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South Carolina Classic Summer Vacation on the Lake

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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Summer vacation on the lake. For many families, it’s as much an annual tradition as burgers sizzling on the grill and watermelon chilling on ice.

In South Carolina, the variety of lake settings—and the recreational activities that go along with them—ensure fun times on the water no matter your interests or budget. From the clear, mountain-fed Lake Jocassee in the Upcountry to the shallow, fish-filled lakes Moultrie and Marion near the coast, South Carolina’s 14 major reservoirs offer unlimited opportunities to go boating, fishing, swimming, kayaking and even scuba diving.

Ready to experience a classic South Carolina summer vacation on the lake? Here’s a guide to get you started.

Find Your Perfect South Carolina Lake

Lake Jocassee offers a beautiful setting for a quiet paddle.

Covering nearly 370,000 acres, South Carolina’s freshwater lakes are a popular vacation destination for visitors looking for a cool spot to relax and play outdoors during the hot summer months. Where you choose to dip your feet will depend on what activities you enjoy doing on and off the water.  

The Upstate’s two most scenic lakes—Keowee and Jocassee—are renowned for their mountain views. Located within the unspoiled wilderness of the Jocassee Gorges, Lake Jocassee is especially appealing to those who enjoy a remote, natural setting. There is little development along its shoreline and the only public access to the reservoir is from Devils Fork State Park. Fed by four cold mountain streams, Jocassee provides outstanding habitat for both smallmouth bass and trophy trout. Its crystal-clear waters also draw scuba divers. In addition, several beautiful waterfalls can be seen from the lake.


Stay on one of the Savannah lakes—Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond—and enjoy kayaking in a picture-perfect venue.

South of Keowee and Jocassee, along the Georgia border, are three freshwater reservoirs—Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond—created by dams built along the Savannah River. All three lakes are fishing hotspots. Hartwell, the uppermost lake, has hosted several professional bass tournaments. Below it is the smaller Lake Russell, which, like Jocassee, has been protected from development. Thurmond is the largest of the lakes with three state parks offering campsites along its shores.

The Midlands is home to Lake Murray, a 48,000-acre reservoir enjoyed by both boaters and anglers. Farther south in the coastal plain is the Santee Cooper Reservoir made up of lakes Marion and Moultrie. A number of state record-breaking fish have been hauled from the lakes’ shallow waters. Marion, the largest lake in the state, is famous for its population of striped bass. The species, which came up from the sea to spawn, became trapped in the lake when the dam across the Santee River was completed.

To learn more about South Carolina’s lakes, click here.


Lake Accommodations

Stay in one of the beautiful waterfront villas in Devils Fork State Park.

While there are no big chain hotels on any of the lakes, you’ll find plenty of rental homes, campgrounds and resorts offering cabin and cottage rentals. A dozen South Carolina state parks provide access to nine of the state’s lakes and feature both campsites and lodging, from the unique pier cabins in Santee State Park to the simple lodge rooms and cabins at Hickory Knob State Resort to the more upscale lakeside villas at Devils Fork and Dreher Island state parks.


Lake Attractions

Go fishing in one of South Carolina’s freshwater lakes.

The diversity of locations offers something for everyone planning a lake vacation in South Carolina. The Upstate reservoirs provide easy access to hiking trails, waterfalls and overlooks with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If you’re into mountain biking, you’ll want to check out lakes Hartwell and Thurmond, home to several state parks with popular biking trails. Venture beyond your lake destination to discover the charm of nearby small towns like McCormick, Greenwood and Clemson. And, of course, you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy a wide array of watersports, from tubing to fishing to paddling.

Explore the lake on a pontoon boat. (Credit: SCPRT/Photo by Perry Baker)

Here are a few suggestions to enhance your classic South Carolina lake vacation:

  • Rent a pontoon boat to explore the lake and its miles of shoreline. Anchor in a cove or beach your boat on one of the small islands to enjoy a swim and picnic lunch.
  • Even if you’re not an avid angler, you owe it to yourself to spend a few hours fishing on your lake vacation. After all, South Carolina’s lakes are famous for their abundance of fish, including crappie, bream, catfish, largemouth bass, black bass, stripers and trout. If you want to improve your chances of reeling in a picture-worthy catch, hire a guide to take you to the best fishing spots. Or take advantage of the South Carolina Fishing Tackle Loaner Program available at most lake state parks and borrow a rod, reel and tackle box and fish from the shore. Don’t forget to pick up a required SC fishing license.
  • Take a boat tour to experience the beauty of the lake. Options include Santee Boat Rentals’ 3.5-hour wildlife tour of Lake Marion; Jocassee Lake Tours’ 4-hour naturalist-guided tour; and Lake Murray Boat Tour Company’s 2.5-hour sunset and sunrise tours.
  • Try a new watersport. Outfitters offer an array of rentals, including canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and sailboats as well as Jet Skis and motorboats.
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.