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Out-of-the-Park Adventures: Lake Hartwell State Park

Marie McAden Marie McAden
A former staffer with The Miami Herald, Marie moved to SC in 1992. She is passionate about the outdoors, and enjoys exploring the state’s many natural treasures from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.
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Got cabin fever? Hit the road with your own accommodations for a socially distanced vacation in a South Carolina state park campground. With 33 parks offering campsites for tents and RVs, you’re sure to find the perfect spot for an out-of-the-way getaway. Some parks even feature lodging for those who prefer to stay in a cabin or villa. Along with their many recreational amenities and beautiful settings, state parks offer visitors the opportunity to explore less-traveled areas of the state and discover small towns and communities with a rich history and unique attractions.

Ready to roll? Here’s a two-day, out-of-the-park itinerary for Lake Hartwell State Park:

Set at the edge of a 56,000-acre reservoir renowned for its bass fishing, Lake Hartwell State Park offers visitors easy access to the charming mountain communities of Westminster and Seneca.

Park features:
- 115 campsites along the shores of Lake Hartwell with individual water and electrical hookups and convenient access to restrooms with hot showers.
- Two waterfront camper cabins equipped with a double bed, bunk beds, heating and air conditioning, lights, electrical outlets and Wi-Fi.

Day 1

Set off to Westminster, a historic mountain town with a friendly vibe and deep sense of community. On your way into town, stop at the Retreat Rosenwald School at 150 Pleasant Hill Circle. Built in 1924 with funding from then Sears and Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald, it was one of some 5,000 schools constructed in the rural South to educate African American children. Less than 12 percent of the two-classroom schoolhouses remain today.

Once you’ve arrived in Westminster, park your car along East Main Street to explore the charming downtown with its colorful historic buildings and beautifully restored 1911 passenger depot, which now serves as a venue for community meetings and events. Look along the rail line for food trucks selling coffee and handcrafted donuts. You won’t want to miss the opportunity to indulge in this early morning treat.

As you walk along the corridor, pop into some of the interesting local shops, among them Barrett Trading Company featuring military antiques and a collection of model tanks mixed among the outdoor gear for sale.

The General Store is another must-see. The building dates to 1886 and still features its original flooring and wood-plank ceiling. While this store sells contemporary merchandise along with a few antiques, it has the feel of an old general store.

You can see the original version a few doors down at the General Store Museum. Part of the Oconee History Museum, it features an extensive collection of goods dating back a hundred years, with everything from vintage housewares to threads and dress patterns.

Throughout the downtown, you’ll see an assortment of quilt panels—part of the Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail—displayed on buildings, utility boxes and fences, as well as murals painted by a local artist.

You can meet the artist, Melody Davis, at the Gateway Arts Center where she offers painting and craft classes for adults and children and art exhibitions featuring the work of local and regional artists.

Stop for lunch at Lucky Strike, known for its scrumptious hamburgers and hotdogs, before heading to Chau Ram County Park. Located at the confluence of Ramsey Creek and the Chauga River, it features a series of rapids enjoyed by kayakers and tubers, as well as the 40-foot Chau Ram Falls. It’s a lovely place to spend the afternoon with sandy beaches by the river, a network of hiking trails, picnic pavilions and a playground.

Day 2

Just 25 minutes from the park, Seneca makes another great day trip during your visit to Lake Hartwell. Start your tour of the town with locally roasted coffee and a freshly baked pastry from 313 Cafe. Now that you’re well-fueled, head to downtown Seneca to explore some of its historic homes and museums.

Just a block apart are the Lunney House Museum and Bertha Lee Strickland Cultural Museum. A California-style bungalow built in the Arts and Crafts style, the Lunney House features a collection of Victorian furniture and historic memorabilia from the area. At the Bertha Strickland Cultural Museum, you’ll find exhibits on the history, culture and contributions of local African Americans. Be sure to check with the museums before your visit as both were temporarily closed during the pandemic.

The town is home to a number of other historic homes, including the Historic Ballenger House that now serves as the headquarters for the Seneca Women’s Club. You can learn more about the town’s history at City Hall where you’ll find the Bell Gallery, featuring an art collection and 30 historical photographs.

Next stop is the famed Ram Cat Alley, a two-block corridor lined with hip restaurants, a brewery and an array of fine shops. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it features 18 historically significant commercial buildings dating between 1887 and 1930.

When you’re ready for lunch, you’ve got several tasty choices—The Spot on the Alley, Hogs and Hops and, on Friday and Saturday, Bonaterra, a craft bar and Latin-inspired grill.

Before you make the drive back to Lake Hartwell State Park, drive up the road to Old Pickens Presbyterian Church in the Historic Old Pickens Court House District, constructed out of bricks made from clay taken from the Keowee River banks. While you can walk the grounds of the church and its cemetery any day of the week, the church is only open afternoons on the second and fourth Sunday of the month from April through October.

There are plenty of reasons to revisit this town during your stay—especially when you want a break from campfire cooking. Ram Cat Alley offers fine dining at Vangeli’s Bistro and a fun spot for coffee or a cold, frosty one at Brews on the Alley. For a special treat, visit N the Midst Ice Cream or The Whimsy Cookie Company

Marie McAden
A former staffer with The Miami Herald, Marie moved to SC in 1992. She is passionate about the outdoors, and enjoys exploring the state’s many natural treasures from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.