Discovering Aiken: South Carolina's Next Great Trail Town

Aiken State Park, South Carolina.
Aiken State Park, South Carolina. Rodney Martin
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Aiken, South Carolina, is an unassuming post-railroad community with a friendly, welcoming feel. Walk the streets of its historic district and you’ll see the mom and pop businesses, restaurants, and institutions you’d expect to find in small-town South Carolina. But what sets Aiken apart from anywhere else is its proximity to the region’s best network of trail systems, parks, and waterways.

Aiken sits near the border of Georgia in the midlands of South Carolina, an area home to an abundance of protected lands that satisfy a huge community of outdoor enthusiasts, hunters, and anglers. As far as outdoor destinations go, Aiken is South Carolina’s best kept secret.

The town is an oasis for paddlers, mountain bikers, and trail runners looking to take advantage of mostly untapped outdoor resources. Aiken is surrounded by land managed by the Department of Natural Resources that is open to the public, and if you were so inclined, you could paddle the nearby Savannah River straight to the coast.

Hiking, Biking, and Trail Running

Hitchcock Woods is one of the largest urban forests in the country—and an excellent spot for hiking, trail running, and mountain biking.
Hitchcock Woods is one of the largest urban forests in the country—and an excellent spot for hiking, trail running, and mountain biking. Sir Mildred Pierce

Aiken is the self-proclaimed capital of South Carolina thoroughbred country. Riding culture is deeply ingrained in every aspect of Aiken, from statues along the roads to the Aiken Training Track that helped earn the town’s reputation. It may come as no surprise that where there are horses, there are incredible trail systems that benefit not only horse-riders, but mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers as well.

Hitchcock Woods, one of the largest urban forests in the nation, is perhaps Aiken’s largest natural asset in terms of sheer acreage and trailheads. With more than 70 miles of trails just minutes away from Aiken’s historic district, this area is a trail runner’s dream come true.

Hitchcock Woods sets the bar for trail running, but for hikers and nature-seekers, the Silver Bluff Audubon Society is absolutely worth checking out. Silver Bluff boasts more than 3,100 acres of wildlife sanctuary, crisscrossed with trails, waterways, and boardwalks that take you deep into the protected wilderness. If you want to see an unbelievable amount of flora and fauna in a short period of time, this is the place to be.

Other notable trails both within town and just outside of the town are the Carolina Bay Nature Reserve, a natural area that is home to two short walking loops and perfect for a quick workout, and Aiken State Park, home to a 3-mile loop trail that will lead you through the beautiful wetlands and hardwoods surrounding the town. Click here for a full list of where to hike around Aiken.

Paddling Aiken

Aiken State Park features both wetlands and hardwood forest to explore.
Aiken State Park features both wetlands and hardwood forest to explore. Rodney Martin

The most notable waterway within 30 minutes of Aiken is the Savannah River, which forms the majority of the Georgia/South Carolina border and offers paddlers miles of flatwater to explore. The easiest place to put in along the river is in the middle of downtown Augusta at Boeckh Park along the North Augusta Greeneway. This put-in is only 40 minutes from Aiken, and there are multiple take-out points along the river as it flows south. This is the perfect river to plan a canoe camping trip, or introduce the family to flatwater paddling, as it is an extremely fun and pleasant trip downstream.

Another must-do in terms of flatwater paddling is the Edisto, the longest free-flowing blackwater stream in North America, you can begin your adventure and grab a canoe at Aiken State Park.

Where to Recover

After a day outdoors, stop at the Aiken Brewing Company to relax.
After a day outdoors, stop at the Aiken Brewing Company to relax. carlfbagge

After you have your fill of adventure, you’re going to want to relax at a local dining establishment or watering hole with awesome food, cold local brews and an atmosphere that will keep the good times going. Enter Aiken Brewing Company, the town’s most notable micro-brewery that fully delivers on all of the above. On the other hand, if you need to fill the tank prior to crushing the trail, get fueled up at Auten’s, Aiken’s best family-owned early-bird diner with enough soul food and classic breakfast options to keep you going.

Aiken has humbly kept its extensive portfolio of amazing trails and waterways under wraps for a long time, but every day more and more adventure seekers are flocking to this amazing town in search of their next escape. If you’re wise, you’ll hit the trail in Aiken before the secret’s out completely.

Originally written for Aiken, SC.

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