quieter setting try Reel Cafe; they have outdoor seating along the street at one end of the downtown area. Right in the middle of these two is Kilwins, one of the best places anywhere to get a scoop of ice cream (you’ll know you’re there by the smell in the air).

When the sun starts getting low head down to the end of Market Street to Riverfront Park. The battleship is almost straight across the river at this point and makes a great location to watch the setting sun. The Cape Fear River Walk is a boardwalk/sidewalk that stretches from Nun Street to the Wilmington Convention Center. From Market Street turn left to visit shops and eateries along the waterfront, or turn right to enjoy a peaceful walk past the waterfront hotels.

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2 Responses

  1. What a fun trip Jason. I used to head to Charleston with my fam decades ago. We’d spend summers on Folly Beach. My cousin just moved to Wilmington last year. I could head down to C-ton again and do this road up to visit cuzzo. So many great stops along the way too.

    1. I went to college in Wilmington and have called Myrtle Beach and Charleston “home”, so I’m pretty fond of this area. There is so much to do here! I hope you enjoy the trip if you get a chance to drive it.

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