You only have to look at the state flag to know South Carolinians have long had an appreciation for their native palmetto tree. Prominently displayed below a crescent moon on the rich blue banner, the sabal palm also inspired the nickname of “The Palmetto State” and has become an iconic image in South Carolina culture.
But the palmetto isn’t South Carolina’s only arboreal claim to fame. The state boasts several national champion trees—the largest of a species—along with a dozen one-of-a-kind marvels that will take your breath away. These masterworks of Mother Nature are must-see attractions worthy of a side trip in your travels through the state.
Here are 10 top tree destinations in South Carolina:
A great place to start your tree tour, South Carolina’s only national park features the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. Within the 26,000-acre federally protected forest you’ll find several record-breaking trees, including the 2015 national champion laurel oak, towering at 134 feet—more than 50 feet taller than the average height for this species. Other eye-catchers include a 167-foot loblolly pine and a bald cypress with a circumference measuring more than 26 feet. Sign up for a Big Tree Hike to view some of the park’s most impressive trees.
2. Angel Oak
Dating back more than 500 years, this magnificent southern live oak is thought to be one of the oldest living things in the country. It’s massive branches stretch out a total of 187 feet, creating shade that covers 17,200 square feet. That’s bigger than the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion! This stunning tree is located in a public park on Johns Island, just outside Charleston.
Also known as a cabbage palm, the hardy palmetto is venerated in South Carolina for the role it played in protecting the city of Charleston during the American Revolutionary War. Built with palmetto logs, Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island was able to withstand heavy cannon fire from British warships thanks to the tree’s soft, fibrous trunk. Instead of cracking, it absorbed the shot, bouncing off the walls of the structure. You’ll find palmetto trees all around the South Carolina State House in Columbia, along with a life-like iron sculpture of the state tree dedicated in 1858.
4. Medusa Tree
A popular selfie photo spot in Greenville’s Falls Park, this striking American beech has thrived on the edge of an embankment by spreading its roots over the hillside, thus earning the name of the priestess in Greek mythology whose golden hair was turned into snakes. Also known as the Root Tree, it’s located along the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail on the south side of the Reedy River.
5. Oak Allée
Once serving as the grand entrance to the antebellum plantation home of Ferdinanda Legare-Waring, the allée at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site is one of the prettiest oak avenues in the state. The pioneering horticulturist planted the trees as part of the estate’s English park-style gardens. Before she died at age 89, she fulfilled her dream of seeing the top branches of the trees touch, creating a natural canopy.
Erosion on the northeastern point of Bulls Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge has left a “boneyard” of dead trees along a three-mile stretch of shoreline. The haunting image of the weathered wood will make you pull out your cell phone and send a picture to the folks back home. You’ll also find similar boneyards at Hunting Island State Park near Beaufort and Capers Island, just outside the Cape Romain refuge.
Originally established to preserve 1,800 acres of old-growth swamp forest, the Audubon Center at Beidler Forest is home to some mighty impressive trees—many of them as much as 1,000 years old. It claims title to the world’s largest remaining stand of virgin Bald Cypress. Among the most impressive is a hollow cypress you’ll find along the preserve’s 1.75-mile boardwalk. Visitors are welcome to duck into a large opening in the base of the tree for an inside look at this mind-blowing wetland conifer. Although the tree is hollow as billed, it’s alive and well.
In 1791 during his southern tour of states, President George Washington visited Hampton Plantation in McClellanville. Legend has it he was asked whether a certain oak tree should be cut down to create a better view from the mansion’s portico. He recommended against it, saving it from the ax. More than two centuries later, the mighty oak still stands in front of the elegant three-story Georgian-styled plantation house.
With no previous topiary experience, Pearl Fryar went to work transforming three acres of barren cornfields around his Bishopville home into a botanical wonder. Three decades in the making, the garden is now an international sensation. Among the stunning collection of horticultural artwork are several live oaks shaped into mushrooms, a square and a bird house, and his signature Fishbone Tree fashioned out of a Leyland cypress.
10. Clemson Tree
The massive “Centennial Oak," located on the Clemson University campus, has been a gathering place for students and alums for generations. A record-setter at 66 feet tall with branches stretching 124 feet, the bur oak was just a seedling when Clemson was founded 120 years ago. You’ll find this South Carolina champion between the Biosystems Research Complex and Newman Hall