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Head Outdoors in the Carolinas

Inland destinations in the Carolinas have one thing in common: They are an outdoors lover’s paradise. From the rivers and natural areas of Columbia, South Carolina, to the cities and towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains, group visitors are immersed in the area’s Revolutionary War past and its promising future.


Columbia, South Carolina

Columbia isn’t on the coast, but it is surrounded by water. Three rivers converge in downtown Columbia, making it a hub of water recreation, like kayaking, tubing, boating and fishing.

Columbia “has the biggest metropolitan city feel of any town in South Carolina, but the city is surrounded by nature,” said Dayna Cantelmi, communications specialist for Experience Columbia, SC. Lake Murray is close by, and the area is home to South Carolina’s only national park — Congaree National Park— the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland forest remaining in the southeastern United States.

Group visitors love to explore not only the area’s rich natural preserves but its history.

Historic Columbia manages four historic house museums: the Robert Mills House, the Hampton-Preston Mansion, the Mann-Simons Cottage and the Woodrow Wilson Family Home. It offers home tours, group garden tours, walking and bus tours, and self-guided neighborhood tours for groups that want to get a good taste of Columbia’s past.

The Riverbanks Zoo is another popular group attraction. It is home to 2,000 animals, with enclosures that were designed to reflect their natural habitats as closely as possible, Cantelmi said. The zoo offers behind-the-scenes encounters with penguins and sea lions and has a zip-line course that is great for groups.

The capital of South Carolina, Columbia is in the center of the state and easy to reach. The city has “taken a lot of care in redeveloping the downtown area,” Cantelmi said. “There are a lot of neighborhood districts with their own unique identity and vibe.”

Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, North Carolina, is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is well known for its beautiful mountain views and outdoor experiences. It has nearly 1 million acres of protected wilderness and thousands of miles of hiking and biking trails.

Many group travelers seek out Asheville for wellness activities like forest bathing, a meditative experience among the trees, or guided yoga hikes, said Carli Adams, group communications and services manager for Explore Asheville.

A well-known arts destination, Asheville has more than 300 working artists in its River Arts District and many art galleries downtown. The Blue Ridge Parkway is another top attraction. The scenic byway travels 450 miles.

“There are five access points in the area to reach this scenic drive with awesome vistas,” Adams said. The Folk Arts Center is on the parkway as well and celebrates local crafts.

One of the top attractions in Asheville is the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, a former home of the Vanderbilt family that features amazing formal gardens and wonderful views of the surrounding mountains.

Asheville has built up its brewery and culinary scenes over the past few years. It has more than 50 craft breweries and 13 James Beard-nominated chefs. Groups can sign up for brewery or culinary tours of Asheville.

Greenville, South Carolina

In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Greenville, South Carolina, celebrates not only its great outdoor landscapes but also its cultural amenities.

“Greenville is on the cusp right now,” said Taryn Scher, spokeswoman for Visit Greenville SC. “It is very buzzworthy.”

For the past three years, the city has had James Beard nominations. “Before that it was never on that list,” Scher said. “It has hit its stride as far as a food destination.”

Unlike much of the South, Greenville has four seasons, including beautiful fall foliage. It also has plenty of hiking and biking trails and a chance to enjoy the surrounding lakes. With numerous theaters, including one that attracts Broadway touring shows, as well as wonderful museums and many art galleries, there’s plenty of cultural attractions.

Greenville is the headquarters of both BMW and Michelin North America, so those companies have brought with them an international influence. Groups can tour the BMW plant and watch how the cars are built. BMW also has a performance driving school where groups can take lessons one day and then drive the BMWs manufactured at the plant on a wet track, a dry track, an obstacle course and a timed course. History tours, driving and walking tours, and architectural and culinary tours are also available.

“People come here with either preconceptions about the South or no expectations of Greenville,” Scher said. “They don’t know what to expect. They get here and are blown away by how much there is to do.”

Charlotte, North Carolina

Home of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Billy Graham Library and the largest man-made whitewater park in the U.S., Charlotte, North Carolina, has something for everyone. Groups that visit have many options for tours. One of the most popular is the NASCAR Racing Insider’s Tour, which takes groups through the NASCAR Hall of Fame, for lunch at the Pit Stop Cafe and to nearby racing shops and attractions. They get exclusive behind-the-scenes experiences.

Tour companies in the area offer bus tours, Segway tours, walking tours, bicycle and eAssist bicycle tours. Groups can get a feel for the history of the place by touring mansions and sampling the local cuisine. The Billy Graham Hometown Tour takes groups through Billy Graham’s library, where he grew up and where he started his crusades.

“There are so many different ways to see Charlotte and walk away with a different perspective,” said Chacara Harvin, travel trade marketing manager for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

The Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens offers a garden tour and wine tasting. Groups learn about the different plants while tasting wines from the region. And even if your group is not going to kayak the rapids at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, groups can come watch others participate in these high-adventure sports. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from May to September, the center hosts River Jam, live musical performances with beer and good food.

Boone, North Carolina

Named for the legendary Daniel Boone, who used to have a hunting camp in the area, Boone, North Carolina, is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is the highest town with a population of more than 10,000 people east of the Mississippi River. Groups love the cool climate and the friendly, down-to-earth people, as well as the authentic Appalachian Mountains culture.

The outdoors has huge appeal for groups, as Boone sits along the highest points of the Blue Ridge Parkway, including the Deep Gap and Blowing Rock areas. Grandfather Mountain, the highest peak on the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is nearby. It features the Mile-High Swinging Bridge; the Nature Museum; animal habitats, including elk, otter, eagle, cougar and black bear; a restaurant; and souvenir shops.

For more adventurous groups, High Gravity Adventures is a zip-line and adventure park. Next door, the Tweetsie Railroad, North Carolina’s first family theme park, features two antique narrow-gauge locomotives, shops, stage performances, eateries and amusement rides.

Boone is also home to “Horn in the West,” an outdoor Revolutionary War drama that is celebrating its 69th season in 2020. The play tells the story of the pioneers who settled in the Blue Ridge wilderness with the help of famous frontiersman Daniel Boone and their Cherokee allies. Before seeing the show, groups can visit the Hickory Ridge Living History Museum next door, which has preserved 18th- and 19th-century cabins that highlight different aspects of life in the backcountry.