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Find Aiken's Hidden Gems Off the Beaten Path

Bob Gillespie Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 360-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.
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The city of Aiken is a tourist’s dream, with plenty of shopping, dining and more in its busy yet accessible downtown. But some of the best parts of the community are not so obvious – yet, with a little guidance, visitors can enjoy amazing experiences known mostly to the locals.

One of the largest and most beautiful spots in town is Hopelands Gardens, a 14-acre 1800s estate-turned-public gardens. Bequeathed to the city by Mrs. C. Oliver Iselin, the grounds are a network of paths shaded by 100-year-old live oaks, with fountains, a reflection pool, statues, a rock fountain and the Dollhouse, home to the Aiken Garden Club. Located off Whiskey Road, Hopelands is open from 10 a.m. to sunset.

Also a treat for lovers of the outdoors is Hitchcock Woods, America’s largest privately-owned urban forest. With 2,100 acres and 70 miles of sandy trails, it’s the perfect getaway spot for walkers and horseback riders. Originally part of Aiken’s “Winter Colony” for wealthy visitors from the Northeast, Hitchcock Woods was part of a tract of land owned by Thomas Hitchcock and William Whitney in the 1890s. The Hitchcock Foundation was founded in the 1930s to preserve and maintain the property for the general public.

For a less-demanding outdoor experience, the Aiken Arboretum Trail is a great way to enjoy Aiken’s diverse collection of trees in one of the most varied municipal landscapes in the U.S. Beginning at the Aiken Public Library, visitors explore the trail using their mobile cellular devises, dialing (803) 295-5008 and entering identifying numbers on each tree to learn its story.

If fresh local produce is a passion, the Aiken County Farmers Market is a must-see. Open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays year-round from sunrise to noon, the market sells corn, tomatoes, beans, fruit, baked goods and local meats and cheeses, displayed on tables built by Aiken County farmers more than 50 years ago. Product availability, naturally, is seasonal.

Aiken is renowned internationally for its thoroughbred horse trainers, but not everyone realizes the public can visit the Aiken Training Track, where the training takes place. Founded in 1942, the facility welcomes horse owners from across the world, drawing them in with Aiken’s temperate climate and knowledgeable training riders. Each March, the Aiken Trials are the first leg of Aiken’s “Triple Crown” events, held on three consecutive Saturdays. Equine lovers can watch the training, and stop by the Track Kitchen for a bite, too.

Those looking for a relaxing day out with the family have a couple of fantastic choices. The 210-acre Boyd Pond Park, features a 30-acre pond with a 300-foot boardwalk and boat ramp, along with ball fields, soccer fields, two miles of hiking trails, six-plus miles of mountain biking trails, shelters, picnic areas, playgrounds and restrooms. The park is also known for its self-guided bird-watching program.

Langley Pond Park is home to "the world’s largest pond" and regularly scheduled rowing events. It also has a boat ramp and dock, a bathhouse with restrooms, a picnic area with grills, concession stands and a swimming area with a sand beach. The Langley Loop Trail has two trails, 2.75 and 2 miles, for hikers and horse riders.

For something, well, less outdoorsy, try Aiken 2 Escape an escape room that challenges visitors to an hour-long adventure, solving clues in order to escape locked areas before a mock “disaster” occurs.

Finally, if you’ve found everything you want to do in Aiken except for a parking place, never fear: the Aiken Freeloader is here. Electric shuttles carry visitors from off-site parking to the downtown area, and it’s free by texting “freeload” to 555888 for pickup and delivery to your destination.

The Freeloader isn’t exactly “hidden”—the brightly-colored shuttles are pretty obvious—but just another way, once people know about it, to enjoy a stay in Aiken.

Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 360-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.