When Bo Terry first moved to Travelers Rest in the early 1970s, the town was just one of many small Upstate communities, located north of Greenville on US 276 – a place where he could escape to trek in his beloved Smoky Mountains.
Terry, who sold outdoors gear and worked as a rafting guide, never envisioned that Travelers Rest would become a prime tourist destination for visitors to the Upstate. Neither did sisters Nancy and Joyce McCarrell, natives of the town whose family roots in the town go back to the 1760s.
Today, though, the three are integral parts of Greenville’s premier “hidden gem.” Travelers Rest, a town of 4,500, draws thousands of hikers and nature lovers, as well as fans of small towns with plenty to see and do – and eat and drink.
Terry is owner of Sunrift Adventures, which since 1980 has been a destination for outdoors lovers, selling kayaks, canoes, trail bikes and all manner of clothing and accessories. He laughs when he considers how his passion – and his adopted hometown – have changed.
“Thirty years ago, only a small percentage cared about (outdoors adventures),” he says. “Nowadays, I think it’s a majority. And it’s only fitting that Travelers Rest be a gateway to the South Carolina and North Carolina mountains.”
The McCarrell sisters, whose father was the town doctor, are equally amazed. “We don’t think of it as a destination for a vacation,” says Nancy, who with Joyce operates The Café at Williams Hardware, a combination breakfast/lunch stop and gift shop housed in a former hardware store. “Yes, people get up into the mountains, our lovely state parks and go to Paris Mountain – but to come to Travelers Rest, that’s not what we would’ve envisioned.”
That was before the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a 12-mile-long biking, jogging and hiking route running from Falls Park on the Reedy in downtown Greenville to their hometown, opened in May 2010. With tourists flocking to enjoy the peace, serenity and scenery, Travelers Rest has become a go-to stop.
“When they started talking about the Trail in 2007 and then approved it to be built,” Nancy says, “Joyce and I were riding around one Sunday afternoon, sitting at the red light at Sunrift, and saying there was no place to get water, use a bathroom.
“I said, ‘I don’t think the town knows what’s getting ready to happen, but somebody needs to build a place for people to come.’ And Joyce said, ‘Looks like it’s going to be us.’”
The gift shop, with t-shirts and a snack bar, eventually became a breakfast-and-lunch spot with a screen porch overlooking the Swamp Rabbit Trail. Other shops and restaurants followed, and now even Greenville residents drive up past nearby Furman University to come for meals and getaways.
Along with the McCarrells’ café, about a dozen establishments line the manicured Main Street, including Tandem, a French-style creperie; ice cream shop Cool Mama’s; TReat’s, a smoothies and juice bar ; plus the Whistle Stop at The American Café, Shortfield’s, Sidewall Pizza, Upcountry Provisions, Duke’s Doggs and others serving meals throughout the day and week.
“The (McCarrells’) café was sort of the catalyst,” Terry says. Now, establishments feed off each other, creating a dining and adventure landscape. “Our business has really grown, especially in the summer,” says Terry, who moved to his current 8,000-square-foot store in 1995. “At one time, we were the only dedicated outdoors shop in the Upstate.”
Now he is doing a thriving business competing with chains such as Half Moon, Appalachian Outfitters and REI. Sunrift stocks more kayaks than any outlet in South Carolina and sells an average of 600 a year.
“The sidewalks used to roll up after 5 p.m.,” Terry says. “It’s nice to have more activity now, and it helps having the restaurants and brewery.”
That would be Swamp Rabbit Brewery, one of a growing number of microbreweries in Greenville. There’s also Copperhead Mountain Distillery, which produces and sells “modern moonshine” for the adult crowd.
If Travelers Rest is a “hidden gem,” says Nancy McCarrell, “it’s much less hidden now.” In 2014, Budget Travel magazine named Travelers Rest No. 4 among “coolest small towns in America.” Says Nancy: “People tell us, ‘We always heard about it, and finally decided to come see it for ourselves.”
What they find brings them back – even if the whole idea still surprises those who greet the tourists.
“It’s been an interesting ride,” Nancy says. “We were a forgotten little town, somewhere that you couldn’t here from anywhere. What it looked like before and now … It’s like night and day.”