Kayaking South Carolina: 13 of the Best Places to Paddle and Canoe

South Carolina is a fantastic destination for kayaking adventures of all kinds. From remote wild rivers, to coastal inlets, to serene lakes, the state has every kind of waterway, with incredible opportunities to view wildlife, fish, or simply explore stunning landscapes.

So whether you’re looking for white water rapids to test your skills or just looking for an easy paddle on a calm lake, here are some of what we think are the best places to kayak in South Carolina.

1. Devil’s Fork and Lake Jocassee, SC

Lake Jocassee‘ by anoldent is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Devil’s Fork State Park is the only access point to the crystal clear waters of Lake Jocassee, named by National Geographic as “One of the World’s Last Great Places.” The man-made lake is mostly undeveloped, fed by mountain streams and waterfalls.

Lake Jocassee offers incredible opportunities for water and outdoor recreation, whether you want to paddle in the calm waters and enjoy swimming or scuba diving, fish in one of the best trout fishing spots in the state, hike the Oconee Bell Nature Trail, or climb Sassafras Mountain. 

More adventurous kayakers will love exploring the Jocassee Gorges, a scenic area of waterfalls and breathtaking landscapes only accessible from the water. It’s a perfect destination for a calm afternoon paddling on the lake, or a multi-day kayak adventure in the gorges. 

It’s also a good option if you don’t own your own kayak as there are facilities for boat and kayak rentals as well as public boat launches, guided tours and shuttle services for hikers and paddlers. 

For kayakers who love to camp, the Double Spring Mountain area has fantastic primitive campsites. These sites are improved with pit toilets, tent pads, and fire rings, but there is no water. Be prepared with the right equipment, and these sites are the perfect jumping-off point for day trips on Lake Jocassee.

Alternatively, more primitive campsites are available at Toxaway River. If you want to take a break from paddling, these sites have access to many trails that traverse beautiful foothills and gorges.

Access: Take SC11 Foothills Parkway West toward Pickens, SC.

2. The Chattooga River, SC

The Chattooga River Section III

The Chattooga River starts in the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains, descending from its high headwaters down to form the border between South Carolina and Georgia. From there it winds over 50 miles through the two Southern states before ending at the beautiful Lake Tugaloo (which we’ll look at next).

Back in 1974 it was designated a “wild and scenic” river and as a result it has been left somewhat untouched by humans and so retains a very natural feel. It has a protected undeveloped corridor of more than 15,000 acres and is known as the “Crown Jewel” of the southeast. You might recognize it too as some of its rapids were made famous in the movie Deliverance.

Over the course of 50 miles, the river descends an average of 49 feet per mile so flows pretty fast which makes it very popular destination for whitewater kayaking along the way. It also means that the Chattooga is a river for advanced kayakers only, and only three companies are commercially licensed by the Forest Service to operate on the river. Check out Section IV which features its most famous rapids, the Five Falls.

As well as whitewater rafting, the Chattooga is also a great destination for kayak anglers as it also has some of the best trout fishing in the state.

3. Lake Tugaloo, SC

For those of you that don’t want to tackle the difficult rapids of the Chattooga and prefer something a little more scerene, then check out Lake Tugaloo. It’s the lake that the Chattooga flows into and is an idea spot for a day of exploring in a kayak.

It’s a four mile lake that’s completely surrounded by beautiful trees of the Sumter and Chattahoochee National Forests.

To access the lake head to Bull Sluice Road where theres easy launch and takeout spots for paddlers. Then, either head right from the ramp to paddle three miles up to the ends of the Chattooga. En rout you’ll be treated to great views of small waterfalls coming off the mountains.

Taking a left from the ramp though you’ll come to the Tagaloo Dam and Tallulah Gorge which are also definitely worth a visit.

4. Shem Creek, SC

Shem Creek South Carolina

Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant is just a few minutes from Charleston, making it a popular kayaking destination for day trips and visitors who want to see everything the state has to offer. Paddlers have plenty of options for renting kayaks or paddleboards, and there are a wide range of guided tours available.

Kayakers can choose to explore Charleston Harbor and see unmatched views of the city’s landmarks, or visit calm marshy inlets surrounded by unique wildlife. The city also has a beautiful boardwalk, and plentiful dining and shopping experiences, making it a great choice for a short family getaway.  

5. Waccamaw River, SC

Waccamaw River, South Carolina

The Waccamaw River is just one of the many waterways and wetlands winding through Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. The sanctuary covers nearly 55,000 acres of tidal marshes and forested wetlands and offers critical habitat for unique local birds and wildlife, supporting more than 400 species of birds and animals. 

The Waccamaw River Blue Trail is one of the best blackwater rivers in the southeast, extending 140 miles from its headwaters in North Carolina. River development has focused on preservation of species and habitats, conserving local freshwater resources, and also creating recreation and activity areas for visitors, promoting a great balance of resources. 

The river has 16 official public access points, a variety of outfitters, and is one of the best ways to explore the unique wildlife and habitats in the refuge.  

6. Capers Island from Isle of Palms Marina, SC

In order to truly appreciate the incredible diversity of South Carolina’s waters, a visit to Capers Island, near Charleston is a must. The undeveloped barrier island offers incredible ocean views, sandy beaches dotted with petrified trees, and winding tidal creeks visited by dolphins, ospreys, egrets, and more. 

The island is only accessible by boat, but kayaks can be rented from outfitters on the mainland, and it’s a peaceful, uncrowded destination for a day or overnight camping.

The Isle of Palm marina provides an excellent put-in point at the Northern end of the island. This is a great day trip or overnighter. An average paddler can make it to Caper’s Island in about two hours following the intercoastal waterway from the marina. You can kayak the wetland creeks, but only if you are prepared to navigate the area.

Because Capers Island is undeveloped, it’s important to bring with you everything you need for a day (or more) outdoors, including food and water, and prepare for a long, 4.5 mile paddle. You can also book a day or overnight tour of this beautiful estuary. 

You’ll see plenty of lowland wildlife, including egrets, herons, shorebirds, and even dolphins. The island offers plenty of great places to build your campsite, just be prepared for bugs, especially in hot weather.

You can obtain a free permit by calling (843)762-5077.

7. Lake Moultrie, SC

Lake Moultrie, South Carolina

If kayak fishing is your thing, Lake Moultrie is your destination. The 60,000 acre lake has swamps and marshes, black water ponds, and large open areas of water. Due to the mild climate, the lake doesn’t freeze in winter months, and can be enjoyed all year long. The diverse waters, spotted with cypress and tupelo trees, create the perfect habitat for largemouth bass, stripers, and catfish. 

The state’s largest Black Crappie was caught in Lake Moultrie, as was a world-record channel catfish weighing 58 pounds. Outfitters are available for half or full-day rentals with fully rigged kayaks including tackle.  

8. The Little Pee Dee River, SC

The Little Pee Dee Rivers offers gorgeous scenery, plenty of birds for avian appreciators, and lots of South Carolina’s famous cypress trees. Groups report spotting geese, hawks, otters, and mallards. Snakes are about, so be careful when disembarking from your kayak.

If members of your group are beginners, the Little Pee Dee won’t flip them into the drink. The river does contain some switchbacks and swift water, but no white water. You may also encounter a few obstacles, such as some fallen trees stretching across the river. This may be due to the remoteness of the area, which is one of its charms.

Recommended Route: For a four-hour, moderately challenging kayak trip, start at Highway 301 North river bridge. From there, drive your take-out vehicles on 301 South to Hwy #9. Take Hwy #9  to Hwy #57. Follow Highway 57 for about 10 miles, where you will see a sign on your right for the take-out landing. 

9. 4 Holes Swamp, Francis Beidler Forest, SC

Ever wanted to see what a deep swamp looks like? Then you will need a watercraft, and a kayak is the only way to navigate 4 Holes Swamp. On this trip, you will experience the sounds and scenes of wilderness untamed by man. Birds, water snakes, and beautiful but strange flowers abound in this place time forgot. You will hear mysterious animal calls from the swamp’s inhabitants.

The paddling is easy, but you must navigate some tight stretches between the cypress and tupelo that seemingly grow everywhere. It’s easy to get lost in the 4 Holes Swamp, so taking a guided tour is recommended. Alligators swim in the waters and gather on the banks, another reason to take this trip with professional guides.

Directions: Tours launch just up the road from the Audubon Center at Biedler Forest.

10. Cedar Creek, Congaree National Park, SC

If you are in the Congaree National Park and looking for an enjoyable paddle in pristine wilderness, Cedar Creek is your spot. When the weather is good, the steam is calm and paddling easy, so don’t worry about bringing newbies along. 

The water level is about 3.5 to 4 feet, and there are few obstacles. However, be prepared for some narrow passages and trees felled by winter ice storms. You may need to portage over some logs or lie down in your kayak to bypass some fallen trunks.

You will be traversing a swamp, so bug spray should be considered a necessity.

Many side creeks may be passable if the water level is high enough. Staying in the creekbed is not too difficult, but obtaining a map is a good idea, as trail markers are not frequent.

Expect to run into jumping fish, dragonflies, and butterflies. You may also see wild hogs or white-tailed deer. If you like to fish, there are plenty of good spots to drop a line.

There are landings at each side of the creek. To avoid portages and paddle upstream, start at the parking lot off S. Cedar Creek Rd.

11. Santee National Wildlife Refuge, SC

The Santee National Wildlife Refuge sits on an impounded lake near the South Carolina shore. To kayak the lake, start at the visitor center. The staff can provide maps and information about the area.

The put-in is located on a beach close to the Visitor Center. You can stick to the lake or explore the many streams and ponds. Expect lots of wildlife, including osprey, bald eagles, seagulls, warblers, gallinules, anhingas, and herons, not to mention alligators. In the fall, you will be treated to the spectacle of the geese and duck migrations.

Camp at Santee State Park or stay at one of the many motels in town.

12. The Catawba River, SC

The Catawba River runs to Landsford Canal State Park from about 200 miles north. The state park makes a good jumping-off point for long or short kayak trips. Interesting areas adjacent to the park include several shoal/rapid areas, with the best about 2 miles from Landsford. They are far from whitewater rapids, but they certainly provide some variety and action. Moderately skilled paddlers can navigate them.

For a milder experience, upstream paddling is scenic and restful. Wildlife abounds around the river, including nesting Bald eagles, deer, osprey, turkey, beaver and even otters. Between May and June, you can see the incredible show of the rare spider lily’s bloom.

Here are put-in and take-out distances and paddling times for excellent trips to and from Landsford Canal State Park:

  • Lake Wylie Dam – 23miles/ 8-12 hours
  • River park (South Carolina) – 17 miles/ 6-8 hours
  • To Hwy 9 bridge – 6 miles/ 2-4 hours

If Landsford is your destination, be sure to call ahead for park hours and river info. The park is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. During summer, it runs from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm. Hours are 9 am to 6:00 pm after Labor Day.

13. Bull Island, SC

Bull Island, part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, is an uninhabited island open to tourists (but not to camping). The island is a paradise, with a few dirt roads and many freshwater ponds. Birding, hiking, fishing, or enjoying the beach are great daytime activities.

Kayaking is a great way to access Bull Island. Using Garris Landing as a put-in point, the paddle is about 4.5 miles. The route is scenic, and the paddling is generally easy, though you may encounter some waves on windy days.

To access Garrett’s landing from Charleston, go north on US 17 towards Georgetown. You will find the landing about 10 miles outside Mt. Pleasant, across the road from the SeeWee seafood restaurant.

Summing up the Best Places to Kayak in South Carolina

We hope that helps inspire you for your next kayaking trip in South Carolina. As you hopefully saw in the examples above, it has every kind of water for every kind of kayaking adventure, interest, or skill level.

We love what this great southern US state has to offer in the way of unique landscapes and wildlife habitats, incredible spots for fishing, hunting, or crabbing, thrilling white waters, and serene recreational lakes. No matter what kind of kayaking you prefer, South Carolina has it all.