Places to cool off this summer in SC

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Mother Nature might be turning up the heat, but in South Carolina, there are plenty of places to cool off this summer. The state’s unique landscape from the mountains to the sea – woodlands, wetlands, lakes, rivers and marshlands – make for shaded, cool escapes and refreshing options when traveling.

The South Carolina Upcountry

A cool setting in the South Carolina Upcountry is Lake Jocassee, a 7,500-acre reservoir at the terminus of the Blue Ridge that has quickly become a favored destination for anglers looking for smallmouth bass and trophy trout. The lake is considered a peaceful retreat in these high hills deep, cool, remote and ideal for soft adventurers, like scuba divers who enjoy the crystal clear water. Boaters can find hidden waterfalls that spill into the lake from the craggy escarpment or small islands upon which to have a picnic. Campers at Devils Fork State Park, which provides the only public access to the lake, often comment about the lake’s scenic beauty because the horizon is formed by the pale blue ridges of distant mountains.

A tubing trip down the Saluda River in the Carolina foothills is also an easy way to cool off. An Easley outfitter runs excursions on a part of the tributary featuring several fun Class I rapids. With virtually no development along either bank, it’s a scenic 2 ½-hour float down a natural lazy river.

Further north is the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, an 11,000-acre tract of mountain forest with more than 50 miles of the state’s most strenuous hiking trails. The hikes are vigorous, but the densely shaded forests, mists from waterfalls and steps into quiet creeks cool things off quite a bit. Among the most impressive sights is Caesars Head, where you can enjoy dramatic views of the Blue Ridge Escarpment rising 2,000 feet from the rolling hills of the piedmont below.

Across the gorge is Table Rock, a 3,100-foot high granite dome pushed up from the earth 350 million years ago. Hikers who make the strenuous 3.4-mile trek to the top of this geologic wonder are rewarded with a stunning view of surrounding ridges and cool breezes only found at mountaintops.

Just being in the mountains is cool enough, but a trip down the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River in Oconee County can provide a few extra chills if not thrills. The river rumbles over a Blue Ridge slope formed millions of years ago, dropping by more than 2,000 feet in a short distance of just over 31 miles. The result is a torrent of churned up whitewater cascading down the mountain into Class II, III and IV rapids. Many sections of the river feature dramatic drops, one of which is at least seven feet, and are given names like “Kick in the Butt” or “Five Falls,” which was made famous in the adventure movie Deliverance.

Local outfitters offer rafting trips to these sections, based on participants’ experience and skill level, and they warn: you will get wet, you will have fun, you will cool off!

Visitors to Greenville should include a walk through Falls Park on their itineraries. The centerpiece of downtown Greenville’s Historic West End, this 26-acre parcel of green space sits on the scenic Reedy River, overlooking two natural waterfalls that drop 28 feet into a rocky riverbed. Visitors can get an aerial view of the falls from the Liberty Bridge, a one-of-a-kind cantilevered footbridge that is as much an attraction as the falls themselves. Nature trails, shaded by a canopy of trees, will take you to more overlooks and six distinctive “garden rooms” with spectacular displays of seasonal color.

The South Carolina Midlands

With three rivers running through downtown Columbia, a visitor doesn’t have to travel far to cool off in the famously hot capital city. Even in the dog days of summer, you can kayak the dam-fed waters of the Lower Saluda River and feel like its fall. The 50-degree water, released from deep within the Saluda’s reservoir, refrigerates the air above the river, making for a refreshing paddle. Spend an afternoon tubing down two miles of this picturesque waterway, and you’ll get a taste of some Class I rapids, but it’s nothing a small child couldn’t handle.

Just outside of Columbia is Lake Murray, the Midlands’ favorite recreational destination for water sports. From paddle boarding to jet skiing to tubing, opportunities abound to get wet and make waves. A favorite more laid-back approach is to enjoy a relaxing sunset sail or boat cruise on the lake’s 78 square miles of open water.

Hickory Knob State Resort Park offers more freshwater fun in the Savannah River Valley. This 1,091-acre retreat sits at the edge of Lake Thurmond, serving as a launching point for fishing, paddling and boating activities. Nearby Calhoun Falls State Park is even more secluded, perched on a peninsula overlooking Lake Russell. A 300-foot buffer around the Savannah River-fed reservoir creates a peaceful natural setting to paddle, fish or just tool around on a motorboat.

To the southeast of Columbia in Santee Cooper Country are Lakes Marion and Moultrie, renowned for their landlocked striped bass, largemouth bass, stripers, crappie, bream and catfish. For easy access to the water, set up camp at Santee State Park located on the western edge of Lake Marion. Along with two boat ramps, the park features 30 lakefront cabins and 158 campsites for RV and tent camping.

Another cool, out-of-the-sun destination is Congaree National Park, featuring the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. Paddling a canoe or kayak is a favorite pastime along the park’s Cedar Creek, a slow-moving blackwater tributary that flows beneath towering loblolly pines and ancient bald cypress.

The Midlands area features a wonderful array of parks and preserves with tree-lined paths perfect for a leisurely walk. At Swan Lake-Iris Gardens in Sumter, the impressive floral displays are surpassed only by the park’s namesake feathered fauna. It is the only public park in America to feature all eight swan species.

At the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, a 1.75-mile boardwalk takes you into the world’s largest remaining stand of virgin Bald Cypress. These magnificent trees — many of them as much as 1,000 years old — serve as habitat to a great diversity of wildlife from Prothonotary warblers, white ibis and yellow-crowned night herons to water moccasins, yellow-bellied sliders and American alligators.

The South Carolina Coast

Swimming in the surf isn’t the only way to make a splash on the Carolina coast.

Topping the must-do list is stand up paddle boarding, the hot new water sport that’s all the rage from Beaufort to Cherry Grove. Rent a board and paddle the tranquil waters of a tidal creek, or hit the beach and rip through the swells in the Atlantic.

For serious surfing, Folly Beach is the destination of choice. It lays claim to some of the biggest and most bodacious waves on the East Coast. Surfers can try out their mad carving skills at the famous “Washout,” the hot spot for all the big kahunas.

Parasailing is another popular water activity offering high-flying fun without the workout. Strapped into the swing-like seat of a parasail, you’ll be hoisted skyward for a peaceful ride along the shoreline. If you like, the captain can slow down the boat and “dip” you into the water.

And then there’s the tried-and-true water skiing, still as much fun today as it has been for generations. Outfitters in Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island offer private charters and lessons in protected waters off the coast.

Another cool, out-of-the-water excursion is a self-guided driving tour of the beautiful Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve on the northeast corner of Edisto Island. Part of the ACE Basin — one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the East Coast — the 4,687-acre preserve is made up of the combined lands of three former sea island cotton plantations.

Pleasure cruising offers another option to see the sights without breaking a sweat, and the vessels are as varied as the destinations. Wind your way along the shoreline of Bluffton’s pristine May River in an antique motor yacht or set sail out of Hilton Head Island’s Harbour Town in the “Stars and Stripes,” winner of the 1987 America’s Cup.

In Historic Georgetown, a number of boat cruises depart from Harborwalk Marina, offering peaceful river tours past plantation mansions, abandoned rice fields and wildlife preserves.

Wherever you choose to venture from the mountains to the sea you’ll find plenty of cool places to beat the heat this summer in South Carolina.

(Photo credits from top to bottom: TR Tribune staff photo, TR Tribune staff photo, Wikipedia, Swan Lakes-Iris Gardens, Rebecca Nix Crown)