Like most South Carolinians, when I think of spending a weekend at the lake, I think of the South Carolina Upstate or the state's largest two lakes— Marion and Moultrie—near Santee.
I almost never think of my own back yard.
Lake Murray is South Carolina's third-largest lake. It was created in the 1920s by damming the Saluda River just outside of Columbia to create power for South Carolina Electric & Gas Co, now Dominion Energy. The damming flooded 50,000 acres of farmland in four counties.
In the past 20 years, the lake has seen a boom in construction, both on the water and off. Old marinas have been renovated and new businesses have been created offering visitors new ways to get on the water.
The Osprey tour boat offers sightseeing adventures, history tours, nature cruises, sunset cruises, island exploration and, in the summer, trips to watch the nightly phenomenon of thousands of purple martins flying across the lake to roost on Bomb Island, the largest purple martin sanctuary in North America.
Bomb Island got its name during World War II when it was used in the training of the Doolittle Raiders, a squadron of fighter pilots famous for conducting the first air raids on Tokyo. Several B-25 bombers crashed in the lake during the bombing runs, and at least one still remains in its watery grave.
It's not the only remnant of the past that lies beneath the lake. App developer David Brinkman has compiled historic information about the communities, churches, farms and cemeteries that were flooded when the Saluda River was dammed to create the lake. It includes a number of underwater structures along with their approximate depths for those hearty enough to try to dive to the bottom. (According to DiveBuddy.com, the visibility is poor below Lake Murray at just 3-6 feet for you aspiring deep-water lake divers.) The app, aptly named "Under Lake Murray," can also help anglers find those underwater fish attractors as well as public boat ramp locations. The application works with GPS-enabled Android-based smartphones and is free.
For those who prefer lake fun at shallower depths, there are boating opportunities (both motor- and paddle-powered), camping locations and other great ways to get out and enjoy the water, especially as the heat of summer approaches.
Dreher Island State Park ecompasses nearly 350 acres on three separate islands. You can access the park by car or boat. The park has five villas (two- and three-bedroom options), lakeside RV and tent campgrounds, nature trails and 12 miles of shoreline.
Other overnight accommodations along the lake include homes, guest cottages and even a converted caboose right on the water. Many of these are listed by Lake Murray Country and online vacation rental companies like VRBO and Airbnb. There also are plenty of hotel and motel rooms off the water, but near the lake.
No matter where you stay, you simply have to get on the water. That's the whole point, after all. The easiest access points are the public landing and park at the dam provided by lake owner Dominion Energy. There is a public beach on the Lexington side of the dam. You can bring the whole family for the price of parking one car ($5) and a public boat ramp, docks and picnic facilities on the Irmo side of the dam, also $5. The dam itself, renovated within the past 20 years, is also an attraction and walkers, joggers and bikers can be seen enjoying it every day.
If you don't have your own boat, you can rent pontoons, motorboats, kayaks or canoes from a variety of vendors at area marinas. Lake Murray has dozens of access points.
The beauty of Lake Murray is the many opportunities it provides for fun -- coves for paddlers looking for quiet areas to explore and "big water" in the middle of the lake for the motorboat crowd.
Make sure you are checked out on your motorized rentals and that you keep an eye on the depth finder. Water levels can fluctuate rather quickly and you wouldn't want to spend your day waiting to be towed after running aground somewhere.
And don't worry about having to pack lunch, there are at least a half-dozen restaurants along the lake that you can get to by boat.