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Surf and Sky in the Carolinas

From barrier islands with pristine beaches and amazing wildlife to national parks with mountain vistas, rivers and waterfalls, the Carolinas are full of group-friendly outdoor experiences that feed not only the spirit but the mind as well. The following outdoor experiences are great for groups that want a less taxing outdoor experience.


South Carolina Botanical Garden

Clemson, South Carolina

The South Carolina Botanical Garden gives visitors a taste of the state’s diverse ecosystems. Formed in 1959 on the campus of Clemson University, the garden covers 295 acres and includes ornamental gardens, a butterfly garden, woodlands and a nature trail. The property also has the Bob Campbell Geology Museum and the Fran Hanson Discovery Center.

Groups can take a docent-led tour of the grounds for a nominal fee. The gardens themselves are free. The gardens got their start when a new stadium broke ground on campus and some beautiful, well-established camellias were going to be destroyed. Those plants were moved to an unused part of the property that used to serve as cotton terraces. To protect them from the sun, loblolly and slash pines were added to provide shade and a creek running through the property was dammed to become a duck pond.

The Natural Heritage Garden Trail is a simple way for visitors to explore South Carolina’s maritime forest, longleaf pine savannas and coastal environments that have sand, palmetto trees and live oaks. A boardwalk traverses a bog, and the pine savanna is home to orchids and carnivorous plants like Venus’ flytraps, pitcher plants and sundews. The prairie exhibit includes grasslands that would have been in South Carolina before development occurred.

“When you are walking this trail, you feel like you are enclosed in those habitats,” said Sue Watts, educational program coordinator for the gardens. “It is a wonderful experience.”

Edisto Island, South Carolina

Visitors to Beaufort, South Carolina, should make a point of visiting nearby Edisto Island, with its pristine beaches and the Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve. The island is too small for larger groups to stay overnight, but there is plenty to see and do for groups that don’t mind making the day trek. The Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve encompasses 4,630 acres of maritime forests, salt marsh, tidal creeks, freshwater ponds and hammock islands. Managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the area is a wonderful place to experience the nature and diverse wildlife of South Carolina.

The boneyard beach on the preserve is famous for its beautiful driftwood, shells and shark teeth that pepper the shore. A short walk shows how other beaches in the area used to look before they were discovered by tourists. There are canoe and kayak tours available in the area for groups of up to 12 people; nature and dolphin tours are also available.

The Edisto Beach State Park and Interpretive Center, with numerous hiking and biking trails, is also worth a visit. Small groups can hire outfitters to take them on tours or organize charter fishing trips.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Bryson City, North Carolina

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad dates back to the early days of Bryson City and existed before Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed. It was built to deliver people and supplies to the area, but now its sole purpose is scenic excursions.

Groups can take the two-hour round-trip train ride to the Nantahala River Gorge or sign up for one of the railroad’s package deals. The Rails and Trails adventure pairs the two-hour train ride with a two-hour backwoods Jeep adventure that takes people up the mountain, past lakes and waterfalls, and along a segment of the Appalachian Trail.

Another package pairs the train ride with a whitewater rafting trip. The Tarzan Train includes the River Gorge train trip and a visit to Wildwater’s Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours, which offers 13 zip lines and eight sky bridges to traverse. Visitors who don’t want to take part in the outdoor adventure can grab a bite to eat at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, sit on the outdoor patio and watch the whitewater rafters maneuver their way through the gorge before hopping back on the train for the return journey to Bryson City.

The scenery along the trip is beyond compare, and when the weather is nice, people can enjoy the view from several enclosed or open-air cars while enjoying tales told by a local storyteller. Groups can purchase tickets for the train that include entrance to Smoky Mountain Trains, one of the country’s top Lionel train museums.

Oconaluftee Indian Village

Cherokee, North Carolina

A re-created Cherokee village from the 17th century, Oconaluftee transports groups back in time. Visitors walk along winding paths through the forest that take them past traditional Cherokee dwellings, work areas and sacred ritual sites. Along the way, visitors can watch beautiful cultural dances or interact with the villagers as they take part in traditional activities like hulling canoes, weaving baskets, making pottery or creating beautiful and intricate beaded designs on clothing and jewelry.  One of the most popular demonstrations shows how the Cherokee used blow guns and darts.

It takes about two hours to see the village and watch some of the reenactments, including Time of War, when a ceremony begins and the entire village prepares for battle.

Many visitors pair their trip to the Indian Village with a visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian nearby. The museum was recently updated and is full of information and displays.

If groups have time, they might like to make a reservation to see Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama at the Mountainside Theater in Cherokee that relays the tragedy and triumphs of the Cherokee people as they were forced to relocate from their homes in North Carolina to an Oklahoma reservation.

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Beaufort, North Carolina

Cape Lookout National Seashore preserves 56 miles of pristine shoreline along three undeveloped barrier islands in North Carolina: North Core Banks, South Core Banks and Shackleford Banks. Accessible to groups only by ferry from Harkers Island and Beaufort, North Carolina, the journey to the National Seashore is just as eye-popping as the arrival.

With its glistening white sand beaches, the area is part of the famed Crystal Coast and is an outdoor lover’s paradise. Visitors can walk the beaches searching for beautiful shells and smoothed-out pieces of driftwood or rent a 4WD Kubota side-by-side ATV to explore the miles of scenic landscape that is accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicle or boat.

On South Core Banks, groups can take a tour of the iconic Cape Lookout Lighthouse, a 163-foot-tall beacon that was completed in 1859 and that is easy to recognize because of the black-and-white diamond pattern along its base. Visitors who plan ahead can hike up the stairs to get a great view of the Outer Banks from the top.

Beaufort cruise tours can take 49 passengers past many of the islands of the Crystal Coast, including Shackleford Banks with its wild horses that have called the island home for 400 years. The cruise tours also make a great way to see the area’s frolicking dolphins.