Take a slow boat . . .
The Capital City – Lake Murray Country tourism region in the heart of South Carolina’s Midlands offers some great options for those who prefer their boating experiences to be of the human-powered variety.
Text by David Lucas; photos by David Lucas & Phillip Jones
Here’s something you may not know. South Carolina’s Capital City – Lake Murray Country tourism region is a paddlers paradise. That might come as somewhat of a surprise for out-of-towners who mainly think about its namesake lake as a destination for power boating and fishing, or for whom the “Capital City” part of its moniker conjures up images of a visit to downtown Columbia, but it’s absolutely true.
Yep, Columbia nightlife is great, particularly on a Gamecock football weekend, and west of the city, when the weather warms, as it is starting to do right now, you’ll find large numbers of speedboats, jets skis, party barges, bass boats, jon-boats, tricked-out cruisers and even sailboats spread out across Lake Murray’s 50,000 acres. But for those who prefer boats that run on human power, SCPRT’s Billy Dreher Island State Park is a fantastic spot for a weekend (or longer) camping adventure with plenty of opportunities to explore the surrounding waters by canoe or kayak. Dreher Island State Park is actually made up of three separate islands covering 348 acres. In all, there’s 12 miles of shoreline to explore, so you’ll have plenty of options for a day or three of leisurely paddling and/or fishing and camping.
Camping, you say? More like “glamping,” if you’re able to book a reservation for one of the park’s five shoreline villas. Seriously, these places are fantastic. Comfortable beds, cable TV, huge gas log fireplaces, fully equipped kitchens, your own fire pit, a private dock, and even Wi-fi if you simply can’t abide being out of e-mail contact with the rest of the world for 48 hours. There’s only one drawback, which is their over-the-top popularity can make booking the villas a challenge, particularly for big weekends like the Fourth of July, when the park puts on a huge fireworks display. But think about those “shoulder season” and even off-season weekends when the weather turns cool and the demand lessens. Personally, I enjoy paddling in cold weather, but it would sure be nice after a long chilly day on the water to return to an instantly roaring fireplace, a long hot shower and my own kitchen, instead of the usual sleeping bag, ground pad and backpacking tent.
Of course Dreher Island provides lakeside camping too, both camper spots and some reserved for tents-only, which is what I might gravitate to in warmer weather, when the notion of being lulled to sleep under the stars by the sound of waves lapping the shoreline has greater appeal. But the really big news at Dreher Island, is the coming new addition of 10 small, lakeside “fishing cabins” on a cove near the trailhead for the park’s Little Gap hiking trail. These will be primitive – but very comfortable – with each cabin being climate controlled. Each cabin will sleep 2-3 people in bunks, and each cabin site also has a tent pad to accommodate additional guests. The cabin area will have its own shower and restroom facilities for the cabin guests to share. I recently toured the still-under-construction cabins, which looked close to being completed, with Dreher Island State Park Ranger Zach Setzer.
Even as we were talking, crews were hard at work on the site, doing landscaping, building trails between the cabins and parking lot and paving the adjacent parking area. One of the main reasons for adding the cabins has been the tremendous increase in bass-fishing tournaments being held at the lake, Setzer told me. For everything from professional tour events put on by FLW and Bassmasters, to high school club level and amateur tournaments, Dreher Island has become a go-to destination for tournament-style bass fishing, and the park’s camping area can swell to capacity during those tournament weekends. Park managers envision that the cabins will see a lot of use by tournament anglers and their families, but they will be open for other users as well, and for my money, one of these neat little cabins would make the perfect home base for a weekend spent paddling around the coves, causeways and islands of the park while casting for bass or dropping a jig or a tightlined minnow for crappie. Park managers hope to have the cabin area completed and ready for visitors by the start of the summer camping season this coming June (2018). Eventually, the plan is for the cabin area to also have its own boat ramp, but you can throw in a canoe or kayak now just a few hundred feet from your cabin’s front door. I know for certain this is one spot I’ll be headed back to for a long weekend – maybe in the fall after the summer crowds have thinned.
For more information or reservations, call 1.866.345.PARK or visit https://southcarolinaparks.com/dreher-island.
Day trip: Cedar Creek at Congaree National Park
While Lake Murray is without a doubt this region’s most well-known boating destination, it’s definitely not the only one for paddlers. This is river country too. On the Saluda River below the Lake Murray Dam, from Saluda Shoals Park down to the rapids that demarcate the Fall Line, and on down to the confluence where the icy Saluda and the slow moving Broad rivers come together to form the Congaree within sight of the Statehouse and slowly wind their way down through the coastal plain, various opportunities for paddling adventures abound.
For the truly brave, the section of rapids above the Riverbanks Zoo provides a source of whitewater thrills, but I like my paddling a little slower and easier (and with a side of fishing whenever possible). One of my favorite afternoon-long paddles has always been the 15-mile stretch of Cedar Creek that passes through Congaree National Park. For one, it’s a great way to see the interior of the Park, which itself is something not to be missed. The park contains the largest expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the Southeastern United States. What that means is giant, awe-inspiring trees that have been growing since pre-colonial times. And floating silently down Cedar Creek through the heart of the park is a great way to see it. Two put-in/take-out spots within the park – at Bannister’s Bridge and South Cedar Creek landings, allow you to paddle down or upstream, depending on water levels. You can also choose to go all the way to the creek’s confluence with the Congaree River and float on downstream to the next takeout point at the Highway 601 bridge.
Gallery: Sights and wonders. In addition to more massive, towering tupelo, cypress, oak and loblolly pine trees than you've ever seen in one place, you're also pretty-much guaranteed to see a bunch of interesting critters on a paddle through Congaree National Park, including water moccasins (and very similar-looking banded water snakes) and feral hogs.
You’ll find all the information you need to plan a paddle on Cedar Creek -- including water levels, which can make a big difference in planning your trip -- on the Congaree National Park website.
To find outfitters offering guided trips on the Saluda, Broad or Congaree Rivers or Lake Murray, as well as lodging and other outdoor recreation opportunities in Lexington, Richland, Saluda & Newberry counties, make the Capital City-Lake Murray Country website your first stop.