American Road Trips
A South Carolina Road Trip From Charleston
Visit the beautiful port city, a wildlife refuge, historic small towns and more
A growing number of people are choosing to retire in South Carolina, whose appeal reaches beyond its milder winter temperatures. The state also has loads of history to retrace, nature to explore, artistic talent to discover, polo matches to witness, and mouthwatering cuisine to sample. Those same characteristics make the Palmetto State an ideal road trip destination. This trip takes you from the salt-tinged air of the coastal Low Country to the Midlands, an area steeped in Thoroughbred culture, with a hearty dose of Southern hospitality served along the way.
You’ll start in Charleston, and end inland, near Augusta, Georgia — about a two-and-a-half hour drive back to Charleston, if you’d like to loop back.
Day 1: Charleston
Begin your road trip in this picturesque port city, where eye-catching homes displaying pastel colors in shades of blue, pink and yellow line East Bay Street along the downtown waterfront. Church spires dominate the cityscape, hinting at Charleston’s nickname — the Holy City. Belgian draft horses clip-clop along cobblestone streets, pulling carriages filled with visitors earnestly listening as guides from the Old Carriage Company Tours unveil layers of history.
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If you’re comfortable walking on uneven cobbled streets, Bulldog Tours leads two-hour guided walking tours with notable highlights, including the Historic Waterfront Battery, antebellum mansions and secret gardens. For spine-tingling tales of the dearly departed, opt for an after-dark tour through cemeteries, back alleys and even a dungeon.
At the Charleston Market, stretching four blocks along Market Street in the city center, local artisans sell accessories, art, jewelry and more. Check out the sweetgrass baskets crafted by the Gullah ladies, descendants of enslaved African Americans who toiled in the South Carolina rice fields. If you’re a military history buff, take the relaxing 30-minute boat ride from Charleston Harbor to the impressive fortification of Fort Sumter National Monument, where soldiers fired the Civil War’s first shots. Or cross the cable-stayed Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge to Mount Pleasant, where the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier now serves as a museum.
When hunger strikes, insiders recommend two downtown eateries: Cru Café for a shrimp BLT with truffle fries, and Basic Kitchen for its Cauli Wings (tempura cauliflower tossed in buffalo sauce).
Where to stay: Consider Bijou Charleston, a boutique inn with five guest rooms located two blocks from the Charleston Waterfront Park. For budget-friendly options, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge connects downtown Charleston with Mount Pleasant, where you’ll find recognizable brand names, including Holiday Inn and Springhill Suites by Marriott.
Day 2: Charleston to Walterboro (64 miles)
Start the day with a true taste of the South at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits in the Charleston Market. Try the sausage, egg and pimento cheese buttermilk biscuit sandwich.
Take U.S. Route 17 S for 27 miles, turning left at the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge marker. From there, pick up Mauss Hill Road for about eight miles to the refuge entrance and Grove Plantation House. Built in 1828 on an 842-acre rice plantation, the Grove Plantation House is one of the few antebellum mansions in this basin area to survive the Civil War. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it serves as the office for the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge. With its intricate network of marshes, tidal creeks and wetlands, the refuge covers roughly 12,000 acres with a vast array of wildlife. Meander along miles of trails and boardwalks overlooking the old rice fields, keeping an eye out for alligators, bald eagles, deer, foxes and waterfowl.
Next stop: Walterboro, 27 miles northwest via U.S. 17 S and U.S. Route 64, an inviting small town (population 5,000) often referred to as the Low Country’s front porch. While away the afternoon with a stroll downtown on East Washington Street, where the Antiques & Collectibles Mall lures antique lovers with coins, jewelry, silver and other vintage treasures. Take a break from shopping in one of the rocking chairs out front. One block away on Wichman Street, in a restored Victorian cottage, you’ll find the South Carolina Artisans Center, featuring the artwork of more than 300 juried South Carolina artists.
Shift gears and take in a bit of history a mile and a half east on Wichman Street at the Tuskegee Airmen Monument, at the former site of the World War II Walterboro Army Airfield. The monument honors the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Come dinnertime, dine on savory steaks at Fat Jack’s, a local favorite three miles west of downtown on Bells Highway.
Where to stay: Old Academy Bed & Breakfast, in a building once Walterboro’s first schoolhouse, welcomes guests with four comfortable rooms named for the proprietors’ daughters. Sit a spell on the expansive columned front porch with a good book and a glass of sweet tea. Cash or checks only.
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Day 3: Walterboro to Beaufort (42 miles)
Now it’s on to Beaufort — via state Route 303, U.S. Route 17 and U.S. Route 21 — a Hollywood favorite. You may have seen this idyllic town, with its laid-back welcoming vibe, in films such as The Big Chill and Forrest Gump.
For eco-friendly sightseeing by golf cart, book a tour with Beaufort Cart Tours. Entertaining guides share local lore while highlighting historic sites and the filming locations of the popular movies shot here.
After your tour, wander around delightful downtown streets and check out the many creative shops and galleries. Do drop in to women-owned Amidst the Alders, a whimsical shop selling handmade recycled items — accessories, household wares, jewelry and more.
Venture from Beaufort’s waterfront two miles along the Sea Island Parkway to the Kitchen on Lady’s Island for grab-and-go selections (sandwiches, wraps and salads). Continue along the parkway 17 miles to Hunting Island State Park for a picnic beside the park’s lighthouse. Work off the calories with a climb up 160 steps to the top of the lighthouse for gorgeous views of the surrounding water, white sandy beaches and palmetto trees. For more nature indulgence, walk along the half-mile (out and back) Marsh Boardwalk Trail to observe the salt marshes teeming with sea life. The dock at the end is excellent for sunset viewing.
Where to stay: Consider Beaufort’s Anchorage 1770, a 14-room property that exudes comfortable luxury in an ideal waterfront location. Come morning, enjoy breakfast on the veranda while soaking up the stellar water views.
Day 4: Beaufort to Aiken (111 miles)
Leaving Beaufort on U.S. 21 N, drive approximately 16 miles from downtown, then go west on Old Sheldon Road. A commemorative plaque about a mile and a half down the road marks the ruins of Prince William’s Parish Church (aka Sheldon Church), where four exterior walls and columns and the church burial grounds remain. Dating back to 1753, the church suffered damage in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Historians believe this to be the first structure to imitate a Greek temple in the U.S.
From Old Sheldon Road take a slight right to state Route 68 and continue meandering down the back roads as marshland gives way to cotton fields. Following signs to Barnwell, pick up state Route 300, which leads to U.S. Route 278 W and ultimately U.S. Route 78 W into Aiken, where enormous live oaks laden with Spanish moss form a welcoming shady canopy over South Boundary Road.
When wealthy northerners chose Aiken as their “winter colony” in the late 19th century, they brought polo with them, and the passion for this equestrian sport lives on. Sprawling cottages built by these aristocrats line the streets in the horse district, where road signs feature horses and sandy streets provide a gentle-on-the-hoofs thoroughfare for these favored animals. Learn about local equestrian superstars at the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, off Whiskey Road in this district.
A half mile away on Newberry Street, the Aiken County Historical Museum reaches beyond the horse culture, delving into Aiken’s history through a wide variety of artifacts, including an 1890s one-room schoolhouse displayed on the grounds of this 1930s Winter Colony mansion.
Within the layers of Aiken’s history lies the story of the Savannah River Site, a story brought to life at the Savannah River Site Museum, downtown on Laurel Street. The brainchild of Walt Joseph, who worked at the site for 39 years, the museum’s exhibits reveal the role Aiken played in producing materials used in the fabrication of the nuclear weapons that helped the U.S. win the Cold War with Russia. The museum also shares the stories of sacrifice and resilience demonstrated by the more than 6,000 residents who gave up their homes to make way for the site.
For some fresh air, venture into the center of town to Hitchcock Woods, the nation’s largest privately owned urban forest, with 2,100 acres of long-leaf pine forest and 70 miles of trails. For a moderate hike, the 3.3-mile Devil’s Backbone Loop follows along a wide trail of sand aptly named Sand River. Be sure to yield to riders — horses always have the right of way here.
For dinner, head downtown to Whiskey Alley, a whiskey bar and tapas restaurant. The menu changes daily, featuring small and large plates and charcuterie boards. Always on the menu, the Royale With Cheese Burger comes loaded with American cheese, dill pickles, shredded lettuce and magic sauce. Don’t forget to sample the whiskey.
Where to stay: For a luxe experience that shouldn’t cost more than about $225 a night, check into one of the 28 rooms at the Willcox Hotel, a white-pillared Colonial Revival downtown landmark. Alternatively, if you’re a golfer, a stay at the Inn at Houndslake comes with access to golf at the Houndslake Country Club.
Terri Marshall is a New York City-based journalist whose work can be found on the World Footprints and A Girls Guide to Cars websites and in Girl Camper magazine.